Looking back on five years of the Mercury

By: - July 17, 2023 12:04 am

The sun rises over the Virginia Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Just over five years ago, an email landed in my inbox. 

“Hi Sarah,” it read. “Not sure if you’ve seen the news about us, but I’d like to talk to you about a few freelance assignments I have available for our launch, which is scheduled for later this month. I came across your portfolio and I think you would be a good fit for the stories I have in mind.” 

Little did I know what was coming. 

That email, sent on July 2, 2018, was from Robert Zullo, the founding editor of The Virginia Mercury and a former reporter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The Mercury had been profiled that June by Richmond’s long-running alternative paper Style Weekly, which at the time was still covering local news. I didn’t know anything about it besides what I had read in Style, but I liked the little I’d heard. The Mercury would use a nonprofit, online-only model, it planned to focus on state policy and it would take an explanatory tone. 

All of those qualities resonated with me. Because my own background was in local newspapers, I knew that print was declining in the face of an ever more digital public. I was frustrated by the challenges of translating complex policy issues into rigid column inches. And, like so many reporters, I was convinced that there were fascinating, crucial stories out there that would interest readers but weren’t being covered because the companies that owned the papers wouldn’t do the two basic things necessary to cover them: hire more reporters and give them time to report. 

That’s what the Mercury offered, and five years later, it’s what we still offer. We put reporters on state policy beats to allow them to build their expertise on specific subject areas, and then we give them time to do the stories that matter. 

Even today — after one year of freelancing for the Mercury, three years as its energy and environment reporter and one year as its editor-in-chief — I’m amazed at the range of stories the publication has showcased. 

Needless to say, we’ve written exhaustively about the General Assembly. January and February are marked by long days and evenings in committee and press rooms, endless cups of coffee from Meriwether’s at the Capitol and that mix of grumpiness, panic and exhilaration that characterizes Virginia’s breakneck sessions. 

But we’ve also written about rural broadband gaps and rural hospitals’ struggle for survival, about problems with the state’s system of kinship care and the yawning cracks in its behavioral health system, about redistricting (and redistricting drama) and the axing of registrars by electoral boards.

We’ve written about Virginia’s transition to an energy policy focused on renewables and the rising interest in nuclear, about the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, about the state’s wobbly oversight of gambling and legalization of marijuana use (but not sales!), about Virginia colleges making SAT exams optional and nine localities that can impose a school construction tax and religion in a state diversity training.

We’ve written about former Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal, the turmoil surrounding a former Parole Board chair, an apparent lack of investigation into the “catfish cop,” questions surrounding thefts at Virginia ABC, and the removal of the state health department’s page on LGBTQ resources for youth. 

We wrote about the pandemic. A lot. Like, a lot, a lot — most of it written while everyone hunkered down at home and communicated via video chat and Slack. We became very familiar with everyone’s work-from-home space, pets and children. 

Speaking of children: The past five years have seen the birth of three Mercury babies, with a fourth on the way this August. It’s been a joy to see our staff’s families grow and, occasionally, show up at the office to remind us all why we do the work we do. 

Founding Mercury reporters Ned Oliver and Mechelle Hankerson, with then-reporter and current editor Sarah Vogelsong, celebrate the Mercury’s first anniversary in downtown Richmond. (Robert Zullo)

Another reminder that the work we are doing matters to Virginians comes from the number of reprints we see of our stories. Because we encourage republication of our articles by other news outlets — find our Republication Guidelines here — every week we see our reporting picked up by papers and TV stations all over the commonwealth. We see this sharing of high-quality news as a key part of our mission to fill gaps in Virginia’s journalistic landscape. And over the past five years, more and more outlets have turned to our work to supplement their own fine reporting. For us, that’s a win-win situation: Our work gets more readers, their readers get more content, and the newspapers struggling so hard to stay afloat as local watchdogs don’t have to pay a dime. 

Mostly, though, when I reflect on the past five years, I think about the people. Our founding team — Robert Zullo, Ned Oliver, Katie O’Connor and Mechelle Hankerson — have moved on to other exciting roles, as has our former health reporter, Kate Masters, who was chosen by the Virginia Press Association as the state’s Outstanding Young Journalist in 2021. (Ned was VPA’s Outstanding Journalist in 2020.)

But while all five are deeply missed, we’ve also gotten to welcome other journalists, all of whom have added immense value to our team. 

Samantha Willis, the former editorial producer for VPM News Focal Point, joined us this January as our deputy and commentary editor, where she’s brought a fresh eye and energy to the task of expanding our commentary section while also providing the extra editorial firepower to help our staff grow. Graham Moomaw, our senior reporter, has been with us since late 2019, covering politics and a host of issues from elections to gambling. Education and transportation reporter Nathaniel Cline and energy and environment reporter Charlie Paullin both joined us in summer 2022 and quickly jumped into their beats. And reporting intern Meghan McIntyre has been learning the ropes of health and investigative coverage. 

Not all of our team are news reporters. Samantha works each week with veteran journalists Bob Lewis and Roger Chesley, whose commentaries weigh in on what’s going on around the state and what it all means, while Ivy Main and Wyatt Gordon bring their subject-matter expertise to energy, housing and transportation columns. 

That brings me back to where I started: the Mercury’s goal of hiring new reporters and giving them time to report. 

As we embark on our fifth year, it’s clear that readers are interested in the work we’re doing and that we’re here to stay. What our goal is now is to grow our team to give you even more of the reporting you’ve come to expect and appreciate, with a Year 5 target of hiring a health reporter. For that, we will need your support. 

If you would like to support our mission of producing state-focused, in-depth Virginia news, you can find details of how to donate here, or you can reach me at [email protected]. While our parent organization, States Newsroom, handles all our funds, your donations will go directly to the Mercury. You can find information about States Newsroom here and a list of all donors who have contributed above $1,000 as well as IRS forms here. If you can’t donate but still want to support us, sign up for our free morning newsletter here or share our work with someone you know. 

The rest, as they say, is the first draft of history. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.