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For 99 years, the residents of Caroline County, Virginia were served by a lively weekly paper, the Caroline Progress, family owned and operated for most of its existence. The newspaper was how this quiet rural county talked to itself. And in this pandemic, I find myself thinking about how it would help its readers if it were still around.
On the pages of the Caroline Progress, in normal times, people read about births, deaths, and weddings; church notices, coming events, sports victories and defeats; government meetings, political intrigue, highway accidents, and fires. Readers also found thoughtful editorials on local and national issues, op-ed pieces, and a multitude of letters to the editor, particularly in election years.
In the nearby town of Ashland and neighboring Hanover County, the Herald-Progress served a similar function, until it, too, shut down in 2018, after 131 years of service. By the end, they were essentially one newspaper put out by a single editor, one full-time and one part-time reporter, and a few freelancers. They died on the same day.
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I was editor of the Herald-Progress from September 2004 until I retired in November 2012, and I continued to be part of it in several ways, sitting in as transitional editor several times from 2014 to 2017, as well as providing freelance stories and columns up to the end, in 2018.
Historically, employees of both papers were, for the most part, longtime county residents, emotionally and economically invested in their communities. In 2007, Lakeway Publishing of Morristown, Tennessee acquired the Caroline Progress and three other Virginia newspapers, adding two local papers, including the Herald-Progress, to the chain the next year. All six papers were slowly gutted over the next decade, and in 2016, the office in Bowling Green was closed, with operations consolidated in Hanover County.
On the afternoon of March 26, 2018, the group publisher walked into the Herald-Progress/Caroline Progress office and instructed the remaining staff to change the lead story: the March 28 issue would be the last for both papers, a concise notice from Lakeway Publishers above the fold on Page 1 read. Employees were told they would be paid for that week and the following week. That was the severance package. The editor did not have time to toss together a proper sendoff in the final editions.
Both newspapers left a huge news vacuum in their wake, one that still exists. I find it particularly noticeable now.
Newspapers in a Pandemic
The global pandemic that has changed the lives of almost everyone in the world has made it even more apparent that the residents of Caroline Countyneed a vibrant local newspaper. To test this idea, I created a scenario in which the Caroline Progress was still a functioning newspaper in 2020, much as it had been in 2015. How would it serve its readers? How would the stories and editorials differ from what is being served up by 24-hour TV news, distant newspapers, and social media?
I sought input from two former associates, Dan Sherrier and Sarah Vogelsong. Sherrier was a bright, young college graduate when I hired him in 2007 as a reporter at the Herald-Progress in Ashland. He survived my curmudgeonly mentorship until after I retired. He then left the business to teach kickboxing and pursue creative writing in fantasy and science fiction genres, only to return as editor of the Caroline Progress in 2014. In 2015, he moved over to become editor of the Herald-Progress for another nine months.
Sarah Vogelsong was the part-time reporter at the Caroline Progress for two years, spanning my time there as well as Sherrier’s. She went on to become a reporter at the daily Progress-Index in Petersburg, where she won a number of Virginia Press Association awards. She is now the environment and energy reporter for the Virginia Mercury, an online publication.
“Church is a huge part of life in Caroline. I think you could easily say it’s the glue that binds much of the community together (for better or worse!). I think we’d look at how the churches kept themselves going during this time, both in terms of providing spiritual guidance to their congregations and how they assisted in providing services to community members in need.
“Caroline is one of the state’s biggest soybean producers, and farmers everywhere have been hit hard by the economic meltdown associated with coronavirus. I think we’d track how the county’s farmers and Farm Bureau were handling their planting decisions, getting credit and workers, and generally keeping afloat.
“The closest hospitals to Caroline are in Fredericksburg or down in Richmond. We might have looked at how residents were accessing medical services, and maybe how the poorer members of the community, without access to a car, were handling decision-making about whether they should get tested.
“Caroline’s broadband was beefed up in the past few months, but that was a huge issue for years, and I think we would have looked at how students and workers were managing—or not managing—to get their work done with poor Internet connection.
“And, of course, money was always tight in Caroline. What decisions and sacrifices would the Board of Supervisors have to make when it came to the budget, given certain revenue declines?”
“If the Caroline Progress was still around, I think we would have attempted to cut through the noise of the 24/7 news cycle, where everything is frequently dialed up to eleven, which can result in understandable skepticism from people.
“I would have wanted to talk to any local medical experts, if available, to help distinguish between the valid warnings and the fear-mongering. We could also have talked with mental health experts to help people cope with the isolation. On the economic front, we could have talked with local businesses about how they’re coping with the situation and how they’re still serving the community, if they’re still in a position to do so. Certainly, we could have kept people up to date about what’s open, what’s closed, and what’s operating in a temporarily different fashion. We would have been in a position to zero in on these local entities much more so than other news outlets.
“We might also have looked at the ways people in the community are helping each other out—good deeds, neighbors looking out for neighbors, that sort of thing. The lack of sports and public events would free up considerable space for COVID-19 coverage, and I’m sure we’d have found plenty to cover on that subject.”
For more than a quarter century, I put together editorial and Op-Ed pages in the four weekly newspapers for which I worked, attempting to inform, educate, and entertain readers in a responsible manner.
My theoretical editorial and op-ed pages this month would praise Virginia Governor Ralph Northam for his leadership in addressing the COVID-19 crisis. Northam got off to a shaky start in his first year in office over his awkward handling of a racist photo that appeared in his medical college yearbook page. More recently, he has taken his licks from the pro-gun lobby. His handling of the COVID-19 crisis, however, has redeemed Northam in the eyes of many Virginians. A pediatric brain surgeon, Northam quickly realized the magnitude of the problem and the need to act, getting ahead of the federal government in closing schools, bars, restaurants, and many government offices, limiting public gatherings to no more than ten and promoting social distancing. In his press conferences, Northam has spoken with authority and decisiveness, deftly avoiding the mixed signals coming out of the federal government. Also praiseworthy were the efforts of the Caroline County Board of Supervisors and School Board in closing the public schools, libraries, county buildings, and other public areas days ahead of neighboring counties. As of April 1, Caroline County had just one case of COVID-19, a 43-year-old nurse who works at a Richmond-area hospital and is quarantined at home.
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I would use the editorial pages to bring the readers’ attention to people like her: those who are on the frontlines risking their own health. Also deserving of praise are the many volunteers who are distributing meals to children who would normally be receiving lunches and breakfasts at school. Our local restaurant workers and store employees would also find themselves on the editorial pages.
Finally, I would point out how the pandemic has encouraged many people in Caroline County to put aside their petty social and political differences and work together to help their neighbors get through the crisis—by getting them groceries, prescriptions, and other necessities, or simply cheering them up during difficult times.
In 2015, the Caroline Progress was published by a barebones five-person staff: editor, part-time reporter, advertising representative, graphic artist, and receptionist. The paper was job-printed by a daily newspaper in Hopewell (which also has since gone out of business), and it was distributed by one contract employee who filled the vending boxes and store racks and delivered subscribers’ papers to the post office for mail delivery. All of these employees would have been able to practice basic social distancing on the job. This staff could have functioned well during the pandemic.
Each week, our theoretical newspaper would provide a place to post closing and modified hours for businesses and government offices. Readers who benefitted from the many acts of random kindness would have a place to express their gratitude. Others could make suggestions or appeal for help through letters to the editor. The many official government notices and legitimate health tips that have been generated during this crisis would be printed on the news pages or posted to our website, accessible without forcing people to wade through countless government websites and Facebook posts of cute animals or what people ate for breakfast.
In short, a functioning local weekly newspaper would be of real value to the people of Caroline County in times like these. The Caroline Progress is missed.
Next week: Deaths without funerals, elections without campaigns, schools without students, religions without services, a legislature without legislators and newspapers with few reporters to cover it all––this is Macon today.
This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.