Year of Fear, Chapter 23: When a Newspaper Dies, What Fills the Void?

July 28, 2020

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For nearly a century, the residents of Caroline County, Virginia, were served by an energetic weekly, the Caroline Progress. As I’ve noted here before, on its pages they read about births, deaths, wedding announcements, church notices, coming events, school sports victories and defeats, government meetings, political intrigue, highway accidents, house fires, and a variety of other local news and features, as well as editorials, op-ed pieces, columns, and a multitude of letters to the editor, particularly in election years, like now.

In the nearby Town of Ashland and neighboring Hanover County, the Herald-Progress similarly served generations of local residents until it, too, was shut down after 131 years of service. At the end, they were essentially one newspaper put out by a full-time reporter, a part-time reporter, a few freelancers, and an editor. For a while, that editor was me. I was editor of the Herald-Progress from 2004 until retiring in 2012, though I continued to contribute a column in the H-P until its demise, and also contributed to the Caroline Progress until its final issue. Both papers died, or, rather, were killed, on March 28, 2018.

The newspapers were the heart of the civic conversation here. Lately, I have been thinking about who and what has tried to fill that void.


A regional daily takes a shot

The first attempt came from a nearby daily, the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, which has long regarded Caroline County as part of its circulation area and for years had cherry-picked the big news stories and features, as well as some advertising revenue. This policy continues for the most part today. But immediately after the Caroline Progress folded, the owners of the Free Lance-Star made a bigger move. Residents of Caroline County began receiving a free publication in their mailboxes called the Caroline Star Weekly, which featured advertising and store inserts aimed at Caroline County and stories of local interest culled from the pages of the Free Lance-Star, which produced it. This proved unprofitable, and after about a year it, too, ceased to exist. 

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The Fredericksburg paper itself had struggled for years and went bankrupt in 2014. It appeared to get a new lease on life when it was purchased in 2015 by multi-billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. It joined sixty-two former Media General newspapers, including the flagship, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which Buffett purchased in 2012. Earlier this year, however, Buffett gave up on the newspaper business, selling Berkshire Hathaway’s newspapers to Lee Enterprises of Davenport, Iowa, while retaining ownership in the physical properties. Buffett was quoted as saying newspapers are “toast.” The sale was completed on March 16, 2020, just before the pandemic caused retail advertisers to pull in their horns. Staff cutbacks resulted, and the Free-Lance Star, as well as the Times-Dispatch, both continue to limp along with reduced staffs, their pages nearly bereft of display advertising and stuffed with lengthy Associated Press copy.


Starting from scratch 

Meanwhile, there was another attempt to fill the void. A longtime Caroline County couple, Tony and Kim Ares, thought they saw an opportunity when the Caroline Progress closed its doors.

“We heard a lot of complaints from people when the Caroline Progress shut down, and sensed a need,” Tony, who is forty-seven, said. “We had some experience in writing and in websites. We listened to a gentleman from New York on how to create a new model of a newspaper with a skeleton crew.” 

In December 2018, the Areses began printing the Virginia Connection, a tabloid that was distributed free on restaurant countertops and at public gathering places. Paid subscriptions by mail or online were also offered. The content was chiefly press releases from the public schools, county government and law enforcement, public school schedules, and other items—all of which could be found online with enough searching. Tony generated photo features on local events, like the second grade swim program at the YMCA and the charity Polar Bear Plunge. He also posted videos on the publication’s website. 

Contributions from the public were encouraged and the site ran a weekly inspirational column from a local pastor that had also been carried in the CP for many years before it closed. The somewhat broad name of the publication was intentional: “My thought was, if things took off we would expand to other news deserts,” Tony said.

It didn’t happen. Full of enthusiasm, Tony made the rounds, meeting county residents and talking to various organizations. He sold advertising, and he and his daughters, now four and six, drove around the county distributing the paper for the next six months, during which he invested a chunk of the family’s life savings in the venture. 

Although well received as a free publication, it was apparent from stories floating in a sea of white space in the page layouts that the Virginia Connection was not generating many contributions from the public. 

Nor were readers becoming paid subscribers. “Subscriptions were so low it breaks my soul,” said Tony, who also moonlights as the pastor of a church in Dumfries, Virginia. 

He readily admits his lack of journalism experience contributed to his downfall. Press releases from politicians were run without being labeled as such, for example, making it appear to at least some readers that the newspaper was endorsing them. “We planned to run a story each week on candidates for public office, but after the first one ran, people assumed we were taking sides,” he explained.

Tony had been active in the local Democratic Committee prior to his newspaper venture (and is part of the local dump-Trump movement), but he stepped down from the role during his newspaper days. And he was shocked when some of his editorial decisions were assailed from both sides of the political spectrum. When he commented in print that the incumbent County Supervisor for Bowling Green, a Republican, “was ‘a hard worker focused on budgetary issues, and a political powerhouse,’” Tony said, “all of my Democratic friends were mad at me.” He said he also came under fire from Republicans when he covered Caroline County teachers who demonstrated with other National Education Association members for better pay at the state capital in Richmond. He was accused by at least one reader of espousing a “socialist agenda.”

The only real bright spot was ad revenue, Tony reports. He claims that in a year or two, his publication would have been paying its way. But the frustrations and disappointments did not encourage the Ares family to bet their house and remaining life savings on the risky venture. The Virginia Connection ceased publication in July 2019.

Would he try again? “If I ever had an influx of money? Yes,” Tony answered. He said he still believes if he could concentrate on the business end of things and hire some professionals for newsgathering, it might work.

Meanwhile, the Areses keep a Facebook presence called “One Caroline Virginia,” and keep a space-holding but inactive Virginia Connection website, just in case. 


A link to the past

Some Caroline news can be found in the two regional dailies. The Richmond Times-Dispatch considers Hanover County, Caroline County’s neighbor to the south, to be solidly in its circulation area, and covers some news in Caroline as well. The Richmond paper also operates a free-circulation weekly in Hanover, the Mechanicsville Local, which competed against Ashland’s Herald-Progress for decades. As the H-P’s fortunes waned, the Mechanicsville Local stepped up coverage of the entire county and started another free circulation weekly, the Ashland-Hanover Local. The two papers successfully wrested the county’s lucrative legal advertising away from the H-P, thus hastening the paid-circulation weekly’s demise. Though smaller in size, the Ashland-Hanover Local fills some of the news vacuum left behind when the H-P failed. 

Luckily, Caroline’s residents can still get occasional local stories in the Fredericksburg newspaper, and the person they can thank for that is Dawn Haun, a freelance reporter and photographer for the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. Now in her late fifties, Haun moved to Caroline County when she was five, and as a teenager she was already working in the news business, part-time, for the Caroline Progress. “When I was thirteen or fourteen, I worked down in the basement in the pressroom, wrapping newspapers to be mailed out and throwing them in the mailbags,” Haun said. “I guess I have black ink in my veins.”

Haun stayed with the Caroline Progress until 1997, when it changed hands. She took a job with the Fredericksburg daily as a graphic designer, but returned to the Progress after Lakeway Publishing bought it in 2008. “I came back as a photographer and graphic artist—a little bit of everything,” she said. In 2015, she left, and now runs her own business, Wagon Wheel Creations, which offers many of the services she learned in the newspaper industry, including photography, graphic design, marketing, and website design. And for the past two years, she has covered Caroline County government meetings and public hearings and contributed photo features and other stories as an active freelancer for the Fredericksburg daily. 

Still, the Free Lance-Star can devote only so much space to Caroline County, which represents a small slice of the regional daily’s circulation and ad revenue. For the most part, in 2020, news-thirsty residents of Bowling Green and Caroline County must depend on all-too-rare reports on crime or social hot topics on the Richmond TV news and in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, plus a mixture of somewhat scattershot social media. 

For a portion of the sort of local news, social events, and opinions that readers once found tucked away and organized in the pages of their hometown weekly, residents can comb through a variety of Facebook groups, websites, and other social media. It can be an exhausting process, and it is easy to miss something unless one is dedicated.


A Facebook effort

One of the most popular Facebook groups in the county is Caroline County, Virginia Residents, which was started in 2015 by a Caroline Middle School teacher named Steven Brodie Tucker. Tucker and the site’s co-administrator, Susan Sili (the wife of Jeff Sili, chairman of the County Board of Supervisors) strive to maintain a pleasing yet responsible balance of local news and opinion. “It’s meant to be a positive mechanism for spreading news while trying to build up the community,” Tucker said. 

Because of the co-administrators’ interests and connections, these pages carry a great deal of county government news and school news, as well as notices about farmers’ markets, fairs, and other community events, such as COVID-19 testing. Also: pet and wildlife photos, scenic views, inquiries about where to get a good plumber or electrician, jokes, comments on local restaurants, and other ephemera, plus the unavoidable political crossfire in this year of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and the presidential election. 

While useful, such Facebook groups do not offer the same experience as a traditional weekly newspaper—with its familiar organization of news, feature, editorial, sports and church pages, and, more important, its staff of dedicated news professionals who are paid to surface stories and report them out. Still, they help Caroline County residents stay in touch and maintain some sense of identity—for the time being anyway.

This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.

Greg Glassner is a Caroline County resident with more than forty years of experience in the newspaper business, the majority of it as editor of community weeklies in Virginia. He was editor of the Herald-Progress in Ashland for eight years, retiring in 2012. He also served as interim editor of the Caroline Progress in Bowling Green for six months in 2015, and wrote a weekly column and feature stories for both papers until they ceased publication in March 2018. A US Army veteran who saw service in Southeast Asia, Glassner is the author of five books, including biographies of US Attorney General William Wirt and Virginia Gov. William “Extra Billy” Smith.