Welcome to Cardinal News as we take our inaugural flight.
We are an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan news site dedicated to covering Southwest and Southside Virginia – two parts of the state increasingly left out of the conversation as Virginia’s population and political power concentrates in the urban crescent. We are not a substitute for your local newspaper, which I hope you will subscribe to. Rather, our goal is to fill the gaps in news coverage that are being created as the media landscape changes.
This part of Virginia hasn’t had a media outlet with a full-time state capitol bureau in eight years. Now it does; Cardinal’s staff is small but includes a journalist based in Richmond to report on state government from the perspective of Southwest and Southside. Markus Schmidt formerly covered state politics for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He will bring an experienced eye to reporting on what our legislators are doing, and what other legislators are doing (or not doing) that has an impact on this part of Virginia.
Southwest and Southside – I use those terms very broadly to cover everything from Cumberland County to the Cumberland Gap – are two distinctly different parts of Virginia. They are certainly different from the urban crescent that runs from Northern Virginia to Richmond to Hampton Roads, but they’re also different from each other. They have different histories and different cultures going back to the way they were settled in the 1700s, so we shouldn’t jump to the assumption that they’re all the same because they’re not. Heck, even Roanoke and Roanoke County are very different, and they’re just on different sides of Peters Creek Road.
However, Southwest and Southside do share one big thing in common: Both have seen their traditional employers decline and sometimes die; both are now engaged in a generational challenge to reinvent their economies. That’s a story that needs to be told, and we’re here to tell it. That’s why our other big initial hire was to bring on Megan Schnabel as our business reporter. She comes with 25 years of experience at The Roanoke Times as a reporter and editor, most of that time covering business.
We also have a small army of freelancers – all experienced journalists – around the region. This is their home. They know the people and the issues.
For many years I was with The Roanoke Times – first as a reporter, then a news editor, later as editorial page editor – and we always cringed when some big city reporter would swoop into town for a story that would broad-brush Roanoke as a “gritty former railroad town” (The Washington Post) or “an often neglected and declining old mining town” (South Florida Sun-Sentinel). Of course, the topper was the time when the New York Times had a reporter pass through who marveled at how our “dry-goods stores carry the kind of overalls often worn with one strap flapping free” and that our restaurants serve lunchtime “dinners” that “could stun a farmhand.”
This part of Virginia often gets a bad rap, if it gets any rap at all. Yet there are fascinating things, important things, happening here.
* The medical research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion has already attracted not just national but international attention; that whole complex and its spin-offs has the potential to be Roanoke’s Amazon. Or, perhaps more accurate, Roanoke’s Research Triangle. (Roanoke is also noteworthy in that it’s a white-majority city with a Black majority on its city council, something you wouldn’t expect to find in the South, on the edge of Appalachia, or, perhaps, anywhere).
* Blacksburg is already a center for research into the merger of hardware and software, from Torc Robotics testing autonomous vehicles to Google trying out drone deliveries.
* Danville had taken some of the hardest hits any community can take, with the collapse of its twin economic pillars in textiles and tobacco. A reporter for Brietbart showed up a few years ago to write about what sad shape Danville was in, yet missed that Danville has become such a center for advanced manufacturing that the governor of Arkansas led a delegation to study what was happening there. (Brietbart also said that Danville was in “the belly-button of the Blue Ridge,” which is both geographically wrong and not a bad thing even if it were true.) The elitism of some big-city commentators knows no ideological boundaries.
* While we’re talking stereotypes, perhaps no city gets stereotyped more than Lynchburg – which is often seen as synonymous with Liberty University in national media coverage. Liberty is obviously an important institution in Lynchburg, but I’ve also seen the Lynchburg that celebrates Pride After Dark, the Lynchburg that is home to the dark musings of the Lynchburg Gothic League, and the Lynchburg that puts on some of the most adventurous live theatre on this side of the state. There’s more than one Lynchburg.
When I was editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times, I often heard from one liberal reader who constantly harped on how, in his view, the legislators in Southwest Virginia were too wedded to coal and not interested in renewable energy. Except that’s not true at all. They’ve been instrumental in pushing to transition the region from coal country to energy country no matter what form that energy takes.
Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, is one of the most conservative voices in the legislature, yet he has teamed up with generally lefty community organizers to push for making the region a center for battery storage companies. And just a few weeks ago, the Southwest legislation delegation was on hand to announce a project to turn 1,200 acres of a former surface mine in Wise and Dickenson into a solar farm. The transition from brownfields to brightfields is happening, and we’re here to help tell that story (and in my signed opinion columns, try to prod things to move a little faster).
Not all news, though, is good news. And contrary to what some community boosters might think, there is often value in “bad” news. A few years ago, I was at an event in the Roanoke Valley when someone told me that a prominent community leader from far Southwest Virginia was there and wanted to meet with me. I cringed. I’d just written an editorial in The Roanoke Times that detailed some pretty unflattering statistics about that part of the state. I waited for the dressing-down. Instead, he pumped my hand and told me how grateful he was for that piece because it had stirred up a necessary conversation in his part of Virginia. So, lesson learned. You can expect those same unflattering statistics from us when the need arises, and it won’t just be people in Southwest and Southside who are discomfited by them.
A lot of people are still sore at the Northern Virginia legislator who earlier this year said that Lee County officials – where a few years ago students had to set out trash cans to collect the rainwater dripping through the roof – should simply “make better use” of their state funding and figure out how to “solve their own problems.” Never mind that the median household income in Fairfax County is nearly four times what it is in Lee County. I’ve found that some in Northern Virginia are unhappy whenever anyone points out some of the basic inequities between their affluent part of the state and large parts of rural Virginia. They might want to prepare themselves before they read some of our coverage then. We are here to amplify the voices in this part of Virginia and not everyone may like to hear those.
Finally, it’s fair to wonder who is paying for all this. The answer is you are, or at least we’re counting on you to do so. We operate on a public broadcasting model. We sell no advertising, and we have no paywall for subscriptions. Instead, we rely on the public to place a value on the in-depth enterprise reporting that the legacy news media no longer provides. We are pledged to two fundamental things: Our donors have no influence on our editorial policies, and we will disclose who those donors are. You can find both our editorial independence policy and our list of supporters here on our site. You can also become one of those donors and support even more reporting in Southwest and Southside.
Like what we’re doing? Let your friends know. Don’t like what we’re doing? Let us know.
Yancey is executive director and editor of Cardinal News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.