One year ago today, we launched Cardinal News, with 12 donors, zero readers, enough funding for two reporters and the audacious goal of providing in-depth journalism for Southwest and Southside Virginia, two parts of the state that had seen their legacy news organization shrink precipitously.
Today, thanks to many of you, we now have more than 1,600 donors, a statewide audience and enough funding that we have doubled our reporting staff to four reporters, and are about to add more. By staff size, that alone makes us now the largest online-only news site in Virginia – and the fastest-growing. Our audacious goal remains. If anything, it’s become more audacious, as readers increasingly ask us to provide even more coverage on more topics.
People often come up to us to thank us for starting Cardinal. We appreciate those sentiments but their thanks are misplaced: We need to thank all of you who have made this possible, from our initial supporters who were willing to donate to something that was simply an idea to all the others who saw what we were doing and wanted more of it.
Here’s an anniversary pause to thank you, and review what we’ve done and what lies ahead.
I always tell people that if you think of newspapers as a department store, offering a little bit of everything, we’re more like one of those specialty stores on the outparcels at the mall. We set out to do a few things well, specifically covering the politics, economy and culture of Southwest and Southside.
Politics, because the legacy news sites had given up on that in favor of reproducing coverage originating in Richmond.
Economy, because ours is a part of the state that has seen traditional employers decline or sometimes die altogether. All that’s been well-covered but what was going uncovered was the story of how Southwest and Southside are now busy reinventing themselves.
Culture, because that’s what makes this part of the state worth living in.
It’s no accident that our first two reporters were a political reporter based in Richmond (Markus Schmidt) and a business reporter based in Roanoke (Megan Schnabel). That makes us the only news organization west of Richmond with a full-time reporter based in the state capital year-round. You’ve seen the results of that in many ways: Markus’ coverage of the redistricting process that led to new maps drawn by the Supreme Court, his coverage of what our legislators were doing during the General Assembly, and his coverage of other issues unique to our part of the state when the legislature isn’t in session. You’ve also seen Megan connect the dots on the economic forces reshaping this part of Virginia, from the solar boom across Southside to the growth of a life sciences cluster in the Roanoke Valley to stories on how businesses formerly serving the coal business are transitioning to find other customers. We’ve sometimes done a good job of making ourselves seem bigger than we actually are; for that, we’re indebted to the many freelance journalists we’ve hired, most of them former daily newspaper reporters. Our most distant freelancer has been in Canada: To tell the story of former Danville football star Malik Clements, who’s now playing for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, we hired a veteran Canadian sports journalist.
Our coverage has had impact, too. One early redistricting proposal called for splitting a Black neighborhood in Lynchburg between two different congressional districts. Once we reported that, the proposal quickly went away. Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, credited our coverage of the flood-ravaged Hurley with helping him win $11.4 million in state funds for flood relief for the Buchanan County community. When I wrote in a column that someone should invite the congressman from Silicon Valley to speak about his ideas on how to spread technology jobs more widely, Rep. Ro Khanna himself responded – and said he’d be happy to come talk. That became the first in our Cardinal News speaker series. The second was earlier this month, when Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, spoke in Danville on the future of manufacturing.
He didn’t just talk about manufacturing, either. Timmons also cited “the incredible story of Cardinal News. Cardinal News sprang up at a time when regional outlets across the country have been downsizing or disappearing. The journalist Margaret Sullivan put it well earlier this year. Referring to communities that have no regional news coverage, she wrote that it creates a ‘vacuum that leaves residents ignorant of what’s going on in their world, incapable of fully participating as informed citizens.’ Well, Cardinal News shows us we can reverse this trend. What you’ve done to keep readers in Southwest and Southern Virginia informed and to broaden access to top quality reporting is nothing short of exceptional. My mother is a former newspaper publisher, so I have a great appreciation for your work and what you’ve accomplished.”
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by all this. We’ve made a national name for ourselves. Facebook, now Meta, contacted us not long after we launched and invited us to be one of 30 news organizations around the country taking part in its “reader revenue accelerator program,” which gave us a crash course on how to grow our free daily email newsletter. Not signed up? Here’s your chance. Our distribution on that has doubled since May, by the way. We’ve also been nominated for not one but two national awards. We were one of three finalists for the “community champion” award from the Institute for NonProfit News for our coverage of the aftermath of the Hurley flood. We’re one of four finalists for “best news business” from another online news trade association, Local Independent Online News.
I mentioned that we’ve built a statewide audience. That was never our intent. We simply hoped to reach our coverage area in Southwest and Southside, and did hope to get some attention in Richmond, since that is the state capital. But the internet knows no boundaries. To our amazement, we have readers all over the state. The Roanoke Valley, the largest metro in this part of the state, is our biggest source of readers. Most days, though, our second biggest source of readers is a tie between Richmond and Northern Virginia (with Northern Virginia holding a slight lead in all-time traffic). Whenever I hear from these readers – which is often – I always ask them why they’re reading us. Their answer is invariably some variation of: “You’re telling us about a part of the state we know nothing about.” We like to think we’re making Southwest and Southside part of the statewide conversation in a way they weren’t before. A year ago we didn’t exist; now we’ve had many people tells us that we’re one of their first reads every morning.
We’re also finding that donors want more of that kind of coverage.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Danville Regional Foundation, we’ve been able to add a reporter in Danville. Grace Mamon started in July, and she’s been writing about things like the world’s largest indoor farm that has just opened in Pittsylvania County and how Danville is preparing for the opening of the Caesars casino.
Thanks to a likewise generous grant from the Genan Foundation (founded by the Worrell family, which once owned the daily newspaper in Bristol), we’ve been able to add a reporter in Bristol. Longtime Southwest Virginia journalist Susan Cameron started yesterday, although earlier this year you were able to read her freelance stories on why Emory & Henry College is experiencing a growth spurt while other schools fret about losing enrollment and why Southwest Virginia Community College is adding housing.
With four reporting positions, we are now the biggest online-only news site in Virginia. We’ll soon be even bigger. Later this week we’ll announce funding for a fifth reporting position. We’re also actively working on raising money for an education reporter, a health care reporter, a technology reporter and a reporter based in Lynchburg. Right now, there’s no full-time education reporter west of Richmond. There’s no full-time health care reporter anywhere in Virginia. If you’d like to see us add these positions, you can help make that happen. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, we pay no shareholders so every dollar goes straight to journalism. We also are strict fiscal conservatives; we don’t hire anyone until we have a guaranteed multi-year funding stream to support that position.
Reporting positions are easy to see. What’s harder to see – but just as essential – are the back-office operations that are required to support this kind of growth. Luanne Rife began as our board president; she’s now our executive director and chief development officer. We’ve brought on Brooke Stephenson as our digital audience engagement editor, fancy language to describe someone who will help us grow our readership even more. She’s working on a new feature that we’ll roll out in a few weeks. We also now have Erica Myatt as a part-time copy editor.
When we started a year ago, I was optimistic about the response we’d get but I never imagined we’d be able to grow as fast as we have. Our biggest challenge now is keeping up with all the things that readers now expect from us. But that’s a good problem to have. Thanks for being part of our flock.