During the first weekend in May, representatives from print and online news sites from across the state gathered in a suburban Richmond hotel for the annual Virginia Press Association awards banquet. If you’ve read any Virginia news site over the past week, you’ve probably seen a story about how many awards that news organization brought home. We at Cardinal are not immune to self-congratulatory coverage. We are justly proud of the 21 awards we won, more than twice as many as any other news site in the growing online-only category, which now has more members than either of the contest’s two largest categories for daily newspapers. Here’s where I must stop and thank all our donors who have made it possible for us to assemble this award-winning staff.
There was, however, one award that was not given out.
For the first time since the inaugural year of 1987, there was no winner for the D. Lathan Mims Award for Editorial Leadership in the Community.
The reason: There was only one entry. (Disclosure: That entry came from Cardinal.)
The lack of other entries is no accident. It’s a direct result of the overall decline of newspapers and the decision of many newspaper chains to eliminate locally written editorials altogether.
Here’s why that should matter to those far beyond that hotel banquet room full of journalists.
We’ve all seen the shrinkage — and sometimes outright disappearance — of newspapers in many ways. We’ve also seen the rise of online news sites such as ours to try to fill at least some of that void, although so far there’s nothing close to a balance between the two.
Sometimes, though, big trends are too big for us to fully comprehend. A few pertinent examples often do better.
I often find myself speaking to community groups (I’m happy to come speak to yours) and sketching out the changing nature of the media landscape. The example I always give about why people — voters, taxpayers, citizens — should care about the declining number of journalists is this: Once there were at least 45 journalists covering the General Assembly on a regular basis. Now there are fewer than 10. The state budget is bigger, the state government is bigger, the number of bills introduced is bigger — but there are fewer journalists in Richmond to ask questions about all that. (Those who believe in limited government should be those most keen to have a larger and more vigorous press corps.)
I’m proud to say that Cardinal is one of those organizations with a full-time reporter in the state capital year-round — Markus Schmidt — and proud to say that he and now-managing editor Megan Schnabel together won a best-in-show award for some of their coverage. Still, the point remains: If (insert your favorite bad example about state government) isn’t being covered, it’s probably not the result of media bias, it’s probably the result of there simply being fewer journalists.
Now I have a second example: the steady disappearance of local editorials.
Over its 35 years, the D. Lathan Mims Award (named for the former editor and general manager of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, my hometown paper) has been given out to editorial writers at 18 different papers. (Twice, in 2017 and 2018, I was honored to win it for my work at The Roanoke Times.) Yet this year, not a single newspaper even entered.
There were entries in VPA’s regular award categories for editorial writing.
First place in the large daily category went to Mike Allen of The Roanoke Times. “Good job presenting opinions utilizing persuasive arguments, facts and pertinent questions, without overt insults directed towards any particular group,” the contest judge wrote. “Excellent writing.”
First place in the small and medium daily category went to Martin Davis of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. “Opinions are presented well and supported by facts,” the judge wrote. “Well written.”
Don’t look for their award-winning work today, though. Both are gone. Allen left The Roanoke Times for Virginia Tech at the end of last year (disclosure: I was a job reference for him). It’s a good thing he left then, too, because if he had stayed he wouldn’t have had his job for much longer. In January, Lee Enterprises, which owns 10 dailies in Virginia, eliminated all its opinion writers in the state except for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That meant Allen’s position wasn’t filled and Davis was among those shown the door.
At one time, even many small dailies had full-time editorial writers, cranking out editorials on local issues. Now, it appears that only the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Daily Press in Newport News and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk have full-time editorial page writers — and the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot share a staff.
When I was editorial page editor at The Roanoke Times (from 2014 until 2021, when I left of my own volition to become the founding editor at Cardinal), I produced editorials seven days a week. After Allen, my successor, left The Roanoke Times, that paper — which for decades upon decades produced locally written editorials — published a notice that declared: “We will only rarely publish locally written editorials.” So, just like that, the largest metro west of Richmond went from having seven local editorials a week to none at all.
Why does this matter? I’ll let Davis — who, since leaving the Free Lance-Star, has launched a newsletter and a podcast — provide the answer: “The political debate is increasingly driven by what is happening at the national level. Unfortunately, local papers are seeing editorial writers cut and pages filled instead with national editorial writers. This trend is fanning at the local level what has proven so destructive at the national level — a gridlock of ideas because we silo everything as right or left. And the two simply don’t talk to one another. Local opinion writers can cut through this because they are local, they are accessible, and they are visible in their communities. More importantly, they tend to be solutions-based. Local issues like building roads, funding schools, paying public safety personnel, dealing with problems like homelessness and drug abuse become unsolvable when the focus is on conservative and liberal. They can be addressed when editorial writers hear all sides and write pieces that reflect those positions and point to a way forward. Their essays introduce readers to the players, and are the catalyst for public discussion.”
One of my proudest moments as editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times came after I wrote an editorial pointing out how years ago, the state had authorized a historical marker in Roanoke to civil rights pioneer Oliver Hill but the marker had never been erected because no one had ever raised the funds (markers are authorized by the state, but the state doesn’t pay for them). The morning that editorial appeared, former Mayor Nelson Harris was on the phone, raising money and by the afternoon, he’d come up with enough to cover the marker. Within a few months, the marker had arrived and was in place. That’s impact.
The key word in all this is local.
The world does not lack for opinion about the president, no matter who might be sitting in the Oval Office. What we lack is opinion — informed opinion — about local issues that don’t fit naturally into that left-right paradigm. You might ask, then, why we at Cardinal don’t offer more opinion pieces. The answer is simple: We’re not a replacement for a local newspaper. That’s not our mission. We’re here to provide in-depth regional coverage across all of Southwest and Southside Virginia, with a statewide audience in mind. We are not here to cover — or provide opinions on — distinctly local issues such as what property should or should not be rezoned, or what actions the local city council or board of supervisors should be taking. That’s what local newspapers are for — yet, as you can see, it’s not happening. (Ironically, while some dailies are giving up locally written editorials, many small newspapers continue to produce them — they never had a full-time editorial writer, anyway. Two of the past three winners of the Mims Award have been weekly newspapers, last year The Smithfield Times and in 2019 The Recorder, which covers Highland County, Bath County and the Alleghany Highlands).
I mentioned that the Mims Award was named for the late editor of my hometown paper. His daughter, Sandra Mims Rowe, went on to become a journalist as well. When she became executive editor of The Virginian-Pilot in 1984, she was one of only three women to lead a large metro daily in the country. She later went on to become editor of The Oregonian in Portland, Oregon. Under her tutelage, both papers won Pultizers. Multiple Pultizers. She’s now retired, but I was curious what her thoughts might be on the award named for her father drawing just one entry. Here’s what she told me by email: “Like you, I’m sad to hear the Mims editorial prize wasn’t awarded for lack of entries. When VPA created it more than 30 years ago I never could have imagined that community editorial pages would be eliminated in my lifetime. I’m afraid that chapter is already closing for communities and don’t think my railing against it would add any benefit. You’re the working editor — so if you think your voice will help your community focus on what they are losing, then you should follow your instinct and write about it.”
So I have.