Two years ago today, I was sitting outside a coffee shop in Daleville — because I had no broadband at home — as we launched Cardinal News into the world.
At the time, we hoped to reach the people we were setting out to serve in Southwest and Southside, and we wondered if we’d be able to get the attention of some decision-makers in Richmond.
Earlier this year, I sat at home — I now have broadband — and watched the video feed from the General Assembly as legislators from both parties cited reporting from Cardinal News to make their points.
Today, on our two-year anniversary, let’s look at how far we’ve come, because all of our growth is ultimately due to you, the readers, who have supported us.
First, let’s run through the numbers.
We began with two reporters. Last year at this time we had just hired our fourth, so we doubled in our first year. This year, we’re close to doubling again — we now have seven reporters and have secured funding for an eighth reporting position that we’re currently interviewing candidates for. In all, our staff has grown from an initial three to 11 full-timers and two part-timers.
When we started, we became the only news organization west of Richmond with a full-time political reporter in Richmond year-round (Markus Schmidt). We still are. Over the past year, we’ve also become the only news organization west of Richmond with a full-time education reporter (Lisa Rowan) and a full-time technology reporter (Tad Dickens). When we hire that eighth reporter, we’ll be the only news organization west of Richmond with a full-time health care reporter. Also in the past year we’ve added a reporter based in Martinsville (Dean-Paul Stephens) to go along with our regional reporters in Bristol (Susan Cameron) and Danville (Grace Mamon). Last year, we brought on Brooke Stephenson as our digital audience engagement editor (if you’re seeing our social links or our newsletters, she’s the one behind those) and Erica Myatt as our copy editor. Luanne Rife, our executive director, has been our leader from the beginning. To work with our growing staff, we created the position of managing editor — business reporter Megan Schnabel took that position — and we hired Matt Busse to succeed her as business reporter. You can find a full list of our staff here.
When we started, we had a daily (Monday-Friday) newsletter and eventually spun off a weekly newsletter on Saturdays that recaps our 10 most popular stories of the week. Over the past year we’ve launched three other weekly newsletters: a weather newsletter with weather journalist Kevin Myatt; West of the Capital, a political newsletter that I write; and The Weekend, an events newsletter. We started with 354 subscribers; now we have nearly 19,000 — and those subscribers are all over the state. (Not signed up? You can sign up for any or all of those for free.)
Over the past year, we’ve launched three new features: Kevin’s weekly weather column, obituaries and an events calendar. The latter is one that venues can add free listings to, or can pay $15 for a boosted position.
We’ve also ventured into hosting events. Coming up Oct. 3 we’re sponsoring a candidate forum in Blacksburg between House of Delegates candidates Lily Franklin and Chris Obenshain, with another on Oct. 5 in Roanoke between state Senate candidates David Suetterlein and Trish White-Boyd. I’ll be moderating both of those.
We’ve also been honored in ways we could have only dreamed of when we started. The Institute for Nonprofit News, our national trade association, named us Startup of the Year. In announcing the award, the judges said Cardinal “exceeded its initial five-year plan within its first 18 months. Since launching in 2021, the outlet grew donorship, tripled its staff, quadrupled its annual budget, and built a statewide audience.” We have been nominated for five awards — including Business of the Year — by LION Publishers. The award ceremony is next week. We won 21 awards in the Virginia Press Association contest earlier this year, the first time we entered. We won a second-place award in a national contest run by the Local Media Association for our speaker series.
Closely followed by state policymakers, Cardinal News’ reporting has led to measurable change, including securing $11 million in aid for victims of the 2021 flooding in Hurley in Buchanan County.
Perhaps the best compliment we’ve received, though, came from someone I met at an event in Richmond. “You’ve really helped change my impression of Danville,” he told me. Many people have impressions of our communities that were formed years ago, and now are out of date. We’ve been able to show the rest of Virginia just how those communities are changing — how Martinsville now has the fastest wage growth in the state, how the number of tech jobs in the Big Stone Gap micropolitan area is growing at a faster rate than in the Roanoke Valley (and almost any other place in Appalachia). And yes, how Danville is remaking its economy decades after the collapse of textiles.
So what’s ahead? Lots, and you’ll help us shape it.
When we launched, we set out to fill the void daily newspapers were leaving behind. More and more, we hear readers telling us we are their primary news source. That shouldn’t be a surprise, because traditional news sources have continued to shrink. Earlier this year, many of the dailies owned by Lee Enterprises, which owns most of the daily newspapers in Virginia, trimmed their staffs yet again. Then during the summer, six Lee-owned daily newspapers in Virginia — in Bristol, Culpeper, Charlottesville, Danville, Martinsville and Waynesboro — reduced print circulation to just three days a week.
I am often asked to speak to civic groups. When I do, I’ve heard lots of suggestions about what people would like to see us cover. Some of those we’ve already acted on — the events calendar and obituaries, for instance. Others we’re working on — we often hear requests for us to deliver our news through other platforms. You can now sign up for text messages. We’re on all the main social media platforms but those of you on Instagram will soon see some of our experiments with video. We believe in taking our news to where the readers are.
Every day we have to make choices about what to cover. As reader expectations rise, there will be more choices to be made. To help us get a better sense of what our growing number of readers want, we’ve partnered with the University of Missouri’s nationally recognized journalism program to produce a reader survey. You’ll also soon see prompts to fill that out to tell us what news you’d value most.
News is also like anything else: It costs money to produce.
More and more people are consuming their news online, rather than in print. That’s really no different, though, than what’s happened in music: Few people anymore consume their music through a physical product, such as a vinyl record or a compact disc; they listen through streaming services. That’s forced musicians to adapt to a new business model (they make less money through streaming) and it’s forced the news business to adapt, as well. What’s really changed in the news business is how news is paid for.
Newspapers once relied primarily on advertising — mostly local advertising — for about 80% of their revenue, with circulation revenue accounting for the rest. Much of that local advertising has now been vacuumed up by social media. That’s why your local newspaper isn’t what it used to be.
We’re building a news site with an entirely different business model, with multiple revenue streams instead of just a single big one. We remain absolutely committed to making our news available free, which means we intentionally forgo a paywall and whatever revenue that might generate. Instead, we rely on a mix of reader donations, philanthropy and grants. We’re a 501(c)(3), so donations to us are tax deductible. We’ve also begun accepting sponsorships for those newsletters and some parts of our site to create a new revenue stream to pay for our expanded journalism; we’ve brought on Sherry Quinley as our sponsorship manager.
We’ve doubled in size each of our first two years. Will we double again in our third year? That’s really up to readers.We thank all of our donors and sponsors, both large and small, with helping fuel our phenomenal growth. Thanks for being part of our growing flock.