The life and death of one local newspaper in Virginia – Marketplace

They say all politics is local. So where’s the local news coverage this election year? Members of the “Marketplace Morning Report” team have been traveling to what are called “news deserts” in Super Tuesday states to hear about the business models that are failing or informing voters as they make their choices on Tuesday. Earlier in the week, we reported from Val Verde County, Texas. On Wednesday, we heard from North Carolina, where sparse local news coverage may have played a part in a congressional election so questionable, there was a do-overOn Thursday, voices from a news desert that’s about an hour’s drive from the center of American politics. As we wrap up our weeklong coverage, a conversation with a man in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, who had to pull the plug on the local newspaper he published for years and now gets by by printing campus newspapers.
Keith Stickley is owner of Shenandoah Publications. The company prints the newspapers of The University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University and more. “Marketplace Morning Report” stopped by Shenandoah Publications on a snowy winter night, in a space above the darkened room that houses the printing presses.
Stickley spoke with host David Brancaccio, and the following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: You’re a longtime newspaper man. You, originally, were on the editorial side?
Keith Stickley: Always on the editorial side.
Brancaccio: But what brought you back here?
Stickley: Well, this is my hometown. And when when I was born here, it was a town of 1,500 or so. We often joked that we not only knew all the people, but we knew their animals.
Brancaccio: And since you have a newspaper background, you thought you might start a newspaper?
Stickley: Well, I didn’t come back here for that purpose. I actually came back here to to manage an existing newspaper here. And I did for about 10 years. And we had a disagreement with the publisher. And so I left that paper and created my own.
Brancaccio: And what was that called?
Stickley: It was called The Free Press.
Brancaccio: And did it make you rich quick?
Stickley: The newspaper that I created in 1985 only had two profitable years — that was the first two years. And then I realized at that time, that I was going to have to do something, because this is my hometown, so that’s it. So I had to create this printing company. So we created the printing company to subsidize the newspaper. And so, we used printing margins to support a bad habit.
Brancaccio: And that was a newspaper that had reporters that covered things?
Stickley: It was a pretty aggressive newspaper, actually. As a matter of fact, one of the county supervisors said after we closed the paper, that the best thing that ever happened to this county was that we closed.
Brancaccio: In other words, a politician didn’t like —
Stickley: Because our coverage was too aggressive. But, in 2019, it became clear that we were not going to be able to continue to do this. First of all, I was getting older, and not able to keep up with the pace and the deadline. And we were losing money with it. And we had been losing money for 32 years.
Brancaccio: These days, the printing company, it’s, for instance, what? College newspapers?
Stickley: Yeah, we print 12 university newspapers here for Virginia. And we print George Washington University student newspaper here. And one from Maryland — little college out in southern Maryland, St. Mary’s College, we print that here. We’re now a little bit more diversified in what we do, because we’ll print most anything we can to keep our little business afloat.
Brancaccio: This is an election year. You think people suffer when they don’t have what you would call aggressive coverage of local issues?
Stickley: Well, they suffer at any time, because there’s no good credible source of information in this county today. Even though it has one newspaper. There are 21,000 postal addresses in this county. The only newspaper left in this county reaches fewer than 10% of those.
Brancaccio: But Keith, you have a unique vantage point for looking out at the newspaper industry in lots of Virginia. And you’re seeing the papers that are still with us in financial distress?
Stickley: I’m spending the evening collecting printing bills for publishers who can’t pay their invoices. Every month I have to have done seven or eight publishers who simply don’t have the money to pay their printing bill.
Brancaccio: Who do we blame? The internet?
Stickley: Well, there’s a lot of blame to go around, for sure. Every town in this county, every single town except one, had one hardware store, and some of them two. Today, Lowe’s is the only hardware store in this county. So all of those people, all those families that own those stores, they all advertise in the local newspaper. Lowe’s doesn’t advertise in the local newspaper. They might occasionally put an insert in, but they don’t — their marketing companies in wherever, are not using local media for those ads. And the result of that is obvious. That’s a big chunk that comes out of the newspapers.
Brancaccio: So, number one, a contraction of retail as chains move in.
Stickley: So newspapers decided 30 years ago that they’d jump on the internet bandwagon, they’d create a website. And so we would talk about these things and say, “Oh, you got to have a website.” That’s all fine, said, “So what can you make on a website, say? “Well, we can make 10 cents on the dollar.” So if we’re selling one dollar’s worth of advertising in print, we can make 10 cents on the web. That went on for 20 years.
You go to the store and say, “I’m gonna sell you a print media ad. And, as a bonus, I’ll put you on my website.” So the guy says, “Website? I’ve got a website. Why do I want to be on your website? Why am I going to pay you a bonus to pay print, and you’re not reaching anybody? But you’ve got a website? Well, I’ve got a website. My website looks better than yours, in fact.” So, the web hasn’t worked for community journalism.
Brancaccio: Now as circulation fell off toward the end of the newspaper, and you said, some people are getting their news from Facebook, I mean, there can be legitimate news passed along by Facebook. But some of what you get on social media is not fact-checked by a reporter and yet it gets repeated as gospel.
Stickley: Well, there are millions of conspiracy theories that are spawned on the internet, and there are just no editors. And there’s no accountability.
Brancaccio: You might have people here in the community willing to voice an opinion about what’s going on. But that’s different from having a reporter who was at the meeting and actually listened to what was decided and what money went where.
Stickley: Right. And we’re probably printing somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 weeklies, monthlies and papers like that. But there are very few of those publications that are printed here that are not experiencing financial difficulty. But the ones that seem to be doing the best are the ones that are relying on soft news. They’re not covering government. They’re not covering the courts. But they’re chock-full of feature material. “A new banjo player showed up in town.” That’s all nice. But it’s not giving the community the kind of information that the community needs to vote. Are their tax monies being properly spent?
Brancaccio: With the internet and all this social media and new forms of communication, there’s such a rich variety of places that you can find out information, some of it news, some of it not — except on the hyperlocal coverage.
Stickley: Yeah, you can’t get that.
Brancaccio: It was newspapers that were very good at that part.
Stickley: They were, they were. But it costs. It costs money to do that. Even in a town this size.
Brancaccio: It’s the opposite of a virtuous cycle. It’s a vicious cycle, right? Because you have declining subscriptions, so you have less money to have resources to do the coverage, and then you have less to offer so the subscriptions go down. All right, so they’ll cover the government shutdown well, they will, the D.C. reporters working for national news organizations. But on primary day, if there’s a county official running, they’re not going to cover that.
Stickley: No, you’re not going to find out what happened. So basically, the loss of these community newspapers has just created a sea of ignorance. And there’s nothing — there’s no obvious solution to that problem. Because of the expense. The newspaper economics have been eroding now for probably a half a century. And they’ve just reached the point now where there’s nothing that can be done about it. I don’t see a way to do this, to bring those back, whether it’s print or not. You can certainly do your website. But can you make any money on a website?
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