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Nonprofit News Site Will Connect Policy to People

Courtesy of Robert Zullo


In a small office in downtown Richmond the rooms are bare and reporters are working from their cell phones because the landlines haven’t been set up yet. But that hasn’t stopped the small crew of The Virginia Mercury from getting down to work.


Virginia’s newest media outlet, a nonprofit state-wide news website, launches Tuesday. And it comes at a time when other outlets are cutting back.

Katie O’Connor is one of four reporters that have left big-time daily papers in Virginia to help start The Virginia Mercury. She remembers working her first job at the Northern Virginia Daily and writing about issues in the Shenandoah Valley, without connecting them back to policymakers in Richmond.

“I think what we can really do is bridge that gap, and we’re going to have so much flexibility to talk to people who live in those places and who are directly impacted by these decisions who might not get a chance to have their stories told otherwise,” says O’Connor.

The online publication will cover policy for a statewide audience. Editor Robert Zullo says the goal isn’t to hop on the news of the day, but to cover stories with depth that other outlets just may not have the time for.


"Our mission is to illuminate policy issues and questions and we can be a little bit more targeted in how we want to do that."

"We’re not going to have to tell you who got shot here, or this crash, or Corey Stewart said this today. That’s not really our mission,” Zullo says. “Our mission is to illuminate policy issues and questions and we can be a little bit more targeted in how we want to do that.”

The Virginia Mercury is launching at a time when the state’s local press is shrinking.

Berkshire Hathaway, which owns the Richmond Times Dispatch, Roanoke Times, Charlottesville Daily Progress and others recently outsourced management to Lee Enterprises. Although it hasn’t announced plans to downsize, Lee Enterprises has laid off staff at other papers it’s  previously taken over.

Betsy Edwards is executive director of the Virginia Press Association. She says the economics of newspapers have changed.

Credit Mallory Noe-Payne / RADIOIQ
Editor Robert Zullo says The Virginia Mercury will focus on policy issues like healthcare and the criminal justice system for a statewide audience.

“Margins are thinner than they used to be,” Edwards says. “When a newspaper was the only way to advertise in your town then of course everybody advertised in the newspaper.”

In recent months at least five community papers have closed down, including those in Ashland and Tazewell. And in Eastern Virginia, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot recently came under the same corporate ownership.

“Unfortunately corporations are probably more worried about the bottom line than probably a family owned publisher would be,” Edwards says. “That has definitely led to the shrinking of newsrooms”

But The Virginia Mercury is nonprofit, part of a network of local news sites backed by the D.C. based Hopewell Fund. The organization’s website says it focuses on projects to address poverty, access to education, and gender inequality -- issues commonly associated with a progressive cause.

Funding aside, Zullo says The Virginia Mercury publication will be nonpartisan.

“That was the understanding when I took the job and it’s been that way ever since,” Zullo says. “All the decisions on what we cover and how we cover will be made right here.”

Right now those coverage priorities are Medicaid expansion, immigration, and the environment. And while that content won’t live behind a paywall, there is likely to be a donate button in the future.



This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.


Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.