Lee Enterprises is one of the largest corporate newspaper chains in the country, and the company now owns more than a dozen daily papers throughout Virginia -- plus more weeklies. Lee bought the newspapers back in March from BH Media for $140 million. Since then they’ve fired reporters, outsourced work, and furloughed staff.
10/14 Update: Days after this story was initially published, Ashley Spinks was fired. She says one reason management cited was that she gave this interview and that she made "disparaging comments" about Lee Enterprises. Our story about that is here.
It may be the weekend but reporter Ashley Spinks still has a full schedule. It begins with a Pride parade in downtown Floyd.
“I’m Ashley, I’m from the Floyd Press,” she introduces herself to a parade participant with a smile, notebook in hand.
Spinks and I walked to the parade route together from the Floyd Press headquarters. The office itself is an old brick building in a downtown that isn’t just small, it’s less than half a square mile. Fun fact, says Spinks, there’s only one stop light in the entire county.
Another fact: there’s also only one full-time newspaper reporter.
Spinks’ technical title is Managing Editor of the Floyd Press, but in practicality she’s reporter, photographer, layout designer and editor. Each week she single-handedly pulls together the 16-20 page newspaper. And she does it all for $36,000. The paper does also have one ad manager and one customer service representative.
All you have to do though is take a look at the photographs on the wall to see it hasn’t always been this way. Spinks points them out in the lobby, a chronicling of the years. With a small laugh she calls it “cool slash demoralizing.” You can see the group shrink over time.
These are cuts that happened before the latest corporate owner took charge in March, by the time Lee Enterprises bought the paper from BH Media there was practically no staff left to cut. But the company has still managed to find other ways to trim.
Like other reporters at Lee-owned papers Spinks was furloughed for a couple of weeks this Spring. And in one particularly infuriating day she, and others, were told their email storage would be slashed. She spent hours deleting messages in order to access her inbox.
But the biggest cut of all for the Floyd Press has been the freelance budget. Spinks assigns and edits a handful of stories each month to freelance reporters.
“Certainly like, if the readership were to notice something it would be I was filling more space with stories that I was pulling in from sister papers,” Spinks says. That means she was pulling stories from reporters in Roanoke or Richmond, and she says readers did notice. She got messages from folks wondering why there was less content about their community.
When asked whether one person can really do it all, Spinks pauses before admitting it’s difficult.
“You don’t always have the capacity to do follow-up interviews, to add context and color to the stories,” Spinks says. “But even more important than that...what are you not reporting on?”
It haunts her. She won an award last year for her coverage of ongoing issues with the county’s water system. She knows there’s more to dig into and she’s got the ideas and sources, but she seriously doubts that corporate would approve the $300 she needs to chase the story. That’s how much it would cost to do water testing at different locations throughout the county.
“And do I have the time to look into the science and consult the experts and do follow up interviews?” Spinks asks rhetorically with a shake of her head. “I’m not saying there is anything wrong with the water, but if there was that would be something that was really important for the community to know and right now they’re not being well served by me or the paper.”
While the situation isn’t quite as dire at other papers in Virginia, they’re also suffering losses. Citing dropping ad revenue, Lee has furloughed staff and fired reporters across the board. For the Roanoke Times that’s meant more than a dozen layoffs.
"It gets harder every single day,” reporter Alison Graham says. “I can’t believe that they can still find stuff to cut.”
Graham worries that the lack of investment is a vicious cycle that can only be headed in one direction: Lee Enterprises eventually closing the paper. “The reporters are just in- survival mode,” she says.
On top of the layoffs at the Roanoke Times Lee has cut six staffers at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, and another five at the Richmond Times Dispatch.
When asked about long term plans for their papers, a spokesman for Lee Enterprises chose not to comment or answer any of the questions we sent them.
The loss of local reporters is nothing new. From 2008 to 2018 the number of newspaper journalists in the country shrank by half. Those losses have only accelerated during the pandemic.
According to an analysis by Penelope Muse Abernathy at the University of North Carolina, almost three dozen papers closed nationwide in April and May alone. “It’s a stunning loss isn’t it?” she says, pointing out that those losses are concentrated in small and midsize towns.
Muse Abernathy studies newspaper economics and news deserts and says that when big companies start to buy up papers it’s often no longer seen as a long term investment. Instead, the primary goal has become profiting quickly for shareholders. The business plan is to cut costs and get to profitability.
“Then decide ‘Well I’m either going to sell it to somebody else or I’m going to sit here and harvest it.’,” she explains. “Or if it still wasn’t profitable… you just shut it down.”
Since taking over, Lee Enterprises has announced they’ll outsource design layout for the Roanoke Times and copy editing for the Daily Progress to big regional hubs in the midwest. And Muse Abernathy says that sometimes, after all the cuts are made, the most valuable thing left is the real estate.
“Often the newspaper was right there, if not on Main Street than a block off Main Street, there is the possibility of selling the real estate and making more off the real estate than what the newspaper is unfortunately worth today,” she says.
That’s played out in Hampton Roads. Tribune Publishing owns the Daily Press and Virginian Pilot. They recently made millions by selling the Pilot’s downtown Norfolk headquarters to an apartment developer. Tribune has also shut down the Daily Press’ leased offices in Newport News.
Now their reporters don’t even have a physical newsroom, but they do at least still have a paper. Others can’t say the same.
In recent years the Caroline Progress shut down entirely, leaving the rural community in central Virginia to rely on Facebook for their local updates.
Nick Mathews is a former Virginia reporter and current journalism researcher at the University of Minnesota. He interviewed former subscribers of the Caroline Progress who told him its absence has left a huge hole in the community.
“One of the people I talked to said that they could still remain informed but that it was just harder,” Mathews said. “Life was harder in Caroline County without the Caroline Progress.”
A former local government official told him there used to be times when a reporter from the Caroline Progress was the only person in the room. Being that person, who shows up to the school board meetings and the city council votes, is exactly the kind of journalism Roanoke Times reporter Alison Graham always dreamt of doing.
“My dream is not to work at the Washington Post or the New York Times. I don’t want to go there,” she says. “I want to go to cities like Roanoke, or I’m originally from Indianapolis… where you can really get into local community reporting. They need this coverage, they need these investigations.”
Graham and others have formed a union, The Timesland News Guild, to pressure Lee Enterprises for resources and support. So far one of their biggest wins has been better severance packages for colleagues who have lost their jobs.