How these Virginia journalists are helping cover news deserts in your community

Fredericksburg Free Press
Posted at 12:23 PM, Apr 12, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-14 08:33:02-04

FREDERICKBURG, Va. -- People at their desks clicking away on keyboards is a common sight in an office setting. But the work Joey LoMonaco and his colleagues churn out is becoming more rare by the week. The 33-year-old journalist covers news for the Fredericksburg Free Press.

“When this opportunity popped up I saw the support we had. I knew this was a risk worth taking,” LoMonaco said. “I just love spending time with people and coming up with a product that is really a slice of their life.”

 Fredericksburg Free Press
Fredericksburg Free Press

The digital news operation launched in February where everything local takes precedence.

A team of three full-time journalists called "The Bylines" focuses on Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and Stafford counties.

“It is like a mini Christmas morning. Every morning when you see your byline,” LoMonaco said. "All of the stuff you will see on is relevant to your community."

The Free Press is bucking a disturbing trend across America. According to a recent study by Northwestern University, more than 1/3 of the country’s newspapers have folded since 2005.

 Fredericksburg Free Press
Fredericksburg Free Press

“Journalism. 'Capital J' journalism is about keeping powerful people to account. And that is what you lose when you lose public newspapers and local news publications,” said LoMonaco.

In 2018 alone the Richmond area witnessed three newspapers, The Herald Progress in Ashland, The Hopewell News, and The Caroline Progress, shutter for good.

When legacy media companies roll back coverage or close newsrooms entirely because of shrinking ad revenue, Free Press Treasurer Andre Pineda says the void creates so-called news deserts.

“When local journalism disappears then everyone is a little lost,” Pineda said. “It erodes civility. It erodes your sense of community. It increases that tribal aspect that we are seeing everywhere.”

Pineda, who lives two blocks from the Free Press newsroom, said he witnessed it happening in his hometown.

“Literally five or six months ago we didn’t know we’d be in this space we are today,” Pineda said. “All of us bought into the concept of it. All of us gave our time and our money to make it happen. Where there is a will there is a way I truly believe that no matter what community you’re in.”

 Fredericksburg Free Press
Fredericksburg Free Press

When the Fourth Estate isn’t watching, Free Press staff members say it can be dangerous for a democracy.

“It is a massive problem,” Pineda said. “You know elected officials, government folks people in charge of policy need to have another set of eyes examining what they do.”

Journalist Kathy Knotts said she is invested in covering the issues that impact her neighbors.

“Having three dedicated reporters to cover this region is really a big deal,” Knotts said. “We’re next to you in the football game. We’re the people shopping in the grocery store with you. We’re at the library with you, we’re not living far away and writing stories from far away.”

What you won’t see reading The Fredericksburg Free Press is advertising.

 Fredericksburg Free Press
Fredericksburg Free Press

Chris Muldrow, vice chair of the board, said the non-profit runs entirely on corporate sponsorships and donations from readers.

“Absolutely. I think people here want to know what is going on on a local scale,” Muldrow said. “We went in thinking we were going to hire one reporter on day one and on day one we had three full-time reporters hired. I think that speaks to the support we’ve gotten.”

The daily news operation available to anyone and everyone is also free of opinion articles.

“That has been the primary thing that people have asked. Is this going to be all opinion or fact-based objective journalism? We’ve always said fact-based objective journalism is what we’re trying to do,” Muldrow said.

“We’re here to serve our readers,” Knotts said. “We have no interest in trying to persuade anyone. We’re here to present the facts. And to let people make their own decisions.”

 Fredericksburg Free Press
Fredericksburg Free Press

Free Press readership is soaring.

In fact, more than 5,300 people have already signed up for the daily headlines in less than two months.

“It is that sense of belonging that things like this. Entities like this whether it is here in Fredericksburg or across the country communities are desperately wanting,” Pineda explained.

The Free Press envisions adding reporters to the staff and expanding local coverage into King William and Caroline counties.

“I live in downtown Fredericksburg. I hear that train whistle twice a day when I wake up and when I put my kid to bed,” LoMonaco said. “So I think that we have a diverse skillset as a news team that right out of the gate here we can fill some voids.”

For reporter LoMonaco, he couldn’t write a better tale. The Fredericksburg Free Press is a remedy for a local news desert in black and white.

“This is a small town and you run into people that you work with,” LoMonaco said. “If you’re telling their stories and if you do it the right way that is a good thing.”

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