Since the birth of the internet more than a generation ago, perhaps no industry has felt such a jolt to its collective system than the news media, and as the web has grown, the news media has had to evolve with it.
That’s been especially true in the delivery of news, with outlets becoming more fluid and online publications and social media occupying more and more of the news landscape. From breaking news on Twitter to online newspapers, this transition to fast-paced, easy-to-access news has led to a stronger focus on headlines and stories designed to quickly pull in new readers, often without the breadth and depth of coverage that is so important. As a result, some issues that aren’t as high profile don’t always receive the coverage they deserve.
Filling that void in the commonwealth is a news outlet that happens to be a nonprofit, giving it greater latitude to worry less about the number of eyeballs it attracts and more about the quality of coverage of important issues.
The Virginia Mercury prides itself on providing independent, fact-based news that focuses primarily on state government and public policy. The outlet is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) organization that is supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. It is one of 23 outlets across the country run by States Newsroom, which hopes to expand its reach to 40 states in the near future.
The Virginia Mercury launched in 2018 with the intention of offering a new perspective and providing accurate reporting on various state policy. The Mercury covers a range of topics, especially those considered longstanding policy structures like the state mental health system, State Corporation Commission, Freedom of Information Act issues, voting laws, K-12 education system and various other points of interest across the commonwealth.
“We’re often analyzing dense policy things that are useful to people, but where there isn’t necessarily a clear partisan issue,” said Robert Zullo, editor in chief of the Virginia Mercury.
The focus on major issues without a partisan spin is what the publication has come to be known for, as its goal continues to be to educate the public and provide explanatory journalism to Virginians across the political spectrum. It also has received praise from many prominent figures from different sides of the aisle including former Gov. George Allen and U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, to name a few.
Because the Virginia Mercury is a nonprofit, it operates through the contributions of its donors and readers. While such limited income sources may restrict its resources and limit the amount of coverage it can provide, its status gives it a broader range of flexibility in what it chooses to cover, Zullo said.
“I saw the revenue model for newspapers fail more every year while I was in the business, and I finally decided that nonprofit news is the way to go,” Zullo said. “Once journalism was the only product left to sell, [newspapers] were very slow to realize that, but I think people will support journalism as a public good.”
As the industry continues to change and pivot, experimentation with the delivery of news continues to be a challenge across the board. Nonprofits like the Virginia Mercury are on the rise, especially for local news coverage. Some also see the rise of the “influencer” personalities as competing against traditional reporters and news anchors, a consequence that poses another array of challenges. Social media also has made breaking news and access to information all the more readily available. Because of this, the media now works even harder to innovate and deliver its content in a timely yet accurate way.
“You’re seeing a lot of experimentation; we’ve been around for almost four years, and when you look across the country you see a lot of similar startups with a lot of interest in the nonprofit model,” Zullo said. “It’s an uncertain time for journalism, but also an exciting time.”
The Virginia Mercury presses on, delivering its education-focused news with no intention of slowing down in 2022, even without selling advertising or accruing subscription revenue. It relies on reader donations and plans to grow its small operation in the coming years – it hopes to add another reporter this year along with hiring an assistant editor in order to grow and plan strategically.
“We’re never going to be a 30- to 40-person newsroom, but 10 would be a good size if we could get there over the next four to five years,” Zullo said.
For now, the five-reporter team provides a consistent and reliable product for Virginia. In a time when public trust continues to be a concern for news outlets, the Virginia Mercury is among the nonprofits providing solid sources of information and truth. As the industry navigates its changing position in society, some industry observers predict that nonprofit news organizations will play a key part in this evolution.
To learn more about Virginia Mercury please visit their webpage here. For current updates follow them on Facebook and Twitter or subscribe to them on Apple News. To make a donation and provide support follow the link here.