Here at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, we’ve shifted staff countless times over the past two decades to keep up with the demands of digital and print audiences. Some beats have been combined under one reporter as our staff becomes smaller.
But one area we have maintained at full staffing is our state politics team.
Our newsroom has by far the largest and most seasoned staff in Virginia reporting on state government. Some news outlets in Virginia have one reporter dedicated to cover the General Assembly, but not all. And no other organization can claim it has eight reporters covering the legislature full time during the 45 or 60 days it convenes each January.
When I started at The Times-Dispatch 20 years ago, our state politics team was seven strong. This year? Still seven (though eight if you factor in our education reporter who spent most days of the General Assembly session covering bills related to K-12 funding and higher education).
Over the past two decades, the newspaper industry has been upended by the shift to digital, and while we still produce news the same way — reporters working their beats, editors carefully reviewing stories for flow and accuracy — the news cycle is constant and unforgiving as we publish 24 hours a day online.
When you add to those demands the fact that there are fewer journalists in Virginia holding government accountable, primarily because major print advertisers have scaled back their ad dollars, merged or gone out of business, the pressure has never been greater for those talented reporters who remain.
For reporters and their editors, it’s all about making informed choices about what to cover every day.
So why have we continued to dedicate so many resources to state government in an era of a shrinking news staff and news hole? Because there’s no coverage more important to readers than documenting how and why laws are made. It’s these laws that affect how we live — from rules governing tobacco use and alcohol sales to funding for public schools and higher education.
During the annual General Assembly session, our team works virtually around the clock covering subcommittee meetings, 7 a.m. press conferences, Capitol Square rallies and late-night budget maneuvering. We dedicate at least two full pages of the newspaper during the session to coverage of the legislative process. The past two Sunday front pages have featured exclusive wrap-ups of this session. And throughout the session, our team produced a thrice-weekly email newsletter highlighting all their work (and some behind-the-scenes details that you wouldn’t get in our regular news coverage). The email is now back to once a week, on Fridays.
This year, we were unusually busy with high-profile scandals involving Virginia’s top three statewide elected officials, but our full staffing allowed us to cover the legislature and the scandals. We’ll continue to follow the fallout for the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general as the fate of the three men is still uncertain amid calls for them to resign.
The session ended Feb. 24; the marathon is over, for this year. Legislators have returned to their districts. Our staff slept in (at least one day) and caught their breath. Reporters Michael Martz, Graham Moomaw, Patrick Wilson, Mel Leonor and Justin Mattingly, along with columnist Jeff Schapiro and veteran photographer Bob Brown, are to be commended for their incredible stamina, work ethic and professionalism. And the unsung hero is Politics Editor Andrew Cain, who might not have left his desk for a month and a half. His dedication to this news organization and journalism is truly unmatched.
Even after the session has ended, we’ll continue to be the eyes and ears on Virginia’s government and politicians. We’ll follow the people, the work they do, and how it affects you.
Next January, our team will head back down the street to Capitol Square.
They’ll sacrifice days off, anniversaries, birthdays and sleep once again, for our readers, for the state. Because democracy demands it.