(Editor’s note: This is the first-ever annual report from the Henrico Citizen and T3 Media, LLC. It’s designed to provide readers with an overview of the Citizen’s past 12 months of operations, both from the perspective of news coverage and business operations, as well as a look ahead to 2021.)
As 2020 exits – finally – there aren’t many among us who would choose willingly to relive it.
Whether directly or indirectly, COVID-19 robbed us of our sense of normality, our typical daily structures, and generally the way we were accustomed to living. For some, 2020 brought the loss of jobs, revenue and time. Students had to adapt to learning online and missing time with friends. Parents, in many cases, had to learn how to juggle working from home with parenting simultaneously – or figure out how to continue working outside of home while their children remained there. Businesses struggled, and some closed. As people became isolated from each other in quarantine, mental health issues increased. So did addiction problems.
Simultaneously, our nation reached a point of reckoning about issues of equity and social justice, spurred by the killing of George Floyd. And an already divided nation went to the polls in arguably the most contentious presidential election in our history.
Whether we’ve experienced direct loss or mental or physical anguish as the result of COVID or the frustration, anger or hurt stemming from another of this year’s thematic topics, 2020 hasn’t been the year that any of us had in mind Jan. 1.
But from challenge and hopelessness sometimes arises opportunity and hope. We’ve also seen our fair share of both this year, witnessing our planet heal itself a bit as travel and pollution slowed; families reconnect under one roof; and businesses adapt to our new realities and thrive despite many new and unexpected hurdles.
At the Henrico Citizen, 2020 has been fear, challenge, doubt, hope, success and promise all rolled into one. It’s been the most difficult year of our existence but also has forced a series of quick pivots and adaptions that quite simply have saved us – and left us incredibly optimistic about our new path forward.
The challenging news for us this year was significant. We:
• ceased publication of our twice-monthly print edition after 18 and a half years;
• suffered advertising revenue losses equivalent to about 85% of our expected revenues during a 7-month period;
• shifted our primary operations from our office setting to a work-from-home structure;
• covered a significant portion of local issues remotely because of the pandemic.
But the encouraging news was plentiful, too. We:
• turned 19;
• switched to a fully digital, daily weekday format;
• conducted our first-ever supporter financial contribution campaigns and raised more than $10,000;
• provided more than $20,000 in free advertising space to Henrico businesses and nonprofits;
• were one of three Virginia news outlets to earn a Facebook Journalism Project COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund Grant Program grant;
• were among a handful of Virginia news outlets to receive funding from the Google News Initiative’s COVID-19 Relief Fund program;
• were the only Virginia news organization among 64 outlets nationally to be selected as a new host newsroom for a Report for America reporter for two years, beginning in June 2021;
• witnessed a 210% increase in the number of unique visitors on HenricoCitizen.com when compared with 2019 (from 182,000 to 566,000);
• experienced a 191% increase in page views on HenricoCitizen.com when compared with 2019 (from 425,000 to 1.24 million);
• added more than 3,200 subscribers to our free daily weekday Henrico Newsflash email news update;
• joined the national Local Independent Online Publishers association and the Local Media Association, two industry-leading groups for publishers, through which we’ve learned about new ways to deliver our news to readers.
Here’s a deeper look at the Citizen year that was.
(Take the Citizen’s 2020 reader survey here.)
OUR COVERAGE AND PLATFORMS
There’s never been a year like 2020 in our nearly two decades of existence.
COVID. A government budget slashed by nearly $100 million at the 11th hour. The equity and social justice movement. Countywide virtual learning (and the subsequent debate and decisions about if, how and when to return to school). Evictions. A massive region-altering development proposal.
This year challenged our small staff in ways we hadn’t been challenged before, but we worked tirelessly to provide the most thorough and trustworthy coverage of each topic and others that we possibly could.
Our team is tiny – a full-time publisher/editor, a part-time managing editor and part-time online and events editor. Working from home – especially for our staff members with children – has proven doubly challenging. But switching to a fully digital format allowed us more time to report than ever before, because no staff time was needed to compile the print edition – normally a 3-4 day process.
With more time to report, the volume of our coverage increased dramatically.
The result: During 2020, we’ve published more than 2,000 individual articles and briefs on HenricoCitizen.com – an average of nearly eight every weekday. Included among those: more than 340 bylined articles from Citizen staff members, freelance journalists and Citizen interns – an average of nearly one every day this year.
More coverage necessitated expanding our free Henrico Newsflash email update – which had been distributed every Monday, Wednesday and Friday – to a daily weekday distribution schedule in the spring. Since then, more than 3,200 new subscribers have signed up to receive the Newsflash. (Sign up here; it’s a convenient, free way to stay informed.)
HENRICO NEWS MINUTE
The Henrico News Minute podcast also became a more important method of communication. Publisher Tom Lappas created the podcast last December to serve as a brief daily weekday update about one or two key stories and a look at some upcoming events. But post-pandemic, it expanded to become a 6-to-10-minute recap of the articles we had published since the last episode, as well as a look ahead to issues we’d be following each day. The podcast has been downloaded more than 38,000 times this year. Listen here or anywhere you listen to podcasts, subscribe, or just ask your smart speaker to “play Henrico News Minute podcast” anytime.
HENRICO CITIZEN APP
Thanks in part to our Facebook grant, we also launched the free Henrico Citizen app in June. We wanted to make our news more accessible to everyone – and smartphones are ubiquitous these days, meaning almost anyone in Henrico can quickly and easy receive a push notification as soon as we publish articles related to topics they select. Want to be notified every time we publish an education piece, or a calendar listing – or anything at all? The app allows users to set their own notifications so that the Citizen serves them best. Download our app on the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store.
We’ve also expanded our social media presence – posting multiple times daily on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to our combined 14,000+ followers, knowing that social media is how so many people find their news these days. Our social media channels link to our coverage and provide a way for readers to find stories they may have missed otherwise.
Our Facebook grant provided us with the opportunity to fund video coverage – something we previously have lacked the resources to offer in any meaningful way. We’ve posted a series about the impact of COVID-19 in Eastern Henrico, coverage of a social justice march, interviews with local restaurant owners about how they’ve tried to survive the pandemic, and more. View them all on our YouTube channel here.
Through our Facebook grant, we’ve also been able to expand our network of freelance journalists, and we’ve welcomed nine on board since May. They’ve written about education, evictions, land use and mental health, among and other topics.
OUR 50 MOST-READ ARTICLES OF 2020
Perhaps befitting of 2020, a year that hasn’t made sense, our most-read article was not about COVID-19 data, virtual learning, government actions or development projects. Rather, it was our report in May breaking the news locally that the Nordstrom store at Short Pump Town Center was expected to close. The article has been read more than 77,000 times – mostly within the first 12 hours after we published it online. It was shared more than 600 times on Facebook and Twitter and attracted readers nationwide and is easily our most-viewed article ever.
(Click here to view the complete list of our 50 most-read articles of 2020.)
Nearly half of our top-50 articles involved education. One involved murder hornets. A number involved COVID-19. Several involved government decisions.
Some of our most-read stories were sad ones. Just this month, we broke the news of the passing of Metro Richmond’s “Legendary Santa,” Dan Rowe, and article that quickly because our third-most viewed this year. The sudden and unexpected death of a Deep Run High School teacher and the murder of a Richmond Montessori School teacher also ranked among our most-read articles.
OUR 2020 COVERAGE
We’ve made a point to cover COVID-19 since the outset – on a nearly daily basis. We established a COVID section and created and have maintained our own original interactive graphs to track the testing encounters, cases and positivity percentages by ZIP code in the county as a resource for Henrico citizens.
We’ve worked diligently to put the data we report into proper context. This isn’t always possible, but it is our aim with each COVID piece we publish. A higher daily case count isn’t as significant if it comes as the result of three times as many tests, for example. Did the 5 new virus-related deaths reported on a particular day actually happen the previous day or a month earlier? We don’t just provide the numbers – we ask questions to provide you with the most accurate and fair presentation of what they actually mean.
The pandemic has affected our way of life, and we’ve covered a number of pandemic-elated topics as well, but we believe that fair and impartial analysis and explanation of COVID data itself is critical from a public health perspective, so that citizens are informed and can make decisions accordingly.
In 2020, we’ve made our coverage of education a top priority. From the closure of schools in March and the initial iteration of distance learning – and the challenges and successes it brought in the spring and summer – to the implementation of a new form of virtual learning this fall, the back-and-forth debate and decisions about whether students would or wouldn’t be able to return in person, and what it all means, we’ve kept readers informed with a depth and breadth of Henrico-centric coverage that isn’t available anywhere else.
Nearly half of our 50 most-read articles this year have involved education in one way or another.
We have kept parents up to speed about the various considerations the Henrico School Board has pondered, taken deeper looks at family survey results and spent hours covering, dissecting and reporting about School Board meetings, actions and their impacts.
We’ve written about how private schools were handling the pandemic, analyzed public school system enrollment data to show how the pandemic has altered those totals and provided a school-by-school look at how many students plan to return in person.
We broke the news that Henrico schools would be delaying its planned Nov. 30 return date for K-2 students whose families had selected it.
We reported about the board’s concerns about a planned Advanced Career Education center at Glen Allen High School and low academic achievement levels at the Achievable Dream Academy at Highland Springs Elementary School.
EQUITY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
In late May and during the summer, as the push for social justice swept the nation, we reported how it was impacting Henrico County, through the written word and visual coverage.
We broke the news that Henrico’s Board of Supervisors would consider implementation of a civilian review board for police, then analyzed hundreds of emails from the public and covered hours of public meetings to provide the most comprehensive look at how the public viewed the topic.
We broke the news that the Henrico Board of Supervisors was open to changing the name of the Confederate Hills Recreation Center, which it later did (to The Springs Recreation Center).
We broke the news that Henrico Police officials said they didn’t know how many of their officers were involved with supporting City of Richmond Police efforts during protests in the city – or how much money it was costing the county – and our reporting prompted the release of that information.
We wrote extensively about Freeman High School’s consideration – and ultimate adoption of – a new nickname (“Mavericks,” which replaces the Confederacy-inspired “Rebels”).
We wrote about how calls for a name change at another Henrico school were unfounded – for a surprising reason.
In 2020, we’ve reported about a number of significant government stories.
When COVID hit, we provided exhaustive coverage of what it meant for the county’s looming budget and exactly what areas Henrico’s plan to trim $99 million in expenditures would impact. We’ve continued to report about the Board of Supervisors’ actions, including
We broke the news that Henrico County had established a program to purchase food for county employees from Henrico restaurants, as a way to support them in the initial months of the pandemic.
We broke the news that Henrico would hire Eric English as its new police chief and provided insight into how he might operate.
We analyzed thousands of COVID-related complaints submitted through the Virginia Department of Health about Henrico businesses allegedly not following COVD-19 face covering and social distancing mandates, then reported about the businesses deemed the worst offenders and spoke with the owner of one of the first two businesses in Henrico temporarily shut down by the health department.
We reported that Henrico employees would be receiving pay increases after all, thanks to better-than-expected revenues during this fiscal year.
We reported about how sports tourism has helped Henrico’s bottom line – and the businesses that rely upon tourists.
We broke the news that Henrico was planning a $14-million detox and recovery center.
We took an in-depth look at the Henrico Health Department’s COVID Containment team.
Earlier this month, we broke the story of the massive planned mixed-use development in northern Henrico known as GreenCity – a $2.3-billion project that will include a 17,000-seat arena, an eco-district, retail, office buildings, residential units and more.
We broke the news that plans for the revitalization of Virginia Center Commons, which will include another arena – this one owned by Henrico County – would resume.
We reported about the official arrival of Facebook, which opened the first phase of its massive Sandston data center this summer.
Leading to the election, we explained the new voting options for Henrico citizens and compiled a voters’ guide online as an informative resource.
During the election, we provided in-depth coverage of one of the most hotly contested races nationally, the Seventh District Congressional race between Abigail Spanberger and Nick Freitas. We analyzed the polling data and results to provide context on Election night and the subsequent hours – both online and on Twitter – accurately explaining why Spanberger was headed for her ultimate narrow margin of victory.
We took an in-depth look at the issue of housing and eviction, with freelance journalist Dina Weinstein spending dozens of hours crunching numbers, spending multiple days in Henrico courtrooms, observing, listening and later talking with those involved to provide thorough perspective and put a complicated issue into context through her three-part series.
We examined how the University of Richmond restored the historic Gambles Mill eco-corridor.
Freelance journalist Robb Crocker took an in-depth look at the case of a Henrico woman who for years has sought relief from runoff at her Henrico home.
OUR EVOLVING BUSINESS MODEL
For years, we’d contemplated moving to a digital-only format and abandoning the twice-monthly print edition that had been our staple since its first issue Sept. 20, 2001. Not because we no longer believed in print, but simply because of the resources and overhead costs necessary to publish a meaningful print edition – resources that candidly we no longer could afford (both from a financial and time-required standpoint).
With a staff of three people on the news side (two of whom are in part-time roles), we face severe limitations. We can’t be everywhere. We can’t cover everything. Thoughtful, fair coverage with proper perspective takes times, research and resources. Those are in very short demand for us.
When COVID struck, we lost almost all of our advertisers within a period of weeks. There was no choice to be made – the print publication died.
But then, a series of fortunate events took place. Forced to make our first proactive, public appeal for financial support from readers, we found that many of you responded – and we were humbled and grateful by your contributions, which have totaled more than $10,000 and which helped us survive.
Through a program we created in the spring, donations over a certain amount automatically triggered free advertising for a local nonprofit of the donor’s choice. We have been able to assist dozens of nonprofits as a result during the past eight months. This program continues, offering free advertising for the nonprofit of a donor’s choice with any donation to the Citizen of $100 or more. It’s our way of paying forward your generosity during a difficult time for all of us.
In May, our application for emergency funding through the Facebook Journalism Project earned a grant of more than $34,000. We were one of only three Virginia news organizations and 144 nationally to receive money from the company’s COVID-19 Relief Fund, and it carried us through the summer and early fall, allowing us not only to continue but to expand our coverage, through reports from several freelance journalists, photojournalists and videographers.
In June, we learned that we’d received $5,000 in funding from the Google News Initiative, which assisted with additional coverage.
And earlier this month, we were thrilled to learn that we were the only new host newsroom from Virginia (among 64 selected nationally) to become part of Report for America, a public service project that places full-time journalists in newsrooms nationwide, and in Guam and Puerto Rico, for two-year periods to cover underreported topics. RFA will fund half of our new reporter’s salary during his or her first year with us and 25% the second year. We’ll supply the rest, in part through fundraising efforts.
Our reporter will begin in June and will cover education in Henrico through the lenses of race, geography, equity and finance, among others. This is our opportunity to shine an even brighter light on education and all the impacts it makes – or doesn’t – in communities throughout Henrico, and we couldn’t be more excited to get started.
Our Facebook grant also allowed us a greater opportunity to expand the range of voices included in our coverage as a way to better reflect the diverse nature of the community we cover. Of the nine freelance journalists, interns and videographers whose work has appeared on HenricoCitizen.com since the pandemic began, three are Black, as is the social media marketing project manager we hired to help better share our message across Facebook in a variety of ways. To be clear, we didn’t hire these professionals simply because they are Black – we hired them because we believed their combination of talent, knowledge and experience in their crafts would help elevate our coverage and outreach in ways we couldn’t alone, and we’re proud of the results.
Four of the nine (as well as our two part-time employees) are women. Our overall team of staffers and freelancers spans more than five generations in age, with a wealth of varied backgrounds. We’ve been excited to provide each with opportunities to contribute to our mission – to provide trustworthy, fair, meaningful coverage of Henrico for Henrico.
Pre-pandemic, the Citizen offered a number of advertising packages that included print, online and email exposure. Most advertisers were primarily print-based. Once the pandemic began, the elimination of our flagship product – coupled with the needs of most advertisers to reduce or eliminate their advertising budgets – caused us to shift to a fully digital mode.
In late summer, we unveiled our new media kit, complete with a variety of exposure forms, including online, email, podcast, social media, sponsored content and more. We partnered with Broadstreet, an online advertising management firm that specializes in working with digital publications like ours, to overhaul our advertising platform on HenricoCitizen.com, through which we now offer dozens of unique styles and a comprehensive statistical reporting program for all advertisers.
The new year will be our first full year as a fully digital, daily weekday news organization. We’ve learned much these past nine months about what’s possible in our new approach. Giving up our print edition was a difficult decision but also an easy one – we had no choice. Without advertising revenue, there could be no physical product.
But the shift is one we’d considered for several years anyway. And jumping directly into it allowed us to increase our coverage at a time when our community needed it the most. We’ve proven that the demand is there for daily, trustworthy news from Henrico County – the explosion of page views, our thousands of new email subscribers, our expanding group of podcast listeners and our growing social media following is evidence of that. People still care about what’s happening where they live. It’s a basic truth.
But industry-wide, advertising revenues already were down before the pandemic. It has made bad times even worse. We no longer can rely on advertising dollars solely to fund our work.
To survive – and thrive – will require a combination of elements. The Citizen always has been free for everyone to read, and we desperately want it to remain that way. Local news is important. An educated, informed citizenry makes our entire community better, and we’re proud to play a role in that.
We still plan to actively seek out, and work with, local and regional businesses to help share their messages with our 60,000+ monthly readers (learn more here), and we’ll also continue to run some programmatic ads from national advertisers as a way to generate residual income from our coverage.
But we will invite contributions from readers, foundations, businesses and anyone else who values the importance of the local, independent, trustworthy and fair news coverage of Henrico County we provide.
For additional sources of revenue, we will rely upon partnerships with Facebook (through its Instant Articles platform) and other news aggregator sites that want to use our coverage.
We’re also planning a new initiative to involve readers and supporters of the Citizen – while helping to amplify voices of Henricoans from all corners of the county and all demographic backgrounds. Stay tuned for details in the coming weeks.
TO OUR READERS, ADVERTISERS AND SUPPORTERS
The challenges we’ve faced along with our community in 2020 have been significant and at times overwhelming. We weren’t sure we’d make it through the year. But thanks in large part to you, we did. We are ever grateful for the readership, financial support and advertising support from our readers, clients and supporters. Thank you. Without your involvement, this year would have ended much differently for us.
With it, we are excited about 2021 and the first full year of our new format.
Contact us anytime at email@example.com to share thoughts, news, questions, concerns or praise.
Contact Publisher/Editor Tom Lappas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Managing Editor Patty Kruszewski at email@example.com.
Contact Online and Events Editor Sarah Story at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Business Development Manager Helen Row at email@example.com.
From our family to yours, all the best for a happy and healthy 2021!
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