As print declines, online journalism start-up thrives
by Steven Johnson, Staff Writer
Dwayne Yancey says he felt like he was living in a stately, venerable mansion with the roof caving in. So, he moved out and built a smaller structure by hand.
Along with former colleagues from the Roanoke Times, Yancey has developed Cardinal News, a daily not-for-profit site focused on parts of rural Virginia left in the news rubble as many legacy newspapers crumble to the point of irrelevancy.
“The hunger for news is out there,” says Yancey, a familiar byline in Virginia after 39 years with the Roanoke paper as a reporter, editor and author of a book on L. Douglas Wilder’s historic 1989 gubernatorial campaign.
“When we first started talking to people, we thought we would have to make the case for why we wanted to do this. It turns out people basically said, ‘You don’t need to tell us the why. We understand the why. Tell us the how.’”
The “how” has consisted of raising money, producing a quality product and getting an unexpected push from another one-time start-up called Facebook.
“We are not the newspaper,” Yancey emphasizes. “If you think of a newspaper as a department store with a lot of different departments, we are more like a specialty store, the outparcels of the mall. We’re trying to do a few things and a few things well.”
MOVING TO DIGITAL
The jump to digital came in 2021 when the owners of the Roanoke Times once again slashed the newsroom staff. Yancey and coworkers, including Luanne Rife, the paper’s awardwinning health reporter, started looking at online alternatives.
With some 1,800 newspapers shuttering since 2004, it seemed like the only viable path, though Yancey, a member of Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative, professes to be neither a businessman nor a fundraiser, except by necessity.
Facebook to the rescue.
“The week we launched — it was near the beginning — out of the blue, we get contacted by Facebook. It turns out Facebook runs a leader, revenue and accelerator program, basically a training class for online news sites on how to grow faster. I had no idea this had been going on.”
Cardinal News signed up and Yancey went through a 15-week course, taking the business courses he mostly shunned at James Madison University. The kicker: Facebook provided a $50,000 grant to use for promotional purposes.
“We started with a dozen donors,” he says. “Now, we have more than a thousand.”
With two reporters on hand, Yancey says it’s a matter of quality over quantity. Readers and viewers have gravitated toward viewing news through a national prism because of the digital revolution and the nonstop cable infotainment cycles, he says.
“But that’s missing a whole level of state and local government which is not ideological. Whether you put the road here or put the road there is not necessarily a liberal or conservative argument. But it has a tremendous bearing on people’s lives.”
That’s why coverage of the Hurley, Va., flood stands out as Cardinal News’ first major achievement. The Federal Emergency Management Agency denied aid to the Buchanan County community, where flooding and mudslides last August destroyed more than 20 homes.
Sensing a bigger story, Megan Schnabel of Cardinal News, another ex-Times staffer, spent days in Hurley, documenting lives affected by the natural disaster. The coverage has been cited as sparking a legislative bid to create an $11 million relief fund.
“Calling statewide attention to this part of Virginia that had a flood, and the fact people were still homeless from it, that was the first big story,” Yancey says.
There’s more to come, he hopes. A third reporter will join the nonprofit in July to focus on rural Virginia, and Cardinal is six months ahead of its revenue targets.
“It feels like we’re creating something,” Yancey says. “Instead of being someplace that was collapsing all around us, here we are growing and trying to figure out how to grow more.”
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