How this two-woman weekly is covering the coronavirus

“I wanted to have it written down somewhere so in 100 years people in Greene can see how we reacted to this.”

April 13, 2020

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As the editor of a weekly newspaper in central Virginia, Terry Beigie isn’t usually in the business of breaking news.

“Being a weekly and being important in a global pandemic don’t normally go hand-in-hand,” she told Poynter in an email. “The stuff we usually cover — school sports, graduations, etc. — they’re all closed.”

But people in the central Virginia county not far from Charlottesville are living through the pandemic just like the rest of the world, and that includes helping their neighbors through it all, just like they always do

“And I wanted to have it written down somewhere so in 100 years people in Greene can see how we reacted to this,” said Beigie, editor of the Greene County Record.

That matters, because in many places, weekly papers are the only news left. In her study of news deserts around the U.S., Penny Muse Abernathy reported for the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media that “half of the 3,143 counties in the country now have only one newspaper, usually a small weekly, attempting to cover its various communities.”

“The Greene County Record is the only newspaper the county of Greene has ever had dedicated only to it,” Beigie said.

Related: As coronavirus continued to spread across the U.S., weekly newspapers mobilize to support their communities

That hasn’t changed in more than 100 years, but the county itself is changing, she said, inching away from agricultural to suburban.

“Half of the county is still very, very agricultural along the mountains and doesn’t have access to broadband (sometimes any internet at all) and the other half is more suburban neighborhoods and access to broadband.”

So print and online both matter there.

Beigie became the editor in 2018, and her only other colleague, Kathleen Borrelli, started at the end of last year.

Beigie’s busy training her, plus updating the Record’s Facebook and Twitter accounts when new coronavirus numbers are released or when the governor holds a press conference, writing stories, laying out the paper, updating social and sending push alerts.

“Then we write stuff about how Greene is reacting to the crisis directly each week,” Beigie said. “With just two of us and pages getting tighter because of less advertising, we are focusing on certain areas each week.”

That includes how neighbors are helping each other, business, education, agriculture, churches, the local wedding industry and broadband access.

“We dedicated a page to letters from teachers to their students, too,” Beigie said. “We’re running the spring senior athletes’ photos throughout the weeks, too, since there was no senior night or spring season at all and we always cover that.”

No other media really covers Greene County, Beigie said, unless there’s a big story.

“We’re quite on our own.”

Related: The coronavirus is the story of our lifetime. Here are the resources, training and funding to help your newsroom tell it.

They’re not alone, though, in being part of the furloughs facing much of the industry. The Record is owned by Lee Enterprises, which recently announced pay cuts and furloughs to its newsrooms around the country.

“The community has learned about the furloughs and they’ve not been happy about it,” Beigie said. “Several new and returning subscribers have called in the past two weeks and no one is canceling. To me, that’s huge. I’ve gotten notes on Facebook Messenger just saying they value us. It means so much to hear it.”

In the last month, being the only newspaper for Greene County has been exhausting, but Beigie said she wouldn’t trade it for anything else. She hears so many positive things from her community that it makes her cry daily, she said.

“It might be the lack of sleep, but honestly I’m pretty sure it’s just feeling valued.”

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org and writes a weekly newsletter on the transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can subscribe here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare. 

This daily roundup of coverage by local news and resources for them is made possible with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Correction: One reference in this story put Greene County in the wrong part of the state. We apologize for the error. It’s been corrected.