One day, I’m going to write a book called “Things They Don’t Teach You in Journalism School.”
Chapter 32 will be titled “Don’t Move Your Team Into a Smaller Office Two Weeks Before a Pandemic.”
Yep, that was my brilliant idea last February. We signed a new lease, and the InsideNoVa staff moved across the parking lot of the Woodbridge office complex we’ve called home for the past five years. We had shared the previous office with the staff of a magazine the company sold two years earlier and didn’t need that much space any more. It seemed to make perfect sense.
Of course, lots of things that made sense last February seem silly today. The world has changed in ways no one could have imagined. The world of media has changed, too, of course, in ways that have been well documented.
And yet, as we enter the ninth year of publishing InsideNoVa online and in print, we remain proud of the work we have done to keep the Prince William community informed. We bought InsideNoVa.com and started the weekly paper – then called Prince William Today – in January 2013, just days after the county’s daily newspaper, the News & Messenger, was shut down. We did so because we believed the Prince William community could support a local weekly newspaper and, more importantly, that it deserved and needed strong local, countywide journalism.
Our mission has been challenged at times. Starting any business is never easy; starting a media business is even less so. Yet, with the help of a fantastic and dedicated staff – along with the support of local advertisers and, you, our readers – we have survived. And the challenges of 2020 showed, more than ever, why local journalism is so important.
While COVID-19 affects everyone in the world, it is also, at its heart, the ultimate local news story. Over 30,000 people who live in our community have now tested positive for the virus, and over 300 have died. There was hardly a nursing home or assisted-living facility in our community that didn’t have to deal with some kind of outbreak. Between March 15 and May 30, over 46,000 Prince William County residents filed for unemployment benefits. Our schools closed, and our restaurants and other businesses were forced to shut down. And those of us who could do so went home to work and quickly signed up for Zoom accounts and Google Drive access.
At InsideNoVa, we decided early on to commit our full resources to covering the impacts of the pandemic on the community. Even though virtually all our advertisers canceled their ads in late March and early April, we continued to publish. We used the space to tell stories of people right here in our communities whose lives had been turned upside down. We reported on those who were working on the front lines in hospitals, those who were sewing masks and those who were feeding the hungry. We used our web site to break news daily (sometimes hourly) about current case numbers, the governor’s mitigation plans, and efforts to help those in need.
And you responded. Our web traffic in March and April set records – doubling the levels from a year earlier. For the entire year, InsideNoVa.com had 33.6 million page views, up 58% from 2019, and averaged 716,000 unique visitors a month, up 81%. We topped 100,000 followers on Facebook and now have over 80,000 subscribers to our daily and weekly newsletters. And our weekly print paper still reaches over 22,000 households, the largest distribution of any local paper in the county.
Financially, our company benefited from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program. While we might have survived without it, the program saved us from lots of pain. It ended the sleepless nights worrying whether advertisers would pay their bills and how we would pay our employees. We also started a donation fund online, which is still available for those who want to support our journalism financially but don’t subscribe to the paper, and we thank those who have contributed.
There’s no doubt 2021 will bring more changes, although I hope the pace might slow down just a tad. But two things that won’t change are our commitment to provide you with quality local journalism, both in print and online, and our appreciation for your support. As always, don’t hesitate to let us know how we’re doing or if there’s a story we’ve missed. With any luck, you might even find us back in the office by the end of the year.
Bruce Potter is publisher of InsideNoVa and chief operating officer of its parent company, Rappahannock Media LLC. He can be reached at email@example.com.