NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Following another series of buyouts in recent weeks that drained their already gutted newsroom, the staff at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk faced another uncertainty in 2020: where would they go after the sale of their longtime office in downtown Norfolk?
Would it be a central location in Hampton Roads such as Norfolk or their printing press location on Greenwich Road in Virginia Beach?
Or would they move across the notoriously congested Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel to Newport News, away from the three largest cities in their coverage area: Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Norfolk. Virginia Beach, the largest city in Virginia, is roughly 40 minutes away barring traffic.
On Tuesday, the staff learned what many saw as the worst case scenario: they were moving to Newport News to the office of the Daily Press, a former rival that combined with the Pilot after owner Tribune Publishing purchased the Pilot in 2018.
Tribune announced the decision to Pilot staff on Tuesday, with Pilot military reporter Brock Vergakis breaking the news on Twitter. It’s unclear when exactly the move will take place.
“It’s a move that will undoubtedly hamper our ability to quickly respond to breaking news in the most populous cities in Virginia, @tribpub told us today @virginianpilot newsroom is moving to Newport News,” Vergakis said.
The number one issue with the decision: response times to breaking news.
The only way to get from Newport News on the Peninsula to the more populated Southside cities (Virginia Beach, Norfolk, etc.) is via bridges and tunnels. One of the two main options, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel is well-known for its routine traffic issues.
“Unlike Tribune, we asked employees what matters most to them, and overwhelmingly, journalists said they want a newsroom on the Southside,” said Pilot reporter Sara Gregory, speaking on behalf of the paper’s union, the Tidewater Media Guild. “People were concerned about our ability to cover this community and respond to breaking news. They were also concerned about longer commutes and the effect of breaking up our newsroom.”
The news drew outrage from both current and former journalists from the area, as well as readers.
Gregory says the announcement came after Pilot staff reached out to Interim Pilot Executive Editor Par Ridder and Tribune to discuss the move. She says they were ignored by management.
“Our interim general manager said he wasn’t trying to spin that this move was ‘somehow going to be better for you.’ We agree — it won’t be,” Gregory said. “He says we’re not turning our back on Virginia Beach, but this decision literally puts the headquarters of The Virginian-Pilot 40 miles away from the center of the state’s largest city. Pilot staff, through the guild, tried to engage with [Interim Pilot Executive Editor Par Ridder] and the company about our move from 150 W. Brambleton Ave. They ignored us … Ridder said he understands this is disappointing. We think that is a gross understatement.”
Gregory says there will be a “coworking” space at the Pilot’s Virginia Beach printing press, but the details are still vague.
“We were told there’d be desks there, then were told desks ‘might be an exaggeration.’ (It’s just tables.)”
The Pilot’s Norfolk headquarters on Brambleton Avenue, which opened in 1937, were sold in January to the Monument Cos. for $9.5 million. The Richmond-based developer plans to turn the four-story, 173,000-square-foot building into 181 apartments. The Pilot is leasing the space until it officially moves its newsroom.
20 journalists left the Pilot in the latest round of buyouts in early February, just months after hedge fund Alden Global Capital acquired a 32% stake in Tribune. Alden has been heavily criticized for making major cuts at several of its papers, including the Denver Post, the San Jose Mercury News and Orange County Register.
Members of the Pilot’s staff say they plan to protest at 3 p.m. Tuesday at their 150 W. Brambleton Ave. location.
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