Talk about a risky venture. Tom Lappas was the editor of the Far West End Press and the Henrico County Leader in 2001. The papers' owner planned to move away from Richmond, and the young editor hated to see his small staff disperse. So with the assistance of investors, Lappas started the Henrico Citizen, which comes out twice a month and covers the entire county.
"I was a little naïve about the business side and the advertising," Lappas says, noting that he was barely out of college and "had never taken a business class" when the Citizen launched. But he did have strong faith in the paper's editorial mission (no "rehashed press releases," he declares), and he figured ad dollars would follow. "I'd like to think we're able to give people the deep, local content that they want."
The Citizen has a tiny staff; on the editorial side, there's Lappas, now 34, his managing editor and a part-time calendar editor. "Publishing twice a month is about all we can handle," he says, but a newly launched website (developed with the assistance of the Virginia Press Association) allows the paper to post current news and generate more ad revenue. It's a learning process, Lappas notes, but the fact that the paper is entering its 10th year is encouraging.
In the late 1990s, I worked for a group of weekly community papers in Fairfax County, where Lappas is from, and the mantra there was "local-local." Those papers ran J.V. sports results, military notes and Eagle Scout announcements, which rarely find their way into the daily papers. Lappas remembers clipping such notices out of his hometown papers, and he hopes that people do the same with the Citizen.
But hard news is equally important to Lappas; he considers education coverage one of the paper's strengths, and local government and law enforcement stories are reported regularly. The Citizen's truly countywide perspective is unusual. Even those of us who live in the county could be excused for momentarily equating Henrico with Short Pump. After all, it is our own shopping-bag-toting, 800-pound gorilla.
As a University of Richmond graduate, Lappas is plenty familiar with the West End, but he now lives in Varina, and the paper's office is in Lakeside. Both decisions were pragmatic and cost-influenced, Lappas notes, but they allow him a broad perspective on county policies, especially regarding development in the East End. "More than anything," he notes, "I've felt a little more connection."
Many community papers, as you may have noticed, have been snapped up by larger media companies. They bolster local news coverage as daily papers' staffs shrink, while offering media corporations the opportunity for greater ad revenue. A case in point is Media General's 2005 purchase of the Mechanicsville Local and the Goochland Gazette — known today as the Richmond Suburban Newspapers group, which includes the Midlothian Exchange and Powhatan Today. Lappas says some larger companies, although not Media General, have come knocking on his door.
But for now, the Citizen remains independent — an increasingly rare commodity.