One humid evening last week the managing editor of The Virginian-Pilot, the dominant morning newspaper in southeast Virginia, allowed himself a quiet gloat.
The newspaper's city hall reporter had learned that a planned local Harborplace had attracted its first major restaurant.
This was big news in a once-seamy Navy town struggling to rejuvenate its downtown, and when it appeared the next morning on the Pilot's front page--"A seafood eatery has reservation at The Waterside" -- it was enough of a scoop to get any editor's juices flowing.
It was also one of the last scoops Managing Editor William G. Connolly will enjoy at the expense of Norfolk's evening newspaper, The Ledger-Star. At the end of the month, the two newspapers will merge their reporting and editing staffs, ending a once-fierce rivalry while contributing to a growing national trend.
"I doubt the old-timey kind of competition, one paper against another, is of any consequence any longer," said Perry Morgan, publisher of the Norfolk newspapers, expressing a view that Front Page-era reporters and some modern journalists might regard as heresy. "Our owner has said the rule should be, not 'Get it first,' but 'First, get it right.' . . . I don't think competition was ever conducive to good journalism."
That proposition soon will be tested in Norfolk, where Landmark Communications Inc., the owner of both the only morning and the only evening newspaper, will soon publish both dailies with a single news staff.
Serving Norfolk and neighboring Virginia Beach, the state's two largest cities, The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star will appear with separate mastheads, separate editorials and separate features -- one carrying Dear Abby, for instance, and the other, Ann Landers -- but in many cases they will carry the same news from the same city hall reporter.
During the last decade, more than 50 pairs of newspapers, including eight this year, have merged their staffs as Norfolk will do at the end of this month, according to the American Newspaper Publishers Association. Although the mergers in such cities as Boston, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Roanoke and Newport News have attracted less notice than the death of The Washington Star or the joint operating agreements of separately owned newspapers, they have raised similar questions about the role and power of the press as the number of news-gathering perspectives is reduced.
The mergers also have raised questions about how a newspaper can attract readers when its competition has shifted from other newspapers to what marketing experts call "leisure-time activities" such as camping and home video games.
Landmark, a television and publishing company with $100 million in sales in 1980, decided after a year of internal debate and reader surveys that its newspapers should cover the kind of community news that some suburban weeklies provide and offer useful information as well: when the Silver Queen corn will be ripe, as Morgan said, or how many weeks a street will be closed for construction. To provide that extra coverage, Morgan said, the newspapers need the extra staff who will be freed by the merger.
"The essence of the idea is this question: Should we compete against ourselves or should we compete against our real competitors?" Morgan said. "That list of competitors . . . ranges from television to jogging to specialty publications to hobby magazines to going to the movies -- to any number of things that readers could prefer to do rather than read a newspaper."
Many Norfolk reporters, working under a Newspaper Guild contract that expired four years ago, said they fear Landmark will take advantage of the merger to cut personnel and costs. Company officials said they are not merging staffs to save money, but -- with the Ledger-Star's circulation declining and the Virginian-Pilot's not keeping pace with Tidewater's rapid growth -- they acknowledge economics are a factor.
"We do not believe it is prudent economically to add staff to improve the newspaper," Morgan said, "so we chose to combine staff to avoid the duplication of effort and thereby generate more news."
Morgan said only the remaining 20,000 two-newspaper subscribers may be disappointed, since they will read some identical stories in their morning and afternoon editions. But those double subscribers have no financial value for the company, Executive Editor Frank Caperton acknowledged, because advertisers are content to reach each household just once a day.
"The only thing I can say with certainty is that the public does not care about the merger," said William H. Wood, the newspapers' ombudsman. "The only complaints we've received are about dropping Parade magazine in October, a development unrelated to the merger ."
In fact, some community leaders welcome the merger, either because of the accompanying promise of more local news or because they will have fewer reporters to handle. "With one reporter, it may come out wrong," said J. Henry McCoy Jr., until recently the mayor of Virginia Beach. "But at least it will come out the same way and people won't be so confused."
Other leaders, however, such as Henry E. Howell Jr., former Virginia lieutenant governor and now a Norfolk lawyer, share the view of many Norfolk reporters, who say competition has inspired journalists more than most readers realize. "You have two distinct reporters each trying to get the news first, and that increases their digging and their sensitivity to news breaks," Howell said. "That's going to be blunted, and the community will suffer."
"There's no guarantee that the reporter you send to a council meeting won't be drunk or corrupt or lazy or asleep, or all of the above," Connolly acknowledged, adding that inaccurate articles become more dangerous with only one reporter at the meeting. But Connolly, who will be one of two managing editors of the merged staff, said top-notch reporters and increasingly vigilant editors can compensate.
E.E. Brickell, for 16 years the superintendent of schools in Virginia Beach, said he welcomes the promise of increased local coverage but mourns the increased emphasis on "useful information."
"I don't especially want the newspaper to tell me how to cook sauerkraut," he said, explaining why he canceled his Ledger-Star subscription several years ago.
Beyond his dislike of helpful household hints, Brickell's life helps explain the Ledger-Star's troubles. The 56-year-old educator grew up in Norfolk and remembers hawking extra editions on the ferry dock when John Dillinger was slain and when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia.
"My parents were unlettered and unschooled, and there were no books in my house," Brickell said, "but we took the morning paper and we took the evening paper."
Brickell now works in a modern municipal center surrounded by fields, crepe myrtle and a vast expanse of suburban town houses, where the quiet is broken only by the occasional scream of a Navy jet. During his tenure, Virginia Beach has built 24 schools and 17 school additions and has surpassed Norfolk as the most populous city in the state, with 272,900 residents. Like Brickell, most of those residents buy at most one newspaper a day.
The Ledger-Star nonetheless has hung on more tenaciously than most evening dailies. Many Navy personnel and shipyard workers still leave work early enough to appreciate an afternoon edition, and readers in the aging city of Portsmouth remain loyal to the Ledger-Star since it swallowed the old Portsmouth Star in 1962.
In addition, Landmark has worked for the last six years to make the Ledger-Star a respected and respectable newspaper, hiring new writers, allowing aggressive investigative reporting, adding a lively feature section and brightening the newspaper's appearance. Those efforts improved the Ledger-Star's statewide reputation and helped increase its paid circulation from less than 94,000 in 1976 to more than 96,000 two years later -- a small but remarkable improvement for an evening daily.
Morgan said most of the new readers switched from the morning Virginian-Pilot, however, and a similar campaign to improve it three years ago sent the Ledger-Star back into decline. Its average circulation dropped below 94,000 again during the first quarter of this year, while the Virginian-Pilot increased from about 125,000 in 1978 to more than 133,000 this year.
So the newspaper staffs will merge, with reporters assigned to cover local news "like a blanket," said Ledger-Star Managing Editor Sandra Mims Rowe, in Virginia Beach as well as Norfolk, suburban Chesapeake as well as Portsmouth. Some reporters fear a glut of "easy stories on mosquito control commission meetings," as one said, at the expense of in-depth, regional coverage, but editors said they will cover both the communities and the region.
At the same time, they acknowledge that Tidewater is unlikely to see another newspaper battle like the one that erupted last January 12.
On that day, the Ledger-Star published an article reporting that the Virginia Beach city manager had given an influential hotel developer $116,000 in water and sewer fee reductions "not granted to other hotels." The manager, George L. Hanbury, was forced to resign several weeks later because of the article, but not before the Virginian-Pilot and the tabloid Virginia Beach Beacon published articles defending Hanbury and implictly attacking the Ledger-Star's interpretation of the event.
"That's a perfect example of why you run a risk with merger," said ombudsman Wood. "You did have a totally different approach to the story, two able reporters who perceived a set of facts differently, and that was to the public's benefit."
Old-timers remember other occasions when the newspapers split, as they remember the Ledger speaking with a consistently conservative voice while the Virginian-Pilot won Pulitzer prizes for its editorials against lynching in the 1930s and against the massive resistance to integration that closed Norfolk's public schools in 1958. They are saddened by the merger, they said, but not surprised.
"The inclination is to be self-righteous, to say we need an independent afternoon newspaper," said Norfolk businessman Robert M. Stanton. "But you wouldn't want to lose the paper altogether. With all the deaths of afternoon papers, this may be the best alternative."