The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This journalist was her paper’s only full-time reporter — until they fired her. Her small town wonders: Now what?

Ashley Spinks, former managing editor of the Floyd Press in rural Virginia, interviews a local resident before she was fired by the newspaper’s corporate owners last week. (Mallory Noe-Payne/WVTF)

During her time working for the Floyd Press, Ashley Spinks basically was the Floyd Press.

As managing editor of the weekly newspaper covering a rural community in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, Spinks took photos of the first day of school, laid out the newspaper and edited freelance pieces. She attended Floyd town council meetings, covered Confederate monument debates, did award-winning reporting on the water system problems and wrote news-you-can-use pieces, like the one helpfully headlined “Don’t feed the bears!”

Spinks did it all because she had to. She was the newspaper’s only full-time journalist — until last week, when the newspaper’s corporate owners fired her.

The reason given, according to Spinks, was that she had participated in a local public radio interview about cuts made to the paper by Lee Enterprises and gave “disparaging comments” about the company. A spokesman for Lee Enterprises, which bought the Floyd Press in March, told The Washington Post the company “has no comment at this time.”

Her firing, leaving the paper virtually staff-less, seemed so unbelievable that the news went viral in media circles after she tweeted about it. But the quandary Spinks found herself in as the lone reporter at a community newspaper is not unusual. Across the country, places like Floyd County — which boasts one stoplight and fewer than 16,000 residents — have seen their community papers bleed staff, get gobbled up by large corporations or close down altogether. Nearly 6,000 journalism jobs and 300 newspapers have vanished since 2018, according to a University of North Carolina study, with even more outlets disappearing since the pandemic-related recession.

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“At the core, what people are really responding to is just being so concerned about the larger picture — how can they support community, small-town, rural journalists in general,” said Spinks. “Maybe people will take a hard look at what our local paper is bringing to our community and to the local discourse, and do we think that’s a worthy contribution. Now that we know how dire the situation is, how can we solve it?”

Spinks, who is 26, was paid $36,000 a year. She was hired in July 2019 to replace a previous managing editor who also served as the lone full-time staff writer.

The Floyd Press is one of the oldest businesses in the county seat, Floyd, having changed hands several times since its founding 129 years ago, including the several decades that Peter and Ruth Hallman ran the newspaper. (“Ashley has kept it alive, tweeted their son, Randy Hallman. “I’m having a terrible time processing this news.”)

Lee Enterprises purchased the Floyd Press, along with 48 other weekly and 30 daily newspapers such as the Richmond Times-Dispatch from BH Media Group, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, in a $140 million cash deal in March. At the time, Lee Enterprises said it expected the revenue from the newly acquired papers would make it easier for it to pay down its $400 million debt, though it said it would also seek “cost synergies” — corporate-speak for cutting overhead and jobs.

Lee Enterprises now owns publications in 77 media markets. In June, hedge fund firm Alden Capital — with its own troubling reputation of gutting newspapers and selling off their real estate holdings — acquired 7.1 percent of Lee Enterprises.

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On a granular level, Spinks saw a change: Her freelance budget was dramatically scaled back, forcing her to fill the newspaper with articles from sister newspapers about other communities.

“I’m still only one person, and I can only write so many stories in a week and go to so many meetings,” Spinks said. “People in Floyd aren’t interested in what’s happening in Richmond, but it was by necessity to fill pages and make sure I had a product to print.”

Over the summer, Lee began making cuts to local copy desks, alerting employees it would move jobs to a centralized hub. And like other media companies, Lee announced furloughs and executive pay-cuts at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Spinks was furloughed the week of high school graduation — a ritual that is reliably a big story for small-town papers. “When your job is to serve the entire community, and seniors graduate once, on a particular day, and there is no reporter there and it’s not in the paper the next week? That’s a big problem,” she said. It caused an uproar.

Spinks, an energetic reporter who gushes about the charm of Floyd, shared her experiences with Virginia Public Radio station WVTF. A few days later, Spinks was fired as she put the finishing touches on that week’s edition.

Her old job seems to now be available; there’s a listing for a Floyd Press newsroom editor position. This week’s newspaper, the first without a full-time journalist, included articles written by freelancers about a retiring county administrator and a local court case and photos submitted by community members.

But some local leaders see Spinks’s firing as a sign of further disinvestment in the newspaper. Floyd Mayor Will Griffin worries about the fate of the newspaper “as the primary source of relaying information on what’s happening in our government,” especially as people to turn unvetted social media posts for information.

“If we don’t have that local source of true and reliable news produced by someone with boots on the ground in our community . . . the level of misinformation is just going to skyrocket,” he says.

A majority of rural Americans say their communities are not depicted in news media, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. When Floyd does receive attention from local TV stations or outside publications, it’s often by way of caricature, Griffin says. The town became a counterculture destination in the 1960s and ’70s, with an influx of “back-to-earthers” who have since mixed in with the existing farming population.

“We’ve come to expect if they’re going to talk about Floyd, they’re just going to talk about hippies and hillbillies,” Griffin says. “The absence of the paper that reported on who we really are and what we stood for, I don’t know if that can be replaced.”

Spinks is still passionate about local journalism and rural communities deserving good quality reporting. Her story has gotten the attention of ProPublica, which has offered to pay her to continue reporting on the local water system to see if there are problems to uncover.

As for a long-term future in journalism — well, a reporter needs to make a living wage with stable hours. “Passion,” she says, “can only take you so far.”