Small towns are rarely in the news—”when it does happen, it’s often by way of caricature.”

From a Washington Post story by Elahe Izadi headlined “This journalist did it all, until she was silenced”:

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. . . .

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. . . .

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. . . .

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.

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.”

Elahe Izadi currently writes about media for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2014 as a general assignment, and has covered pop culture, politics, race and local news

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