Another year, another shuttered newspaper, in this case one that helped keep the largest county in the Greater Richmond region informed for nearly three decades.
Co-owner Carol McCracken confirmed earlier this week that the Chesterfield Observer was planning to tell readers and advertisers in the Jan. 25 issue that the paper would be publishing its last print issue on Feb.1. The outlet has covered news, business, sports, culture and opinion in Chesterfield County for the past 27 years.
At its height, the Observer had a circulation of over 70,000 and billed itself as “the largest weekly newspaper in Central Virginia and Chesterfield’s only county-wide devoted news source.” In 2019, the Virginia Press Association deemed it the best large weekly newspaper in the state after it took home the grand sweepstakes prize for overall excellence, garnering 24 news awards.
The paper issued an announcement today noting that in 2020, “after showing a better than average financial performance in 2018 and 2019,” the Observer suffered a significant decline in advertising revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It states that ownership took several steps to cut costs and infuse funds into the company through state and federal assistance,
business loans and corporate grants, which allowed them to keep staff and continue publishing through the pandemic. The paper employs “six full-time staff and three part-time staff in management, accounting, advertising sales, creative services, distribution and editorial content.”
Further it explains that “supply-chain stresses,” production cost increases, and continued loss of revenue for its weekly distribution of more than 60,000 print issues -which accounted for the bulk of its revenue- meant the Observer could never fully recover to pre-pandemic levels. The announcement concludes by stating that the owners “still believe in the value and power of local media as a vital resource for communities like Chesterfield County.”
Small staff, important stories
Several former employees expressed sadness and regret that another local journalism institution was being lost.
“For the readers, it was always our hope that the paper made a massive, sprawling suburb feel more like a community,” said former staff reporter Rich Griset, also a longtime contributor for Style Weekly. “We sat through hundreds of boring public meetings so that our readers didn’t have to.”
Griset, who freelanced for the paper since 2011 and was a staff reporter from 2015 to 2020, pointed to the work of former editor Scott Bass (“Over the years, he slowly built up the staff and made changes for the better. … He was also in charge for the paper’s redesign and a much improved website”) and former senior writer Jim McConnell, known for his dogged reporting on the county government. He added that former managing editor Tamurlaine Melby “had a big hand in pushing us all to be better, and directly oversaw special issues and the revamped website.”
In terms of important stories, Griset cited their reporting on the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the county, among many other topics. “We wrote again and again about the need for public transit in the county until it became a reality,” he said. “And we reported on how the county was changing from a sleepy bedroom community to one that’s begun to look more and more like the city it’s a suburb of.”
The Chesterfield Observer was founded by Greg Pearson in September 1995 and began as a monthly with a distributed circulation of 7,000 issues. It became a weekly in 2006 and, five years later, purchased its current office building in Brandermill. Over the next two years, it launched Chesterfield Monthly and Henrico Monthly, both glossy magazines that were short-lived.
Pearson, who could not be reached for this story, sold the paper in 2014 to Frank and Carol McCracken. The former served as publisher and the latter was a longtime employee who worked in sales, becoming its advertising director and vice-president of sales. The McCrackens did not return a call on Monday regarding why the paper was closing, noting that not everyone had been informed, though some freelancers had begun being notified.
The final two editors at the Observer were both former Style Weekly employees: Bass, who became editor in 2013, and Jack Cooksey, who took over the job in 2021. Style reached out to Cooksey and Bass, who both declined to comment. The paper’s website states that the Observer, which is distributed by a private family company, begins to go out on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
“It’s incredibly sad to lose the Observer,” added Griset. “It aimed to shine a light on local government, explore Chesterfield’s curious corners and celebrate the people and places that made the county unique. The loss of the paper means public meetings unattended, elected officials going unchecked and public records gathering dust.”
Correction: The final issue will be on Feb. 1, not this week.