The Demise of RVANews, and Lessons Gained

There are three concurrent themes in this post. The first theme: Richmond has been, and remains, blessed with great small businesses. Second: Running a small business is hard work. The second theme: Richmond should be proud of its alternative news (recent) past.

Let's start in the middle. Running a small business is hard work.

The easiest way to discover this is to run your own small business. The next easiest way is to be married to a small business owner.

For most of my life, Richmond has been blessed with great small businesses. I used to work for one – a small, family-operated grocery store.

No, not that one. I’m talking about Lukhard’s Market. There were several in Richmond in the mid-1980s, and I was happily slogging away at the one in Bon Air when a Ukrop’s Supermarket opened three blocks away at the then-new Stony Point Shopping Center. The small team at Lukhard’s raged against the machine, but finally faded away. I took my shelf stocking, bag packing experience down the road, and spent the better part of eight years – most of high school and college – working at various Ukrop’s stores.

During high school, I bought my first punk rock record at Plan 9 in Carytown; waited restlessly in the back of Coppola’s Deli for my friend Adam to get off work before we hit a Good Guys’ show at Going Bananas; compulsively read Throttle magazine; and bought my beer without an I.D. at an unidentified Fan grocery store.

In college, Mongrel and World of Mirth (the tiki-inspired starter store) and Exile were my gift-shopping destinations of choice; the Village Café was a perpetual hangout; I bought questionable produce from the Fan Market to go with my ramen; and my first furniture came from La Diff (when it was less expensive, and on Patterson Avenue).

My two favorite post-college jobs were slinging coffee at one of Richmond’s first actual coffee houses, World Cup, and slinging alternative flicks (on VHS tapes, no less) at Video Fan. It wasn’t long before I found myself sucked into the corporate maw.

Fast forward with me to 2008. A local online news publication called RVANews was launched at the start of the recession. It was in good company. A slate of great small businesses were struggling successfully against the head winds – Elevation (advertising), The Hodges Partnership (public relations),  Blanchard’s Coffee (er, coffee). And a host of new companies were hitting the blocks – places like Lamplighter (more coffee), Floricane (my own strategy firm), Fraser Design, One South Realty Group (er, real estate).

Today, most of those businesses are still making a go of it. But RVA News is not. Not any longer. Today, it’s co-founder Ross Catrow – don’t forget his wife Valerie started in the RVANews trenches with him, as did business partner Scott Pharr – announced the small business is closing its doors. Stopping the presses.

In a city with fewer than a dozen or so solid news outlets, the loss of RVANews is real. You could feel it on Twitter as a generation of RVA denizens had a collective, “Holy shit!” moment. There was the gnashing of teeth. But more than that there was appreciation.

For a generation of Richmonders, RVANews has been a gift. The inherent goodness of Ross and Val, and the very community focused mission that drove their team, ensured that the gift almost always felt genuine. There was a real joy, and a sense of curiosity, behind RVANews.

Watching RVANews evolve its quirky sensibility, develop a voice, and deepen its connection to a new community of Richmonders was a genuine pleasure. Getting to know Ross and understand his own complex passions has been personally inspiring. The mere fact that I could watch someone else launch and build my dream job without feeling a stitch of envy tells you something about Ross Catrow.

Let’s backtrack again. Why should Richmond be so proud of its alternative news (recent) past? Because it broke the mold.

It was back in 2007 that some buzz started to be generated around town about the power of micro-blogging, or community news blogs. John Murden deserves so much of the credit – not just for Church Hill People’s News, but for his willingness to bike across town in the summer heat to help others set up sites, or just talk shop.

One of those summer nights found me, Murden, Ross Catrow and Scott Pharr (then of RVA Blogs, the aggregator that set our small worlds on fire), Jonah Holland (Near West End News), and a few others gathered above Uptown Copy to dream of a day when community news blogs ate daily newspapers for lunch.

Little did we know how quickly lunch would be served. Right there on the griddle, RVANews was born.

Rather than recount the story in relentless detail here, I’ll let the rest of Richmond’s media lay it out for us.

I don’t know how Valerie or Susan would have edited this post for clarity (not to mention fact checking my ass), but it felt important to put out a same-day reminder of a few important things that I still believe about this town:

  • We make it hard for entrepreneurs and small business owners to succeed in this town. There are not enough support systems to help entrepreneurs build solid business game plans, scale their successes, and learn to grow.
  • Despite that, we are rich with great entrepreneurial talent, and many businesses that continue to thrive.
  • Build alternatives to the status quo is a secret super power of Richmond. We should embrace that power.
  • Ross Catrow, Susan Howson and the rest of the RVANews team will move forward and do more amazing things. It’s inevitable.