This week we talked with Fluvanna Review editor, Christina Dimeo.
Dimeo talks with us about running a paper in Fluvanna, how her team and reporting helped residents make sense out of a pesky road situation, what she thinks a community is missing when a paper isn’t around and her plans for the future, which will, sadly, see her leaving the Review in August to pursue First Amendment law.
Please introduce yourself.
I fell into journalism in an unlikely way. After two years of teaching middle school, I became a stay-at-home mom. I read my Fluvanna Review religiously, and when the humor columnist moved away I decided to throw my hat in the ring as a replacement. I figured I could write funny stories about my kids.
The publisher and then-editor, Carlos Santos, told me he was letting the humor column go, but asked if I wanted to be a reporter. I turned him down. I didn’t know anything about journalism and figured there was no way I could make it work with three young kids.
So I was as surprised as anyone when I accepted his subsequent offer months later, in February 2013, to start covering the Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors. Though I only promised two stories a week, I quickly doubled that and, at my peak, wrote up to eight stories a week. Reporting fascinated me.
In August 2016 Carlos retired from the editor position, though he continues as the Fluvanna Review publisher, and hired me as his replacement. I’ve been editor for two and a half years now, and it’s kept me busy.
As editor I determine what stories we cover, manage reporters, field community inquiries, and run our website. I sit on a county advisory council, am active in a Fluvanna leadership group, and attend as many county events as possible. I still cover the Board of Supervisors and share the politics beat with one of my reporters.
Tell us about Fluvanna County. What’s the county like and what’s it like editing a newspaper there?
Fluvanna County is unusual in that almost half of its population of 26,000 lives in a massive subdivision called Lake Monticello. As Lake Monticello started booming, the rural county’s growth skyrocketed. At one point it was the fastest-growing county in Virginia. But now that Lake Monticello is essentially built out, growth has slowed and occasionally stopped.
Given that so much of the growth was purely residential, Fluvanna lacks a wealth of big businesses to help shoulder the tax burden. The influx of new residents required services, such as schools, law enforcement, and fire and rescue, but without a solid business base, residents pay a disproportionate amount for these services through real estate taxes.
County government is actively trying to shift this dynamic by investing in infrastructure so that big businesses can set up shop in Fluvanna and help to ease this disparity. In the meantime, of course, residents are financing that infrastructure.
Running a newspaper in Fluvanna is time consuming, rewarding and instructive. I’ve forged many meaningful relationships and have pride in the quality of the product that we place before our readers week after week. I believe the Fluvanna Review is one of the best weekly newspapers in the state.
What’s one of the more rewarding things your job affords you and your team?
Getting to know folks all over Fluvanna is definitely the most rewarding part of the job. We talk with elected officials, law enforcement, first responders, social workers, county staff, educators, artists, athletes and volunteers. Everyone has a different perspective and a lot to share with the Fluvanna community.
I’m struck by how passionate people are for the causes they have chosen to champion. Whether they’re sitting through hours of meetings, donating their weekend relaxation time, or cheerfully giving their own money, people here work to make Fluvanna a better place. We’re in good hands.
What’s one story you and your team have worked on that you believe made a deep impact in the community?
A simple story about residents whose roads weren’t plowed in the winter snowballed into a year-long series following the plight of people who lived on private roads that hadn’t been turned over to the state. Developers building neighborhoods in Fluvanna went bankrupt during the Great Recession, leaving behind roads that weren’t complete or hadn’t been built to Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) standards.
Many of these residents bought their homes with no understanding that their roads weren’t public.
In the short term, this meant that no one plowed their streets when snow fell, causing inconvenience and even danger when roads weren’t passable for ambulances. It also meant that school buses couldn’t drive on the roads, which led to clusters of children and cars at busy subdivision entrances.
But more insidious was the reality that the private roads were effectively abandoned. No one was maintaining them. As the roads crumbled into disrepair, residents realized that no one was going to help them – not VDOT, because the roads were private; not the county, because taxpayers were not responsible; and not the developers, who were long gone.
Residents faced the very real possibility of having to pay for the upkeep of their own roads – a cost that could easily reach into the millions. I talked to lawyers, county planning and zoning staff, residents, VDOT representatives, and developers to follow the story and try to ascertain who was responsible for fixing the roads so that they could be turned over to the state.
The publicity the Fluvanna Review lent this story forced county officials to take action. Subsequent developers, or those who took over developments after the initial developers went bankrupt, were denying responsibility for the roads. Ultimately, however, the county barred these subsequent developers from building any new homes in the subdivisions until the roads were turned over to the state.
With their investments at risk, the subsequent developers got to work. The roads are now public. School buses can use them, snow plows visit, ambulances have access – but most importantly, the residents no longer face the looming specter of million-dollar debt.
To you, what’s a county without a newspaper?
A county without a newspaper is a scary place to live. Journalists bring information to light that would otherwise remain hidden. We are often the only ones with the time or resources to ferret out the truth – and those resources are rapidly dwindling.
Journalists hold powerful interests accountable and act as watchdogs over processes that would otherwise unfold without public oversight.
A county without a newspaper has only two things: public relations materials, which rarely divulge unfavorable news and, by definition, spin the truth; and social media, where rumors, misinformation and mob mentality swirl unchecked.
The press is not the enemy of the people. Yes, we are for the people, but we are more than that. We ARE the people. We are the public’s eyes and ears.
“The press is not the enemy of the people. Yes, we are for the people, but we are more than that. We ARE the people. We are the public’s eyes and ears.”
How many people have time in their busy lives to attend zoning meetings? Who sits in on budget deliberations? How many residents, if they even felt inclined to ask, could get straight answers from people in power about controversial hirings and firings, or have the resources to dig deeper if something seems off?
Journalists do these things. We sit through meetings, examine court filings and ask uncomfortable questions because we represent the residents of our county. We publish what we find so that others have knowledge.
When a county supervisor answers my questions, he is not speaking to Christina Dimeo. He is speaking to the residents of Fluvanna County, and he knows it. When newspapers shut their doors, powerful interests do not suffer. It is the people who lose.
Are you happy that you ended up where you did? Could you see yourself doing anything else at this point?
When I consider the accidental way I ended up in journalism, I’m struck by how much of our lives are shaped by tiny moments in time. What if I hadn’t, on a whim, pulled into the Fluvanna Review parking lot to ask about that humor columnist position?
I’m glad I did, because it led me to a fulfilling career in local journalism. During my heyday as a reporter, I had the freedom to pursue any lead I wanted and to dig deep into whatever county machination I could get my hands on.
A chunk of my soul will always be devoted to journalism. So I have mixed feelings as I embark on a new path this August. I’m going to law school so that I can advocate more effectively for free speech, a free press, and First Amendment protections. I have no doubt that my time spent as a journalist will inform the work I do as an attorney. And this I know for sure: I’ll never stop reading the newspaper. I’m hooked.