Introducing The Year of Fear by Columbia Journalism Review & The Delacorte Review | Columbia Journalism School

Introducing The Year of Fear by Columbia Journalism Review & The Delacorte Review

Local news is in crisis, and with it, the civic and political life of the communities of the expanding news desert.

In an effort to capture the important stories of such communities and to counter the sweeping narratives of 2020 election coverage, Columbia Journalism Review and The Delacorte Review have partnered on "The Year of Fear: Four American Towns on the Way to November." 

Each week until Election Day, the reviews will co-publish a chapter from one of four American towns where newspapers have been forced to close or are struggling to stay afloat, reported by local journalists.

An excerpt from the first chapter, "The Mystery of Caroline County," is republished below.

vintage postcard reading "Bowling Green" in large letters against leafy background

Year of Fear, Chapter One: The Mystery of Caroline County, Virginia

Bowling Green, Virginia, the county seat of Caroline County, is about seventy-seven miles south of Washington DC, where Congress recently debated the impeachment of a sitting president, and forty-two miles north of the governor’s mansion in Richmond, where armed gun enthusiasts recently gathered to protest any and all attempts to limit firearm ownership.

Despite this geographic proximity, Caroline County residents appear somewhat insulated from political turmoil. It has been said that the only topics that draw a crowd here are guns, dogs, and high school football, although the Caroline Cavaliers have had some lean years, so even that is in doubt. The county’s 31,000 residents, most of them employed, underemployed, or retired, live in single-family homes within relatively quiet communities or scattered about the rolling rural landscapes. Twenty-eight percent of the population is Black, nearly five percent Hispanic or Latino, and about two-thirds white. A few residents claim ancestry from the Native American tribes that greeted Capt. John Smith and other English settlers in the early 1600s. Over the past fifty years, several gated lake communities, one golf course community, and a Disney-like subdivision called Ladysmith Village have sprung up, bumping up the population somewhat and changing some of its traditional characteristics.

But at heart Caroline County is one of the last rural areas along the Interstate 95 corridor and has yet to be overrun by apartment complexes and commercial development. In theory, more than 90 percent of the land is available for agriculture and forestry, although only 20 percent of its 549 square miles is actively farmed. Low hills and shallow valleys dot the landscape. If you go to the Visitors Center in Carmel Church, which is more of a destination for hungry travelers than a community, you can’t miss the reproduction of a thirty-three-foot prehistoric whale skeleton found twenty feet down in a local quarry in 1990, a reminder that this area was once under the sea.

Overshadowed by its more populous and prosperous neighbors, Caroline County has been in the national or international news spotlight only on rare occasions. A recent mention came after the presidential election of 2016, when it was determined that Caroline had been one of five “Pivot Counties” in Virginia. Its voters gave Barack Obama a 12-percent win over John McCain in 2008 and an eight-percent win over Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. But then they reversed course in 2016, giving Donald Trump a five-percent victory over Hillary Clinton, who won the overall vote in Virginia.

For ninety-nine years, the residents of Caroline County were served by a lively weekly newspaper, the Caroline Progress, which was family-owned and -operated for most of its existence. Staff size and page count dwindled after the paper was purchased by a Tennessee-based chain in 2007. The March 28, 2015 issue announced that it was the newspaper’s last.

How Caroline County voters will feel come the March 3 Super Tuesday Democratic Primary in Virginia, and ultimately in the presidential election in November, is, at this point, anybody’s guess. How are the residents of this county dealing with the loss of their local newspaper, and what impact will it have on their lives and political decisions in 2020? These and other issues will be explored in later dispatches.

For the most part, meanwhile, county residents here are resilient and self-sufficient. Many backyard gardens dot the landscape and hunting and fishing are popular pursuits. The County Sheriff’s Department is a well trained and equipped force, but many farmers and homeowners are also prepared to defend what is theirs.

Continue reading: Year of Fear, Chapter One: The Mystery of Caroline County, Virginia