Charlottesville Tomorrow Editor-in-Chief Angilee Shah talks with Miami Herald Executive Editor Monica Richardson about leading in a pandemic, breaking news and how to build community with journalism.
By Angilee Shah
Monica Richardson is the executive editor of a major American daily newspaper. She is a veteran newsroom leader and a Pulitzer Prize winner. And she is a child of Charlottesville.
“I was that kid that made summer trips to Charlottesville to spend the summers with grandparents and aunts and uncles,” she says. “When I come home, I’m not the editor of the Miami Herald. I’m Monica, you know, who grew up here.”
Her father was in the Air Force so she lived in Washington D.C. and moved a lot growing up.
They returned to Charlottesville for her high school years — she’s class of 1988, Charlottesville High School. She was on the yearbook and newspaper staff, of course. Her first newspaper jobs were at the Culpeper Star-Exponent and then the Charlottesville Observer, a weekly that published from the 1970s until 2004.
In June, I spent some time talking with Richardson about her journey. I am not a child of Charlottesville, but I’m the editor-in-chief of Charlottesville Tomorrow. I’m from Los Angeles by way of Canada, and have lived in a dozen cities. My career began in international news, then national news and public media and now I am here, living and working in Richardson’s hometown.
Richardson got her start in central Virginia, and then went on to positions at the Lexington Herald-Leader and spent 15 years at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution before becoming executive editor of the Miami Herald in January 2021.
We had a lot to talk about. This transcript is edited for length and, in minor ways, for clarity.
You’ve said that coming through the smaller market papers, in Virginia and Kentucky, was really valuable to you. How has that experience served you in big markets like Atlanta and Miami?
The difference with local journalism is that these are our neighbors, you know? And so that’s the neighborhood approach and sense of community I was able to build by working in places like Culpeper and Charlottesville. What happens in a neighborhood is as important as what happens in the state, and part of our job is to make that community connection between what matters to someone who lives on Grady Avenue and why that’s important at the state level in Virginia. Here in Miami, local news is very different. Local is Haiti and local is Puerto Rico and Cuba — a long list of places. But still, starting and working in Charlottesville and then Culpeper grounded me in a lot of ways. And now I brag about that when I meet with interns and people who have started their careers in big places. I say all the time, I wouldn’t trade my path for anything.
So you started as executive editor of the Miami Herald at a pretty difficult time, in January 2021. I also started as editor-in-chief of Charlottesville Tomorrow in the COVID-19 pandemic. But, you know, when the reporters live a mile away in a small town, it’s different. How was it for you joining a large organization in the pandemic?
Really difficult. I actually didn’t move to Miami until mid-February, so I was doing everything virtual before that. It’s still hard. You know, I’m not sure I have to this day met everyone face-to-face from my newsrooms. [Richardson also oversees el Nuevo Herald, the Bradenton Herald and FLKeysNews.com.]
The Miami Herald was in the process of selling its building when I got here. So by the time I got here, there was no building. We have a small office that we use for hurricanes and if people don’t have power and such, but we’re right now looking for a place. It’s a little bit easier now that things are opening up — I can meet with people in the community — but everything for the most part internally has been virtual.
But it also has been remarkable to me to see how newsrooms have managed to keep things going through the pandemic. If you think about all the industries that have failed or not survived — there’s not a day that the paper didn’t come out. There’s not a day that the website wasn’t updated. When I was in Atlanta, when our leadership team said, ‘We’re not coming back tomorrow,’ I remember me and another editor thinking, ‘How are we ever going to do this?’ And then a year later I said, ‘Look at what we did.’
I was working with a lot of different newsrooms around the country when things first shut down. It showed me that we can change how we do things, and we probably should have a long time ago. While it’s been really hard, it also made clear that the well-being of journalists is clearly a problem. Can we change how we operate to make this a more humane profession for people?
I think mental health in newsrooms is something that has really come forward since the pandemic hit. There’s so many different sides of it. I feel for the single journalists with no children — the newsroom is sometimes all they have, Journalists move around a lot so we’re not typically in places where we have our families. And so I think that’s difficult. I think you have journalists who are caregivers. That’s difficult. And then you have journalists who have to homeschool and they’re like, ‘How do I manage that?’
So we’ve learned to try to strike a balance with it. You know, when we won the Pulitzer, typically we would be in a room celebrating together. We had to have a really small group together to celebrate our Pulitzer win. So it’s created challenges, but it’s also created opportunities.
The Surfside condominium collapsed in June 2021, just six months after you started at the Miami Herald. That’s the reporting that won you and the Miami Herald the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news this year. Did you feel like you and the newsroom were ready to cover that catastrophe?
I actually had COVID when the building collapsed on June 24. I was fully vaccinated, but I had it pretty bad — I was on my back. I remember my managing editor calling me pretty early in the morning, around 5 o’clock, a few hours after we already knew what happened. Normally — my mama would say this about me — at two and three in the morning, I’m up. It’s a bad habit, I’m that journalist who works 24/7. But I was sick so I was actually sleeping. So I got that call and suddenly, it felt like I didn’t have COVID anymore. It’s like a big rush when you have big news like that. And our newsroom responded — we had reporters who live close enough to take their bikes or hop on their child’s scooter. This was our community, our backyard.
We just went into immediate planning mode. It was difficult in the sense that you’re managing through a pandemic and trying to get information and get everyone into position. We got through that by being very organized. We had a hotel room that we got right on the beach that became our headquarters for several weeks. We also said from day one, we knew at that moment that this wasn’t a story that was going to be with us for a few days or a few weeks or months even. We knew this was going to be with us for years. And so we needed to structure our thinking and organization around how we were going to sustain the coverage. The same people are working the story and they’re tired, and they’re hot.
We covered it from three perspectives: breaking news; daily news from the victims perspectives, and the investigative side. And all three of those things together got us the kind of coverage we needed — and the thing I think that led to the Pulitzer.
To this day, we’re working that story as if it happened a month ago. Now we’re coming up on the one year anniversary. After we won the Pulitzer, the first thing that I did was a 98-second moment of silence for the 98 victims in that building. Because we’ve always tried to be very thoughtful about our approach to the coverage. We want to make sure we’re here to help bring accountability to what happened. That is still our number one goal in the story, while at the same time being very respectful and honoring the family members and the first responders, too.
Last question: When I first started at Charlottesville Tomorrow, I went on the radio program, In My Humble Opinion. One of the questions they asked me — which I hadn’t really considered — was, what is it like to be a woman of color leading an organization? I saw the press release that says you are the first Black executive editor of the Miami Herald. It’s weird to get that label, isn’t it?
It is so weird. I remember they sent the press release to me, and I saw that it said, “first Black executive editor in the newspaper’s 117-year history.” I thought, um, I do have some skills too — can’t you just say, digital leader or something? And it was my father who said to me — reminded me — how important this was. This wasn’t just about me. It was bigger than me.
I was amazed how excited people were, even though they didn’t know me.
It wasn’t about me, it was about them feeling like there was someone who would understand the path. That’s a big assumption, right? Because being Black or a person of color is not monolithic. But that someone who looked like them was at a place where they might be able to have a voice.
I believe what Cicely Tyson said, that we don’t just stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, we stand on their backs. I truly believe that. I have a picture of my great great grandmother Olivia on my bedroom desk. That picture is a reminder for me that this is a woman who didn’t have the opportunity to read and write. And here I’m leading one of the biggest newspapers in the country.
I think being a woman of color means that I have a responsibility to make a difference, to live in my purpose. I have a responsibility to show up when someone says they want to celebrate the work that I do. It’s an awesome responsibility and honor that comes with being in this role. Every day is not easy — this has been a tough day. But you know, there have been other tough days and I’m still standing.
Monica’s parents, Roger Richardson, Emilie Jackson Richardson and brother Roger Richardson, Jr. still live in the Charlottesville area. Monica is also a single mother raising her 10-year-old daughter, Lyric Richardson.
Angilee Shah is the first editor-in-chief of Charlottesville Tomorrow, a nonprofit news organization. Shah has a 20-year career in journalism, including six years as a founding editor of Global Nation, The World’s coverage of immigration in the US. As a reporter and editor, her work has been read and heard around the world, including a book about everyday lives in China and a trio of investigative stories about the end of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war.
Recognizing that legacy local media systems are part of the problem of structural racism in Charlottesville, the Charlottesville Inclusive Media Project seeks to build a trusted framework for local news and policy reporting grounded in service to communities that builds trust, transparency, and power in inclusive local media and decision-making systems.
The founding partners of the Charlottesville Inclusive Media project include Charlottesville Tomorrow, a nonprofit public service news organization; In My Humble Opinion Talk Show, an African American female-owned digital production company; and Vinegar Hill Magazine, an independent African American publishing company. We work together to create community connections, lift up important conversations, ground our work in service to African American communities and audiences, and build capacity for independent Black media companies and professionals.