It’s sad to see The Virginian-Pilot go slowly down, like the first ironclads Monitor and Merrimack, in this sea-bound community. The old gal’s final voyage has probably begun — at least the vessel that “serve(d) the public with such skill and character … and … exercise(d) First Amendment freedoms with vigor and responsibility,” as the late publisher, Frank Batten (died at 82 in 2009), is still quoted on the masthead of the opinion pages of the shriveling newspaper.
It was distressing to learn last week that readers would lose the words and insights of Bob Molinaro and Bill Sizemore, both mainstays at The Pilot. The newspaper won’t be the same without Bill’s high-level of investigative reporting and Bob’s column of down to earth sports comments — often questioning the commercial excesses of big-money athletics. Others are rumored to be leaving, too, but we readers with long-term loyalties are being fed the departure facts piece-meal, like barnyard hens. So we peck through the grain as it’s scattered in front of us, hoping our favorites will survive another cut.
Even the most faithful University of Virginia alumni in Tidewater might wonder if Batten should have withheld the $100 million he gave to UVa in 2007, instead endowing The Virginian-Pilot. Wisely invested that $100 million could yield $8 million annually at 8% and pay a good hunk of operating costs — at either the university or the newspaper.
In Charlottesville, the University got the $100 million and created the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy — “the largest single gift in the history of the University,” said a news release. It quoted Batten, “Talented public leaders are needed from a range of professional backgrounds. It is critical to get younger people excited about the responsibilities and opportunities of public service in all its manifestations.” Thus emerged a mission statement for a School of Leadership and Public Policy.
One may wonder which would do more to keep Virginia’s citizens informed and its public servants honest — a vigilant, independent newspaper or a highly selective college of public policy. To confuse the choice, we read how Thomas Jefferson, writing to his friend, Col. Edward Carrington in 1787, cited his preference for newspapers as a means to keep well-informed “the opinion of people.” At that time a state-supported university was but a gleam in his 44-year-old eye. Fast-forward to 1810 – 1819: When Jefferson labored to create the University of Virginia, he searched for funds to build its grounds and compensate its faculty.
There is evidence to suggest that the Founder might have, in his typically enigmatic manner, urged a donor such as Frank Batten to endow a respected Virginian-Pilot newspaper instead of sending a small fortune to central Virginia to establish a new department in the government-supported prototype of the elite eastern universities. This same founder of the University of Virginia had written in 1787, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter” — newspapers — as the best vehicle by which to keep the people of the new democracy well informed.
Will newspapers continue to have major influence in the cause of nurturing and defending democracy in the United States, or is the influence of print journalism in irreversible decline? What would best insure that our government “of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” as we face 21st century challenges? Would a time-tested, independent newspaper, dedicated “to serve the public with skill and character” be most useful to democracy, or would a college curriculum designed “to get younger people excited about the responsibilities and opportunities of public service” reap greater benefits for the public good?
Jefferson, the explorer of dichotomies, might have believed that our 21st century democracy, still searching for balance and integrity in governance, needs both public universities and independent newspapers. And he might still “not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Gerald L. Cooper (BA, MEd, UVa) spent his 43-year career in education as an administrator, counselor and teacher. His final assignment in 1994-2000 was as executive director of the college access program, founded by Frank Batten and Josh Darden, that served ten public high schools in Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach.