When David Poole launched the Virginia Public Access Project’s VaNews digest of news articles about Virginia politics and policy, he had no way of imagining that things would get so complicated. As other news aggregators do, VaNews rounded up the top stories from Virginia’s newspapers, television stations, and selected online publications, excerpting headlines and lead paragraphs, and blasting out an early-morning email to thousands of readers — a highly influential audience of elected officials, government administrators, lobbyists, lawyers, reporters, trade association executives, and others involved in the formulation of public policy in Virginia.
As the free e-newsletter grew in popularity, it became indispensable reading. VaNews now claims 11,700 subscribers. With such an elite audience, it charges $200 daily for one-day sponsorships over and above what it collects more in donations. Meanwhile, political and policy blogs clamor to have their content included. VaNews could drive hundreds of page views to their websites, pure gold to smaller publications seeking to expand their readership and influence.
Now Poole, a former state capital correspondent for the Roanoke Times and the Virginian-Pilot, finds himself in the position of being an arbiter of which publications count as a legitimate news source and which do not. Thanks to the popularity of VaNews, his judgment calls matter. A lot. Not everyone is happy with his decisions, and the issue has come to a head with the inauguration of the Virginia Mercury, an online news publication funded by the progressive Hopewell Fund.
Tuesday, Poole felt moved to write a letter to the VPAP board.
You may have noticed that we carried three news articles today published by Virginia Mercury, a new online news operation funded by progressive groups.
Some questions have arisen — Is the Mercury a nonprofit newspaper or is it an advocacy organization? Their editor Robert Zullo wrote this introduction, which takes a very clear anti-establishment position. But a lot of editors have preached, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.”
The real question for VaNews is: Who is funding the Mercury? All they’ve said is that they are funded by a large “progressive” foundation. I have asked Zullo for the name of their specific donor. Last week, Zullo said he needed to ask permission to release that information. I have not heard back from him.
Until Zullo comes clean about funding, we are going to avoid running the Mercury’s coverage of energy and environmental issues. We are making an assumption that the Mercury is similar to the Southeast Energy News, which is published by a clean-energy group. It looks and feels like conventional journalism, but it is advocacy in the same way an industry newsletter is.
We are entering a strange time of conversion, where the conventional press is withering away and being replaced with all sorts of experimental organizations. Thanks for your patience and support as we navigate these uncertain waters.
What once might have been a theoretical concern, easily dismissed, has become urgent as the news staffs of traditional news-gathering organizations shrink and the universe of news articles to draw from contracts along with them. The online publications springing up to fill the news void are seemingly infinite in number, and they vary widely in quality in their commitment to traditional journalism. Clearly, Poole cannot include them all in VaNews. But drawing a clear and objective dividing line is difficult.
My dog in this fight. I know from personal experience. I asked Poole several months ago if he would include Bacon’s Rebellion news articles in VaNews. While most of our content is commentary, we do publish articles meeting traditional journalistic standards. Poole said he was uncomfortable using our articles, however, citing the journalism sponsorships from Dominion Energy and Partners 4 Affordable Excellence that supported my reporting on energy and higher education. Even though the sponsorship agreements made it clear that I maintained 100% control over the editorial product and even though I was totally transparent about those sponsorships, Poole was concerned that the relationship with advocacy groups called the objectivity of my journalism into question. Dominion, of course, was a particularly controversial sponsor; Blue Virginia, a left-leaning, anti-Dominion blog, had made a big issue about the arrangement.
I asked Poole, what if I let the sponsorships expire? And what if I drew a clear line between news and commentary? Would he consider the news articles for publication in VaNews? He said he would.
The Partners 4 Affordable Excellence sponsorship expired in March, and the Dominion sponsorship in June. But Dominion had indicated a willingness to renew the sponsorship for another year. I had a big business decision to make. Thinking of the long-term future of Bacon’s Rebellion, I opted in favor of growing the blog’s readership by making it eligible for inclusion in VaNews, even though it meant losing significant sponsorship income. I let the Dominion sponsorship expire in June. (The company and I parted on good terms.) I then paid several hundred dollars to reconfigure the website and create a “news” page, where all news articles would be published — and easily spotted, and scooped up, by VaNews and any other news aggregator that wanted them.
In the meantime, Steve Haner joined Bacon’s Rebellion as a contributing editor. I’d known Haner since we’d worked together at the Roanoke Times more than 30 years ago, and even though he had worked as a GOP operative and a lobbyist in the intervening time, I knew that he knew how to keep his opinions out of his reporting. As he transitions away from lobbying, he has been attending various legislative hearings and public meetings, including most recently the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and filing reports for Bacon’s Rebellion.
On the day we launched our news page, we were delighted to see that VaNews had picked up an article Haner had posted about the Virginia Retirement System. But the e-letter had excluded articles he had written about higher education and I had written about the convening of a solar- and wind-power stakeholder group. Whoah! What happened? Why was our straight news reporting being excluded? Continue reading