New Chapter for Bacon’s Rebellion

Today marks the end of a three-year era at Bacon’s Rebellion — the final day of Dominion Energy’s sponsorship of reporting and commentary on energy issues in Virginia. Dominion and I are parting on excellent terms, but I have decided to let the sponsorship expire in order to take the blog in a new direction. One option I am considering is creating a new business model that will allow the blog to become a bigger force in Virginia journalism.

It’s a sad fact that shrinking news staffs and editorial holes in Virginia newspapers are leaving vast gaps in journalistic coverage. Sponsorships over the years gave me the freedom to cover important state boards such as the Commonwealth Transportation Board and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, whose activities would have gone largely unreported otherwise. I have reported in-depth about transportation, land use, smart growth, public health, higher education, and the electric grid.

The one-man-blog model allowed me to make a comfortable living doing what I loved to do, but it was impossible to grow. For a long time, I really didn’t care if Bacon’s Rebellion grew — it did what I wanted it to do. But now I worry that Virginia’s newspapers are in meltdown mode. The press corps covering the Governor’s Office and General Assembly is a shadow of its former self. Increasingly, state government agencies are operating in the dark. A handful of statehouse reporters are still doing yeoman’s work, but it’s not clear how long Virginia’s newspapers can continue to employ them.

If newspapers continue their meltdown, who will report the news? Who will hold government accountable?

An emerging model of journalism is based on funding by non-newspapers — conservative government watchdogs or liberal environmental advocates. Agenda-driven journalism is better than no journalism at all, but… it’s agenda driven.

All reporters have biases, conscious or unconscious. I freely acknowledge that I am favorably disposed to limited government and free markets, and I am unfavorably disposed to social engineering. However, I firmly believe that you can’t understand one side of the argument unless you also understand the other side of the argument. Ironically, under my Dominion sponsorship, I felt an obligation to give greater voice to anti-Dominion environmental groups than I might have been inclined to do had I remained an unsponsored commentator. As an aside, while Dominion would pitch stories to me as it did to other reporters, the company never tried to control what I wrote. I question if the backers of agenda-driven journalism will be willing to take the same hands-off approach.

Beginning with the “Big Bacon Fry” event late last year, I have been holding conversations with a variety of people about the future of Bacon’s Rebellion. I have concluded that there is a viable business model for a non agenda-driven publication focused on covering the Virginia statehouse. Such a venture would re-conceptualize reporters from people who report to editors and publish articles in newspapers into people who create a nexus for the flow of information on a chosen topic, such as the future of the electric grid, innovation in transportation, productivity in health care, or something similar. Content would run the gamut of written journalism, commentary, white papers, video presentations, networking luncheons, seminars and conferences.

Another possibility is to reinvent Bacon’s Rebellion as a platform for cranky old men (and women). At 65 years, I’m in a financial position to do whatever I want in “retirement,” and that might include doing what I’ve been doing all along — without the necessity of focusing on subject matter aligned with sponsorships. Steve Haner, who has reached a similar stage in life, already has made a tremendous contribution to Bacon’s Rebellion, adding his valuable perspectives as a former journalist, political operative and lobbyist. Perhaps there are others who would enjoy blogging as a serious retirement activity.

I have some personal decisions to make about how to allocate my time over the next couple of years — I do have a major commitment writing a corporate history — so I may or may not have the bandwidth to oversee a full transformation of the blog. But I am open to talking to and partnering with others. If anyone has thoughts to share, I would love to talk to you.

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13 responses to “New Chapter for Bacon’s Rebellion

  1. Our local paper is already compromised. There is no mention of a # of issues they know about. I’m wondering if that will change with the advent of Marisa Porto.

  2. Congratulations on reaching such a crossroads! I for one never imagined that your independence was suborned by BR’s relationship with Dominion; but I’ll admit to going out of my way on occasion to write the “other side of the story” as I saw it, assuming that you already had heard and perhaps unknowingly accepted Dominion’s view of things.

    I’ve already expressed my personal great concern here about the decline of MSM journalism. We need (1) resources that can be believed, even trusted, in the face of “alternative facts”; (2) a agent for forcing transparency, particularly at the State and local level, in the face of bureaucratic penchants for opacity, hidden agendas, even corruption; (3) a medium that observes old-fashioned journalistic standards that distinguish between fact and opinion and how each is to be investigated, attributed and published, in the face of aggressive partisanship and info-mercial newsmongering; (4) someone knowledgeable of the media business who can pioneer and experiment with new forms of coverage of at least a few of the notable economic and moral issues confronting government today; and (5) an investigative staff led by a fearless editor and backed by financial resources willing to take on interests opposed to 1 – 4 (a tall order but I can wish can’t I?). And then, too, we need (6) a forum where the arcane subjects that catch your eye (and therefore have caught ours) can be discussed in a depth unattainable in letters-to-the-editor of a local newspaper; and (7) a place where each of us can speak out (from the experience and/or boredom of retirement?) to tilt once again at our favorite former windmills. Whatever you can do to chip away at these needs is that much more done in support of democratic government. As you have demonstrated, “agenda-driven” does not have to mean “hopelessly biased,” nor does that preclude your providing “a platform for cranky old men (and women).”

    Whatever path you choose, just give your readers a chance to come along.

  3. Expecting media traditional or web/blog to tell one the truth from on high is an ambitious and foolish endeavor . To that end BR has been true to it’s duty not without some hiccups. In the end, it has done better than most and I highly value it and want to see it prosper and I feel fortunate that Jim wants it to continue on. Thank You!

  4. No more Dominion Pravda. Despite your best intentions, money has an impact. It does on a newspaper with scores of big advertisers (back in the day) and it has to for an outlet with one or two paying sponsors. That said, I appreciated that it also provided an opportunity for me, Tom, Acbar and others to respond. I know at least some people read past the article and deep into the comments. Yes, we were fruitlessly throwing rocks at a speeding train but perhaps we broke out a window or two.

    What worries me going forward with the on-line news outlet idea is, will a sufficient number of folks be reading it? I’m not sure many are reading this now, and those that are are already insiders. Even as they are dying, newspapers still have a broad audience. The three op-eds I wrote for three papers to argue with Dominion’s 2018 legislation probably had far more impact than my comments on this blog. On my laptop and phone I am besieged with “news” content by AOL or MSN, and I don’t do Facebook where I fear most Americans get their “news.” Along with the papers, the big network newscasts are also way down in audience. For me this is something of a hobby (but it feels like work!) and I’ve got some things to say, but long term I’m very pessimistic. I hope to be proven wrong.

  5. ….more power to ya’

  6. Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

    Newspapers have lost their place as a trusted source of information. As papers shrank due to vanishing ad revenues and rising pulp costs, in-depth coverage became a thing of the past. Thanks to the 24 hour news cycle, too many important issues are handled in soundbites sandwiched between commercials.

    Blogs like BR examine topics in detail. Please do not stop.

    The GA needs greater scrutiny, even though a fraction of the population pays attention. The livestream of this year’s session was a good start. Someone needs to provide critical commentary on what one reader refers to as “the imperial clown show” and its penchant for passing unfunded mandates on to counties and cities.

    For all of the coverage that local government gets, it might as well be operating in continual closed session. Bloggers, mainly retired curmudgeons with the time and inclination to follow this stuff, may be the only source of information for the few citizens who care how what’s happening locally.

    There was a time when most cities had many newspapers, each with a different viewpoint. Maybe, in a messy way, the blogosphere will take us back to that.

    • Good point. The newspaper tradition in this country from its founding to the late 19th century was an array of tabloids — each with its own philosophy and agenda and readership. We talk about the silos of self-selected on-line news coverage today and lament the absence of a universal baseline of news coverage in the manner of Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley. But that’s the way it was for most of our history. Cf., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_journalism The era of pro and anti slavery newspapers before the C.W. wasn’t any worse, from a broad information-sharing/education of the electorate point of view, than a steady diet of Fox News or Slate today.

      Hearst and Pulitzer both came to regret the extreme results that came from their sensationalist approaches to the news. Today we have recognized, respected standards of “good journalism” dating from the Progressive Era’s reaction to the 19th Century’s excesses. Who teaches those standards today? Which news outlets enforce them? What audience expects, let alone demands, their chosen set of on-line news adhere to the standards? And even if they did, what news outlet today can afford the in-depth reporting that uncovers incompetence and scandal and corruption and keeps much of government on its toes? The shape of what is destined to replace the “objective” MSM of the past is still opaque to me. I’d love to see more discussion of these trends here — and Jim’s announcement on Friday is a provocative starting point.

      • “I’d love to see more discussion of these trends here — and Jim’s announcement on Friday is a provocative starting point.”

        I agree, and I agree with all points raised in your comment generally, Arbar.

        • Acbar, you raise complexities. For example, the following is labelled news. Is it news? And if so, what does this new’s suggest. And if not, what does that label “news” suggest? See:

          news.virginia.edu/content/final-exercises-2018?utm_source=HouseAdA&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=finals_18

  7. You need a “like” button

  8. Glad to hear of your declaration of independence. However, I never felt your reporting was compromised and I never felt my comments were edited. In fact, your more extensive coverage of energy in Virginia drew some commentators on this blog who definitely “upped the game” on the discussion of energy policy.

  9. I have enjoyed the opportunity to put my thoughts and research together and clarify them by writing on Bacon’s. Thanks.
    Looking forward maybe you should think about what audience you would like to reach. I have also written for Our Energy Policy for quite a few years, and although now that the issues have been pretty well digested the blog is slowing down.

    What was really interesting in the beginning was that Congressional staff was a good part of our sizable audience. I sometimes wonder about the staff in Richmond. Where do they get info on new issues? Have they a clue about what is going on outside Richmond? Outside of Virginia?

    Whatever you decide …Good Luck

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