Category Archives: Media

Grousing on a Grey and Wet Friday

Source: Blue Virginia

“It’s the end of the world as we know it.” 

More than 30 years ago I told Jim Gilmore that his election as Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney was the most important Republican victory on the ballot that year, so it’s only fair to recognize that the real bell weather Tuesday was the election of a Democrat to the same job in Chesterfield County.

Chesterfield.

The folks at Blue Virginia have a simple set of charts displaying the harsh reality Republicans face in 21st Century Virginia, now the southernmost Northern state due to several demographic waves and several GOP tactical mistakes.  Perhaps it’s not quite time to find that old phone booth a previous generation of Virginia Republicans used as a meeting place, but a coming federal court revision to the legislative map may pull forward the final chapter to the Great Fall from Power to 2019 instead of 2021.

It’s news when the Chamber is handing out a bunch of F’s

Here’s a new twist in the on-going saga of which stories on electronic media “news” outlets win the brass ring of inclusion in the daily VPAP summary.  The office of Speaker Kirk Cox issued a press release about some pro-business rankings for members of his caucus, which was dutifully printed (with no additional reporting content) on the party organ The Republican Standard.

That partisan news release shows up in today’s VPAP summary, which as loyal readers of Bacon’s Rebellion know is no longer happening with the writings of James Bacon or yours truly.  We were (are) producing many stories with actual reporting and great fairness, digging deeper than the ideological or party line, but aging curmudgeons that we are we also engage in biting commentary in other posts.

Apparently, the difference is that the GOP organ has an obvious bias, which is also the case with the Virginia Mercury coming from the left, but we at Bacon’s Rebellion can be unpredictable (well, I can).  Yes, the reporting at Virginia Mercury ranges from fine to excellent, but so does mine and Jim’s, and given encouragement I could do it more. Something else is going on here, I must suspect.

Ironically, my commentary pieces are just fine for VPAP if I get them published first in The Washington Post or the Richmond Times-Dispatch, but my news writing on Bacon’s site is tainted. I swear, you need a map to follow this logic.

And while we’re addressing that Chamber ranking

You will search in vain for any indication of which specific roll call votes were used to separate sheep and goats on this ranking produced by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. Absent that minor element of transparency, it must be taken with a handful of salt. That may explain why no news outlet wrote about it (but Speaker Cox got it out to everybody, understandably).

I once was the Chamber’s chief lobbyist and such a partisan outcome would have made me very nervous, very concerned that it would burn bridges with an entire political party. The “grades” are going to be used heavily in campaign mailings and ads, perhaps providing counterweight to similar rankings with a different tilt. But any of them which do not reveal the underlying roll calls are suspect.

At the same time as that conversation with Gilmore mentioned above, there existed an annual poll on effectiveness in state government. Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot sent out a survey to legislators, gubernatorial appointees and lobbyists asking who was and who wasn’t “effective” in Richmond. The results were predictable, given Democratic dominance of Richmond at the time, and proved an annoying problem in each campaign against an incumbent Democrat.

After a couple of years of our beating on the Pilot, they stopped doing it. It was truly bogus – of course a committee chairman with 20 year of experience is going to be ranked higher, and of course the partisan imbalance in the sample would skew the outcome. The difference with this is……impossible to judge without full disclosure.

And yes, in part I’m pushing this because I am sure that Senate Bill 966 which did so much damage to Virginia’s electricity consumers (including business consumers) was included as a pro-business vote at the behest of one of the Chamber’s largest members. Let’s see how the other bills match the Chamber membership list. I was on the committee for Virginia FREE years ago, and time after time a Virginia FREE donor demanded that its sponsored legislation make the scorecard as a pro-business vote.

VPAP Baffled by Media’s Blurry Lines

The Virginia Public Access Project continues to struggle to define what constitutes news reporting worth of inclusion in its popular VaNews news digest — a daily e-letter with thousands of readers who actively follow state and local news. In the most recent iteration of VPAP policy, Bacon’s Rebellion ended up the big loser.

In a world of rapidly morphing publications with different mixes and formats of news and opinion, VPAP doesn’t have an easy job. It started out compiling headlines for Virginia newspapers only. But VaNews compilers have had to contend with the emergence of online publications that do real reporting: Bacon’s Rebellion, The Virginia Mercury, and the more popular partisan blogs. Founder David Poole knows that traditional print newspapers are in decline while online publications are in the ascendancy, and that for the long-run health of VaNews, which is a successful money-raiser for his organization, he needs to embrace online media.

The start-up of the Virginia Mercury precipitated a round of soul searching. Poole’s concern was that the online Richmond-based news outlet had an explicit politically progressive bias, and that it was funded by untraceable foundation money. By contrast, Bacon’s Rebellion has always been 100% up-front about where the money is coming from. Poole was bothered, however, by perception of bias on energy and environmental issues due to our sponsorship by Dominion Energy. So, when our Dominion sponsorship expired, Bacon’s Rebellion chose not to renew it, and we created a channel populated only by news articles for VaNews to draw from. Poole began incorporating pieces from Bacon’s Rebellion.

Then, as debate continued to buffet his board of directors, Poole decided that due to a continued taint by association he wouldn’t accept news reporting on issues associated with now-defunct sponsors, even though news articles written by Steve Haner and me — both knowledgeable, experienced journalists — met all the traditional criteria of a news story.

Now the wheel has turned again. This time dark-money Virginia Mercury makes the cut but transparent Bacon’s Rebellion — which has no source of outside funding whatsoever, other than some modest reader contributions — does not.

“Our goal, as it has been from the start, is to give readers a comprehensive look of reporting about Virginia government and politics,” said Nicole Riley, chair of the VPAP Board of Directors, in a press release Friday. “As providers come and go, we want to keep the focus on original news reporting.”

The latest changes to the VaNews criteria add specificity to the definition of “original news reporting” to include a requirement that an article present both sides of a debate and writers should be a commentator or a reporter – but not both.

“It’s confusing when someone expresses their opinion about an issue and the next day shows up to cover the same issue as a reporter,” Riley said.

VPAP also dropped its prohibition against “advocacy” publications, a term that had been added in 2016 and proved difficult to define.

“The Board debated this and determined that ‘advocacy’ is often in the eye of the beholder,” Riley said. “Take the Washington Post. There are people who believe the Post is part of a liberal media conspiracy while others think the Post is the savior of democracy.”

So…. Virginia Mercury may be an advocacy publication, but because its editor and staff writers stick to “news” and do not engage in overt commentary, they make the cut. Because Haner and I write commentary in separate posts, we don’t. Nothing against Virginia Mercury — the editorial team is good at what it does and I read the publication every day — but this new criteria seems totally arbitrary.

I get it — VaNews has to draw a line somewhere. I’m just skeptical that it’s possible to draw bright lines and stick to them. For example, Jeff Schapiro, the dean of the Capitol press corps, is known mainly for writing commentary but he also reports news from time to time. Are readers “confused”? Will VaNews exclude him from its clippings? That would be absurd.

Well, the world isn’t fair. The onus is on us at Bacon’s Rebellion to create such compelling content that VaNews has no choice but to treat us as an equal — or maybe grow to a point where we don’t care what it does. Let me take this occasion to thank our loyal readers who contribute to the quality dialogue on this blog. Thankfully, you don’t seem confused by what we do.

Bacon Bits: In with the New, Out with the Old

In with the new…

Data Center Alley too hot to handle. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) has sold 424 acres west of Dulles International Airport to data-center developer Digital Realty Trust for an eye-popping $236.5 million — $558,000 per acre. MWAA will place $207 million in a segregated account used to reduce costs that airlines pay to do business at the airport. The transaction expands the large and growing data-center presence of Digital Realty in Loudoun County, reports the Washington Business Journal.

Virginia’s next big solar project? Solar developer Community Energy has applied to build 125-megawatts in solar capacity in Augusta County, reports PV magazine. To offset concerns about neighborhood impact, Community Energy plans to surround the facility with a buffer of vegetation and put into place measures to diminish the limited audio output. Instead of purchasing the land, the power company is leasing it from landowners, providing farmers an ongoing revenue stream rather than a lump-sum payment.

Out with the old..

Gutted newsrooms. Ned Oliver with the Virginia Mercury has quantified the shrinkage of news staff at Virginia’s largest daily newspapers in recent years. After quietly laying off another eight newspaper employees at the beginning of the month, the Richmond Times-Dispatch newsroom has gone from 42 news and sports reporters in 2010 to 26 today, from nine to six photographers, and from 20 to 13 editors. The Virginian-Pilot has dropped from 67 reporters to 33, 35 editors from to 22, and eight photographers to five. Newsroom staff at the Roanoke Times has eroded by 35% to 25 reporters, 11 editors, and three photographers.

“Meanwhile,” writes Oliver, “there is still no clear model for metro and community newspapers to make up for the loss of all that ad money to digital giants like Google and Facebook.”

Tarheel coal ash overflow. In an event sure to impact the debate over coal ash in Virginia, heavy rains from Hurricane Florence eroded a coal ash facility at a Duke Energy power plant near Wilmington, N.C. The utility is investigating the possible release of about 2,000 cubic yards of the material — enough to fill two-thirds of an Olympic-size swimming pool, according to the Herald-Sun. It was not clear whether any of the ash, which contains traces of heavy metals, reached public waterways.

The release reinforces the necessity of removing coal ash from unlined, uncapped containment ponds where electric utilities have been restoring the coal-combustion residue for decades. Environmental Protection Agency regulations were designed to prevent incidents like this by consolidating and capping coal ash ponds. While environmentalists, regulators and utilities haggle over whether it’s better to store the material in lined landfills, a process that could take two to three decades, existing containment ponds remain vulnerable to extreme weather events like Florence.

Bacon Bits, Your Tasty Morning Info Treat

More hidden deficit spending. Virginia devoted 33% less to capital spending on K-12 schools (inflation-adjusted) in 2016 than in 2008, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That compared to a 26% reduction nationally. The cuts, say CBPP, “mean less money to build new schools, renovate and expand facilities, and equip schools with more modern technologies, further diminishing the environment in which teachers educate and children learn.”

The CBPP made no effort to correlate the capital spending with K-12 enrollment, which has increased only modestly nationally since 2008 after years of strong growth. Presumably, stable enrollment limits the need to build new schools. However, it should surprise no one if school systems were engaging in hidden deficit spending by deferring maintenance and repairs.

Best colleges for the money. From Money magazine, which considered graduation rates, tuition charges, family borrowing, alumni earnings, and 22 other data points to rate educational value: University of Virginia, 10th best in the country; Washington & Lee University, 24th; Virginia Tech, 29th; James Madison University, 39th. Four Virginia colleges in the top 50. Not bad.

What if there aren’t any fascists to fight? When there weren’t any fascists to be found at weekend rallies in Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville, Antifa, the so-called anti-fascists, found someone else to fight. Yesterday, I noted how they turned on the police. Today, the Washington Post’s Avi Selk details how they turned on the media. “Videos show Antifa members accosting reporters specifically because they’re reporters.” Antifa uses the cause of anti-racism to shield the fact that they are enemies of a free society.

Coal mines and methane. Three hundred active and 200 inactive coal mines identified by Climate Home News account for one-tenth of all U.S. methane emissions into the atmosphere. Methane has 34 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide.

Environmentalists have criticized natural gas as an electric power source. Although natural gas combustion produces less CO2 than coal combustion, the argument goes, when methane leakage from gas pipes and wells is taken into account, the natural gas supply chain is just as bad for global warming. I responded that the argument failed to take into account the massive outpouring of gas from coal mines, but I had no hard data. Now I do. Thanks Climate Home News!

Media reaction to Goodlatte’s 2018 Chesapeake Bay Amendment

Background: Republican Rep Bob Goodlatte (Va – 6th) has proposed an amendment to an appropriations package which would forbid the EPA from using federal funds to take action against bay states that fail to meet pollution-reduction targets set by the EPA and agreed-to by the states.  The amendment is to the 2019 Interior, Environment, Financial Services and General Appropriations Act.  The amended bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives 213 to 202.  The same bill (without the Goodlatte Amendment) was passed by the US Senate 92 to 6.

Goodlatte’s rationale. Rep Goodlatte previously explained his rationale for restricting the EPA’s authority over the Chesapeake Bay cleanup on his website.  You can view that explanation here and here. (Hat Tip: Jim Bacon). However, it should be noted that the first link was from 2014 and the second from 2016. One would think that Goodlatte’s most recent attempts to curtail the EPA’s enforcement of the TDML Blueprint would require an updated explanation of intent … especially in light of the continued success of the Bay cleanup effort since EPA enforcement began.

Media reaction to the 2018 amendment. In order to get the essence of the media reaction to Bob Goodlatte’s proposed amendment I performed an internet search with the argument “Goodlatte & Chesapeake Bay Cleanup.”  There were 42,800 results. Here are the top 10 written in 2018 pertaining to Goodlatte’s latest attempt to restrict the EPA from enforcing the TDML Blueprint:

  1. Measure to weaken EPA enforcement of bay cleanup is up for House vote – again (Daily Press)
  2.  US House again votes to restrict federal enforcement of Chesapeake Bay Cleanup (Baltimore Sun)
  3. Editorial: Goodlatte once again targets the bay cleanup (Fredricksburg.Com)
  4. Senators vow to fight stripping funds to enforce Chesapeake Bay cleanup (LA Times)
  5. Environmentalists claim measure will set back Chesapeake Bay (13 News Now)
  6. Virginia GOP Congressman Again Tries to Gut Accountability For Chesapeake Bay Cleanup (PA Environment Digest Blog)
  7. Goodbye and Good Riddance to Goodlatte (Bacon’s Rebellion) (LOL)
  8. Harris backs Bay cleanup (The Star Democrat)
  9. Bay Journal: Hogan urges US Senate to reject curb on EPA role in Bay cleanup (Maryland.gov)
  10. House Republicans Advance Bill that Would Derail Chesapeake Cleanup (NPR)

Methodology reminder. Bob Goodlatte has made many failed attempts over the years to prevent the EPA from regulating the Chesapeake Bay’s TDML Blueprint. Interspersed with articles relating to his most recent attempt were articles referencing his prior attempts. Those prior articles were omitted from this list.

Conclusion. Goodlatte seems to have very little support for his latest attempt to restrict the EPA’s authority over the Chesapeake Bay. Beyond the dearth of media articles in support of Goodlatte, seven of Virginia’s eleven U.S. House of Representative members voted against Goodlatte’s amendment. Both Virginia U.S. Senators committed to blocking the amendment in the Senate. Even Maryland’s Republican governor came out publicly against the Goodlatte amendment. I also quickly scanned the next 10 articles (numbers 11 – 20) on the sorted list of responses to my internet search. All were opposed to Goodlatte’s latest attempt to restrict EPA enforcement of the TDML Blueprint.

— Don Rippert

VaNews, the New Power Broker in the Virginia Media Landscape

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 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 meeting, 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

Dealing with Sickos in a Free Society

Jarrod Ramos

The massacre of five journalists in Annapolis, Md., two days ago was a tragedy — one that I, who worked many years in newsrooms like that of the Capital Gazette, can relate to personally. Sadly, it did not take long for the finger pointing to begin. A predictable first target was President Donald Trump, who on multiple occasions has described journalists as “enemies of the people.” It took mere minutes for a Reuters editor to tweet, “blood is on your hands, Mr. President.”

Even the most outspoken critics of the president have backed away from such accusations now that it’s clear that the alleged killer was not a right-wing nut job but an individual, clearly mentally ill, who bore idiosyncratic grievances against the newspaper. But that hasn’t stopped some commentators from still wanting to make Trump the issue.

In a column today Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan does state clearly that there is no “causal” connection between Trump’s comments and the actions of the unhinged gunman. However, she writes that Trump, like the accused Jarrod Ramos, displays “a dangerous failure to understand the role of the media in our society.” She draws linkages between the Gazette shooting and a media “under siege” from shrinking newspaper resources, mounting legal threats, Trump’s verbal abuse, and a Trumpian attitude that has “infected the entire culture.”

News flash to Sullivan: Your pretzel logic is precisely why millions of Americans have lost all faith in mainstream media outlets like the Washington Post! You are a caricature of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls an IYI — Intellectual Yet Idiot.

If the Annapolis shooting is symptomatic of anything, it is the fact that the United States is suffering from an epidemic of mental illness, that thousands of angry and alienated middle-aged white males like Ramos are ticking time bombs wandering around loose, and that society has failed to contrive a way to predict and curtail their explosive behavior. That truth, obvious to anyone with common sense, is the rogue elephant in the room, knocking over the furniture and punching holes in the wall. Yet Sullivan wants to talk about Trump!

Frankly, I’m surprised that more incidents like this haven’t happened in American newsrooms. Why? First, because newspapers, especially those covering local news, write about the dark underbelly of human behavior. Reporters cross paths with nut jobs more frequently than other Americans do. Also, as semi-public figures who write about the whackos, they draw the ire of the whackos.

Second, mental illness is rampant — and it’s getting worse. Eighteen percent of all Americans have a mental health condition. Nearly 10 million experience suicidal ideation. Most Americans work their way through those impulses, but many do not. Some, turning their pain inward, kill themselves. Others, turning their pain outward, kill others. At any given time, tens of thousands of Americans are nursing bitter personal grievances and entertaining fantasies of violent vengeance. If Sullivan wants to draw linkages, perhaps she should explore the ties between the epidemics of suicide, school shootings, workplace violence, and suicide by cop by alienated, loner white males. 

The 38-year-old Ramos, we have learned, has long displayed unstable behavior. He lived alone, rarely socializing with anyone. He spent years harassing a female high school acquaintance, then, when the Gazette ran an article about his case, he transferred his unrelenting fixation and animosity to the newspaper. Brennan McCarthy, the woman’s attorney, has said that no one had ever frightened him as much as Ramos did. He called Ramos a “classic loner” and “as angry and obsessive an individual as you will ever meet.”

Ramos broadcast his instability for the whole world to see. People feared him. But no one did anything. Why? Apparently, that question has yet to occur to Margaret Sullivan.

Perhaps no one acted because in the United States, we don’t arrest people, or even deprive them of their liberty, until they have demonstrated that they are an imminent threat to themselves or others — and even then it’s darned hard to lock them up.

As we plunge deeper into the thicket of causality, we could ask why such spasms of violence seem to be increasing in frequency. Why is mental illness getting worse, and why is violence by pathetic loners becoming endemic? Has our healthcare system failed to keep pace with the demand for mental-health services? Has the policy of closing institutions and providing community treatment contributed in some way? Have laws and court rulings made it more difficult for people to seek legal and/or law-enforcement protection against creepy behavior by obsessive individuals? 

One can legitimately say a lot of negative things about Donald Trump. I frequently do on this blog. But link him, however indirectly, to the Gazette shooting? One might call such thinking delusional.

The WaPo Paywall Finally Did Me In

Well, I did it. I signed up for an online subscription to the Washington Post. I held out as long as I could, but I finally concluded that I can’t do an adequate job blogging about statewide public policy without having access to the Post‘s local and regional reporting — the most recent case in point being an article (which I will blog about shortly) regarding the decision by the Washington Metro to cut the size of its governing board.

I subscribe to the Richmond Times-Dispatch as my home-town newspaper, which I get in both print and online formats. I’ve been self-rationing my access to the Post, which for a considerable time allowed non-paying readers access to 10 views per month. Now, the newspaper has tightened the paywall even more to three free views per month. That broke me. But I’m still holding out against the Virginian-Pilot, which limits readers to three free views monthly. As long as I can get  Hampton Roads news via the Newport News-based Daily Press, I refuse to buckle. Of course, that option may soon disappear now that the Pilot and the Daily Press share common ownership. Newspaper pay walls elsewhere in the state are not yet an issue for me.

The newspapers may wear me down. Of course, I consume state/local news to make a living and I have no choice. But I wonder how many other readers are responding like I do. I’m curious about the online newspaper-subscribing habits of Bacon’s Rebellion readers. How many online publications do you subscribe to — and to which ones?

Finally, I’m curious if anyone would pay a premium — say a $25 per month subscription — for a service that allowed them access to all Virginia newspapers. Could there be a business opportunity for someone who can negotiate discounts  from newspapers in exchange for delivering readers in bulk?

Nonprofit Journalism Comes to Virginia

Richmond Mercury start-up team. Robert Zullo at right. (Photo credit: Richmond BizSense)

As Virginia print journalism continues to decline, a new business model has emerged — an Internet-based model supported by non-profit foundations.

The Virginia Mercury, an online publication, will report state government and policy news coming out of the General Assembly on topics such as healthcare, campaign finance and criminal justice. Funding will come from Washington, D.C.-based nonprofits Hopewell Fund and New Venture Fund as part of an initiative called The Newsroom.

The editor will be Robert Zullo, a veteran reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch whose most recent beat had him covering Dominion Energy and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. He will be joined by reporters from the Times-Dispatch and the Virginian-Pilot.

Who are these organizations, what do they expect of the online publications they are engendering, and what can we expect of The Virginia Mercury?

Here’s how the New Venture Fund describes itself: “We execute a range of donor-driven public interest projects in conservation, global health, public policy, international development, education, disaster recovery, and the arts.” While some of its initiatives appear to be non-political, many reflect liberal-progressive priorities.

The Hopewell Fund makes no bones about its progressive orientation. It “specializes in helping donors, social entrepreneurs, and other changemakers quickly launch new, innovative social change projects. Hopewell’s staff … has experience across sectors such as domestic and global health, public policy, education, civic engagement, and civil rights.”

So, how will progressive values at the foundation level be reflected in the local coverage of news? NC Policy Watch, a project of the NC Justice Center, is an avowedly progressive publication. Its blog is entitled, “The Progressive Pulse.” Progressive viewpoints color the commentary, as is evident from such headlines as “New voter suppression proposals echo North Carolina’s dark past,” and “GOP leaders seek to poison school safety bill with partisan attack on the Affordable Care Act.”

The Colorado Independent appears to be, as its name implies, less ideologically driven. Its mission states, “We strive to report the news with context, social conscience, and soul.” Its staff cover the beats of civil rights, environment/energy, criminal justice, education, health and politics. My sense from a cursory inspection of the website is that the Independent approaches issues from a center-left perspective but is not blatantly partisan.

Maryland Matters strikes me, also on the basis of cursory inspection, as an insider’s take at Maryland politics written for insiders. The website bills itself as “independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit.”

What model of journalism does Zullo espouse?

Writes  Richmond BizSense:

Zullo said the site will focus on enhancing coverage of Virginia government and policy issues that its backers believe are getting overlooked or lost in the shuffle. He said the site would have elements of news site Vox in its coverage of topics such as immigration, poverty and energy and environment.

Says Style Weekly:

Broadly, coverage will include energy and the environment, transportation, health care, criminal justice, and eventually education. “FOIA and elections are what we want to cover right out of the gate,” Zullo says. “As the capitol press corps has shrunk, a lot of meatier issues tend to get left by the wayside. I think there are a lot of issues with Virginia’s FOIA laws. Lots of exemptions, lots of loopholes.”

Zullo covered Dominion Energy and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from what I would describe as a center-left perspective. His reporting was comprehensive and (as far as I could tell) accurate. He tackled complex topics. He would make sure that all relevant points of view were reflected. However, he framed his articles — on topics ranging from coal ash disposal to erosion-and-sediment control by interstate gas pipelines — so that Dominion and the ACP were always on the defensive. From my vantage point, they were almost always legitimate stories. Zullo didn’t do fake news. As a journalist, I considered him a worthy competitor. But I think this is fair to say: His coverage consistently highlighted the arguments of Dominion’s environmentalist antagonists.

There’s nothing wrong with that — as long as there’s someone else looking to flesh out other sides of the controversies. When Dominion sponsored Bacon’s Rebellion, my coverage of energy and environmental issues reflected my conservative-libertarian point of view. I pursued angles on stories — particularly those relating to the reliability of the electric grid — that were consistent with my priorities of sound economic policy. The public interest is served when multiple viewpoints are aired.

As long as the Richmond Mercury practices responsible journalism, I have no concerns about the publication, even if it is backed by foundations dedicated to progressive political goals. My greatest fear is a government free from accountability, and I have every confidence that Zullo and his team will help keep the politicians in Richmond honest.

Virginia’s Battered News Industry Takes Another Hit

Another shell blasts the pathetic remains of Virginia news media.

After a century-and-a-half of independent ownership, Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot severed its last connection with the Batten family, which had run the newspaper since 1955, with the sale to the Chicago-based Tronc Inc. media chain. Style Weekly, Richmond’s weekly alternative to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was included in the $34 million deal.

Tronc touts its ability as one of the largest newspaper companies in the U.S. to centralize operations and make investments needed to keep the newspaper competitive. It had better be good. Like other regional newspapers, the Virginian-Pilot has suffered a steady erosion of circulation and loss of display advertising, which it has been unable to offset through increased online sales.

I’m working from a fallible memory here, but I recall that the Virginian-Pilot print circulation once exceeded 240,000 — maybe closer to 300,000. The most recent number: 132,000. Like its in-state rival, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Pilot also has shrunk its page count drastically. (The T-D recently packaged local news, the business page, and the editorial page in a pathetic eight-page section. Once upon a time, newspapers aimed for a 50/50 advertising-editorial page count. That T-D front-age section had about two pages of ads.)

Expect more downsizing as Tronc integrates the Virginian-Pilot with the Daily Press on the far side of the James River, which it also owns. The strategy of most newspaper companies these days appears to be slashing expenses and maintaining cash flow as long as possible, even if it means cannibalizing their print operations.

Bacon’s bottom line: I started my journalistic career as a summer intern at the Virginian-Pilot. I had a great experience there, and it set me up to land a job at the (then-independent) Martinsville Bulletin after college. A couple of years later, I moved on to another Batten family-owned property, the Roanoke Times & World-News. The Batten family upheld the highest standards of journalism. And Frank Batten Sr., who donated hundreds of millions of dollars to educational institutions across Virginia, was one of the great philanthropists in Virginia history.

I was blessed to work in the industry during its golden age of profitability when newspapers could afford to pay staffs of investigative reporters who conducted in-depth research on enterprise projects not expected to pay off for months. Such luxuries are long gone. Today, newspapers don’t have staffs capable of covering basic functions of government. Thanks to various sponsorships that have supported this blog over the years, I have covered the Commonwealth Transportation Board and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which oversee transportation and higher education in the state– and I was typically the only reporter at the board meetings. Now that those sponsorships have expired, literally no one is reporting consistently on those crucial topics.

One possible successor to the dying advertising-, circulation- and profit-driven business model of the past is a nonprofit model supported by fund-raising and endowments. Whether journalism-as-charity can fill the void is a big question. I expect that it can for certain topics favored by wealthy philanthropists such as the environment and possibly social-justice issues. I would be amazed if the nonprofit model will do much for state budgets, taxes, transportation, land use, economic development, health care, K-12 education, higher education, public safety, or general state administration — much less for journalism at the local-government level.

Even the geniuses in Silicon Valley haven’t been able to figure out a business model. Google and Facebook are parasitical, feeding off the content created by the dying newspapers. Yahoo! tried creating its own news content, but that has flopped. Local-level digital news initiatives also have gone bust. Solutions, if they come, will emerge from rampant trial-and-error experimentation at the local level. I’m confident that a viable business model eventually will emerge from the debris.

Warren Buffett Writes Off His Own Newspapers

The sage of Omaha: Don’t get too attached to your hometown newspaper.

Uh, oh, this has got to make a lot of Virginia journalists nervous: Warren Buffett, whose BH Media Group owns daily newspapers in Richmond, Roanoke, Charlottesville, Lynchburg and Danville, among other media properties, has reiterated his conviction that there is no long-term future for most newspapers.

“It is very difficult to see — with a lack of success in terms of important dollars rising from digital — it’s difficult to see how the print product survives over time,” said Buffett during a Q&A session during the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting today, as reported by The Wrap.

“No one except the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and now probably the Washington Post has come up with a digital product that really in any significant way will replace the revenue that is being lost as print newspapers lose both circulation and advertising,” he said.

Adding insult to injury, he noted, “The economic significance to Berkshire is almost negligible.” But, he added, “the significance to society I think actually is enormous.”

Even before Buffett purchased the Virginia newspapers, the enterprises were treated as cash cows — milked for profitability. The now-defunct Media General focused mainly on controlling costs, not growing revenue. Investing in the newspapers would have been throwing money away. I resented the cost cutting when I was publisher of Virginia Business magazine, thinking it short sighted, but in retrospect it was probably the right thing to do. Other than the three national brands noted by Buffett, which have the brand power to generate big subscription revenues, no U.S. daily newspaper anywhere has figured out a viable long-term strategy.

I expect Buffett to continue milking his Virginia newspapers as long as he can, prolonging the inevitable by cutting costs to match declining revenues. Inevitably, reporting staffs and news holes will continue to shrink until there’s nothing left.

Who, then, will report the news? Who, then, will hold Virginia’s political class accountable?

One model is to raise money, build an endowment, and support journalism as a nonprofit enterprise. If you can find the funds, good luck with that. Cross your fingers and hope your benefactors don’t have a partisan or ideological agenda. Another model may be hyper-local, county and courthouse reporting — we’ll see how that works out. In the meantime, I have done some thinking about a sustainable business model for an online publication (like Bacon’s Rebellion) for covering the statehouse. If there are any journalists out there looking for a longer-term future than Warren Buffett can offer, I’d like to chat. Contact me at jabacon[at]baconsrebellion.com.

Politics, Culture Wars, and Facebook Data

Thanks to the zealous inquiries of Attorney General Mark Herring, we have learned that 7,100 Virginians downloaded a third-party app that yielded some 1.7 million of their Virginia Facebook friends to a contractor working for data harvesting firm, Cambridge Analytica, which had been hired by the Trump campaign.

“While we continue to await a fuller explanation about this incident from Facebook and its leadership, an important first step is getting our arms around the scale of the exposure,” said Attorney General Herring in a press release. “The fact that one in five Virginians may have had their personal information shared without permission is extremely troubling.”

The source of the breach was a Facebook quiz app, called ThisIsYourDigitalLife, explains the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The third-party research app collected information not only on Facebook users who approved it but also their friends. Herring collected the data from Facebook as part of a group of 37 state attorneys general who formally wrote the company asking for answers to questions about the Cambridge Analytica incident.

Bacon’s bottom line: Waaah! What else did people think Facebook was doing with all the data? Using it only to micro-target banner ads? C’mon. Nothing is free. If you’re not being charged cash for digital media, you’re giving away your data. How else did Facebook and Alphabet (owner of Google) become two of the most highest-valued public companies in the world? The only reason the incident has become an issue is that a firm working for Republicans were caught using the data. There were no histrionics when the Obama campaign asked followers to share data about their friends — to the contrary, the architects of Obama’s social media strategy were hailed as brilliant at the time!

Hair-splitters argue that the two cases were different. In the Obama campaign, people knew they were sharing the names of their friends. In the Cambridge Analytica incident, people were playing a “This Is Your Digital Life” quiz and didn’t know their data was being harvested. However, in neither case did the “friends” of those sharing their data have any knowledge or say-so about their use of their data. Thus, the hair splitters’ distinction is meaningful for the 0.5% of the people who shared their data but not the other 99.5% whose data was being mined without their knowledge or permission.

Let’s face it, the digital realm has become the new battleground of America’s larger culture war, and everything anyone says about Facebook, Google search algorithms, Twitter posting policies, and a dozen related issues must be viewed through the prism of our polarized politics. Nothing escapes the culture wars — nothing. There is no corner of our society you can hide in to avoid it. We seem to be experiencing a creeping “democratic totalitarianism” – totalitarian not in the Hitler or Stalin sense of an all-powerful police state, but totalitarian in the sense that every sphere of our society and culture is being dragged into the political realm and that we’re all subject to the capricious whims of the cyber-mob.

Herring did proffer one good piece of advice: “Review [your] privacy settings and make sure they understand just what [you] may be sharing with Facebook and other social media platforms.” Here’s my advice: Understand the motives of everyone pontificating about data privacy and social media. There’s almost always a political angle.

Sign of the Times…

The Herald-Progress and the Caroline Progress, community weeklies serving Hanover and Caroline counties, are going out of business. The final editions will be distributed today.

The Herald-Progress has been publishing for 140 years, the Caroline Progress for nearly 100 years. The two weeklies were staffed by six full-time employees. The newspapers were no longer commercially viable, said R. Jack Fishman, president of the Tennessee-based Lakeway Publishers Inc., according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

More Cuts to the Virginian-Pilot

The newspaper meltdown proceeds apace in Virginia. Pilot Media, which owns the Virginian-Pilot and other print and online publications, is implementing employee buyouts and other cuts that will result in a reduction of “less than 10 percent” of the company’s 543-person workforce. So reports the Virginian-Pilot.

Publisher Pat Richardson said the Norfolk-based company remains profitable, but that revenues are shrinking faster than expenses. Digital revenues are increasing but not fast enough to offset declines in print revenue. “We’re going to continue to invest in content and in sales,” she said, as well as digital, in a restructuring that she describes as “rebalancing the organization.”

Other than mentioning cuts to in-house advertising design, the article does not say which departments will be affected. The company hopes to meet its targets through voluntary buyouts of employees with more than 25 years of service, of whom there are 70. Presumably, that means some of the staff reduction will hit the newsroom. With all due respect to the folks who print the newspaper and sell the ads, the newsroom is the heart and soul of the newspaper.

I acknowledge this is idle dreaming, but… Perhaps Google, Facebook and others who have figured out how to monetize newspaper content better than the newspapers themselves will devise a revenue-sharing scheme to help keep newspapers alive. After all, if newspapers go out of business, who will create the content for Google and Facebook to aggregate and monetize?

Tired of Fake News? It Will Get Worse.

Tired of fake news? Too bad, you’d better get used to it. The number of newspaper jobs in the United States continues to plummet with no sign of leveling off. Old media is in free-fall, and new media shows little sign of stepping in to fill the void created by its destruction.

As many problems as I have with media bias (especially at the national level), biased newspapers are better than no newspapers at all. At least you can learn to read between the lines. But if newspapers don’t exist, there’s nothing to read, period. At the recent rate of decline, the industry could be kaput in twenty years.

Then you’ll have to get your state/local news from television, press releases, blogs, and social media — or from publications bankrolled by billionaires.