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.