by Joe Fitzgerald

Harrisonburg police rescued a possible abduction victim one day last month after shooting the apparent perpetrator. A city press release said a domestic dispute on Old Furnace Road around 6:30 p.m. turned into an abduction. Police pursued the suspect’s vehicle to downtown, where they shot the suspect, who was apparently armed. The suspect was flown to UVa hospital and the victim was safe.

At least that’s what I got out of a Daily News Record story that included the line, “The pursuit ended in front of the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office following an officer-involved shooting that ultimately injured the suspect.”

Journalism is dead. Or, in the same jargon as the press release, “Journalism ended following a Craigslist-involved financial loss that ultimately ate the newspapers’ lunch.”

Picking on the Daily News Record may be unfair, since WHSV ran the same headline on the same press release. But picking on either of them leaves out the fact that they’re part of a general problem with journalism. That problem is two-fold. First is the lack of money in journalism. Second is the fealty to obsolete journalistic models.

Craigslist is not the only cause of decline in newspaper revenue, but the loss of classified ad revenue is the largest hit. A third or more of a paper’s advertising product is being given away by a medium with far greater reach than the paper’s.

The journalistic model is still based in part on the idea that news outlets compete. They don’t and they didn’t, but news people loved the model. When Ben Bradlee retired as executive editor of The Washington Post 30 years ago, the Daily News Record didn’t put the story on page one because the managing editor said The Post was our competition. It wasn’t. But the fallacy holds.

Middle-aged boys in newsrooms acted as if they were competing with other news outlets long after radio, TV, and newspapers had dwindled to one source per city for most of the country. My high point in news competition came when police asked me, as the DNR city editor, and Bob Corso, as WHSV news director, to hold a story about a drug bust for a few days. The Harrisonburg Police Department lieutenant was covering all his bases, but to me the distinguishing feature of the story was that WHSV had it and we didn’t. I did the only thing I could. With the tone of a man giving away a thing of great value for the good of the community, I told Corso, “We’ll hold off if you will.”

Yesterday’s shooting stories had multiple outlets but only one source. The source was the city’s communications director. It would be fair to call him a publicist, and perhaps a little mean to call him a flack or a shill. But it’s fair and accurate to say that a person in that position for any large organization is not being paid to give the whole story about anything or to give it well. His job is to provide information that makes the city look good and to answer reporters’ inquiries without letting anybody know the press releases were written by human beings.

That there were not a half-dozen reporters on the scene is not a failing of the reporters or their employers. It’s an acknowledgement that the reporters don’t exist. There are currently fewer full-time-equivalent reporters working for all news outlets in the city and county combined than there were just at the DNR 30 years ago. Or as Jimmy Buffet put it in another context, “My occupational hazard being my occupation’s just not around.”

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. This column is republished with permission from his blog, Still Not Sleeping.

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4 responses to “Occupational Hazard, 1 of 4”

  1. Nathan Avatar

    Our family purchased and read the Richmond Times Dispatch for over 20 years.

    I would still be willing to pay for it, but for the fact that it has ceased to be primarily a news outlet and has chosen to instead become a champion of left wing narratives and politics.

    I believe there’s still a market for straight news, it’s just hard to find.

    1. Lefty665 Avatar

      The RTD was never a news outlet. That it has shifted its bias from right to left is trivial compared to the underlying long standing lack of substance. There was a reason we called them the “Times Disgrace” and “News Loser”.

  2. Lefty665 Avatar

    The next line in the Buffet tune is “I feel like I’ve drowned”. A fitting epitaph for the once proud and mighty institution of the press. We are poorer for its demise. Gutenberg had a good run.

  3. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    Competition? When I was at the Roanoke Times our city editor was recruited to take a job in neighboring Lynchburg. The ME called me in and directed me to find something, anything to report on Falwell or the Old Time Gospel Hour that would be an embarrassing scoop for Lynchburg. My string of stories on Falwell began and he was sort of my “beat” for several more years. I had a similar competitive approach to Ed Briggs at the RTD, who was also writing regularly on the rise of the religious right (say that fast over and over….)

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