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?

When we asked Poole, this was his response: “We are not going to be running anything from BR dealing with the two issues — tuition and energy — that had been driven by sponsorships. Not sure how long that will last, but it’s an optics thing. We’ll be glad to run stories that meet our standards — like the state workers not funding their retirements.”

Well, that was nice to find out after I’d let the Dominion sponsorship expire, costing me thousands of dollars in income.

What about the Virginia Mercury? Then, earlier this week, Virginia Mercury launched its inaugural edition. Poole picked up three of its articles. For me, the articles weren’t the issue — they abided by the tenets of solid journalism. But the Mercury articles didn’t fit two criteria for inclusion that the VPAP board established and posted on the VaNews website (as seen in this screen grab, my highlights added):

The Virginia Mercury had not been published for the past six months, and there were legitimate questions of whether it worked independently of an “advocacy organization.”

Poole doesn’t see the six-month criteria as relevant in the case of the Mercury. As he explained by email to Bacon’s Rebellion, that restriction was designed to protect against a “news” site popping up in an electoral campaign with the intent of helping one candidate or hurting another. “In this case, the Mercury is made up of four journalists who have an established track record of reporting at a high level for major Virginia newspapers. The Mercury didn’t just pop up one day; its launch was announced a month or two in advance.”

The more difficult issue for Poole, which he articulated in his letter to the VPAP board, is whether the Mercury is a nonprofit newspaper or an advocacy organization.

Who is funding the Mercury? Here’s what the Mercury website tells us: “The Mercury is funded by the Hopewell Fund, a 501(c)(3) public charity that specializes in helping donors, social entrepreneurs, and other changemakers quickly launch new, innovative projects.”

The Hopewell Fund website does not say where its money comes from. Neither does its 2015 990 form. While the IRS filing did state that the fund received $6.9 million in “contributions and grants,” it did not identify its benefactors. The public has no way of knowing whether Hopewell is functioning as a truly independent organization or is a channel for funneling black money from other sources that prefer to remain unidentified.

Hopewell does say for public consumption that it is managed by Arabella Advisors. Arabella’s website explains that it has “internal teams, networks, and experts” who focus on particular issues, including the U.S. food system, women & girls, conservation & climate, early childhood, civic engagement, education, equity & social justice, health, community & economic development, and social & emotional wellbeing.

Here are the topic areas highlighted by Virginia Mercury: criminal justice, health, energy + environment, transportation, government + politics, and education.

Has Hopewell/Arabella attached strings to its funding of the Virginia Mercury? Has it set expectations about the issues that will be covered and how those issues will be framed? Even if there are no explicit expectations, are there unstated expectations — does the Mercury staff think it needs to deliver the social-justice goods or the grant will not be renewed? And the overriding question: Is the Hopewell Fund grant motivated by the desire to promote local journalism… or to promote social justice issues? Here is what Mercury Editor Zullo told me:

As far as the larger question of specifically who is providing the seed money for our launch, the donors wish to remain anonymous. They have funded journalism projects over many years and are interested in buttressing shrinking coverage of state issues. I can say unequivocally that the decisions about what we cover and how we cover it are made independently by the four of us: me, Mechelle, Ned and Katie.

I would add that this is seed money designed to help us get started in a healthy way at a time when the model that has historically sustained print journalism is imploding all around us. Our goal in the near future is to position ourselves to attract in-state funders and we will welcome donors who support our mission of in-depth coverage of Virginia government and policy. We hope to be able to begin that process soon.

I would note that of the Top 5 most-read stories on VPAP’s website right now, two are ours. That’s how I’d like for us to be judged, by our content and the professional reporting of our staff.

Trying to thread the needle. Given the limited knowledge available about Hopewell/Arabella and its exact relationship with the Virginia Mercury, Poole made a policy call to not include its coverage of energy/environmental issues — an area of expertise for Zullo, who had covered Dominion Energy Virginia for the Richmond-Times Dispatch. Poole did not make it clear in his letter to the board why he would exclude energy/environmental coverage as opposed to health, education, and social-justice issues dear to Hopewell. Did Zullo’s background as a reporter for the Times-Dispatch, the editorial independence of which is not in question, somehow disqualify him?

I’m not happy with the way Poole has tried to thread the needle — I think he’s been unfair to Bacon’s Rebellion. This blog isn’t being paid a dime by journalism sponsors now. Sure, Haner and I have a different worldview from most journalists, and we might frame issues differently than mainstream-media reporters would. But we’re not beholden to anyone, and we’re not subject to outside expectations — explicit or implicit — of any kind. Indeed, we face less pressure to slant the news than newspapers and TV stations, which, after all, do have the agendas of advertisers to contend with.

But I don’t envy Poole’s position. No one (in Virginia at least) has faced these kinds of issues before, and the media landscape changes from day to day. Poole faces pressure from many different directions, and he has to consider possible blowback on the Virginia Public Access Project, an initiative that provides transparency into lobbying and campaign donations of which VaNews is only a small part. I think he’s making a genuine effort to be as  fair-minded as he can and to articulate objective principles to guide his actions. I just disagree with some of the conclusions he’s drawn.