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.

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20 responses to “VPAP Baffled by Media’s Blurry Lines

  1. There are a lot of sides to this but one of the issues is how we know with folks who do both reporting and commentary – on a per article basis – what role they are playing. I have the same problem with Shapiro. Even when he reports “news” it sounds a little biased to me at times.

    So I’m not surprised that VPAP is twisting and turning in it’s role as an aggregator who tries to decide if given content is pure factual news and what is actually commentary masquerading as “news”.

    Then we have the additional problem – people engage in what they say is fact-based dialogue but they reference information that is commentary from others.

    My view is that I don’t accept any words from others whether it’s WaPO or WSJ or Bacon’s Rebellion or Power for the People – as pure unadulterated fact but if I can vett that info and confirm from other sources that it is – then I put some trust in it especially when the left and the right agree on the facts.

    When WaPo and FOX agree – I tend to feel more confident. When they don’t I’m suspicious of BOTH of them.

    Having said that – BR is not the unvarnished truth from on high and never was and never claimed to be. Just referencing factual info does not mean the commentary is objective.

    It’s a mess but what we are all learning is that 1. gate-keepers are problematical and 2. – in the end – it’s up to you to WANT to know the FACTs or to just believe what you want to believe. That’s on you now.

  2. VPAP didn’t have expenses from a few local candidates. I got them from the Registrars office and sent them the data in Excel format. They couldn’t use it they said, wrong format. So I said what format can you use it in? They never responded.
    Outside of the data, I’m thinking about making a point that people like me still read and support this blog, and it seems totally at odds with their mission to be “public access” when they don’t report such things. We can’t get Mercury to report on Chesapeake but they will on some Norfolk stuff. Totally bogus. Totally questionable.

    • I cannot blame VPAP for what Virginia won’t do which is to require timely reporting of spending in a specific format that ANYONE including VPAP can use.

      Expecting VPAP to accept any/all formats of data is not reasonable IMHO.

      If the state won’t require a standard electronic format , that’s the real problem – VPAP can’t be held responsible for that. They do the best they can given the wild and wooly environment that the state allows.

      Also – media is free to report on what they choose to report on. It’s always been that way. We don’t DING WSJ or Fox News or Brietbart or RTD because they don’t report on what we want them to.. why do we put that on other media? I’m not understanding it.

  3. We’re conservatives, Jim. What don’t you get??

    Spent last night at meine bruder’s house after a late flight into Dulles, and saw the Sunday print post for the first time in a while. Three pages of opinion in the A section, more pages of local opinion in the Metro section, and the entire Commentary section. I bet 40-50 percent of the news hole went to commentary and opinion. The copy they send out electronically is probably 80 percent commentary and 80 percent Trump-hate.

    Virginia Mercury is interesting, I read it, often has good reporting. But it has no less of a point of view than you or I do, Jim. They don’t want our POV out there….

    Poole has encouraged me to give up the acid commentary. What do you think, dear readers, pull my punches??

    • Bingo!

      And welcome back? Was worried about you, thought maybe you’d gone over to the over side.

      As regards: “Poole has encouraged me to give up the acid commentary. What do you think, dear readers, pull my punches??”

      Hell no!

      If you are not challenging the status quo, you are prostituting yourself like most all the other so called “journalists” pleasing their masters. If you are up to that, then get out of the business quick and do something meaningful and useful, instead of living the wasted life of a coward propping up your masters’ lies and deceit.

    • No, Steve, don’t pull your punches. Maybe you and I should re-brand everything we do as commentary, no news — that way we avoid the “confusion” of sometimes doing one, then the other. Of course, we’ll still have the problem of not being a newspaper. I think the rule at VaNews is newspaper commentary only. Otherwise there would be a dozen or more blogs they’d have to include.

      I still think we can nail them on Schapiro, though. Jeff “swings both ways,” as it were, between news and commentary. But VaNews could not possibly exclude him.

      • Don’t waste your time. With organizations like VPAP you have to follow the money. Go to their website. Click on “About Us”. Then “Leadership”. Then “Leadership Council”. There are 8 people who donated $10,000+ to VPAP. Take each name and go to “Money” then “Donor Search”. Input each name and write down the amount they’ve donated to Republican, Democratic and Other for “all years”. Add up the numbers. Here’s what you get …

        Republicans – $1,124,141
        Democrats – $5,487,988
        Other – $382,450

        Now, go to their 2017 annual report and look at the biggest donors …

        https://s3.amazonaws.com/vpap-production/static/aboutus/annual_report/2017_VPAP_Annual_Report.pdf

        The Mousetrap Foundation? They donated $175,000 to an immigrant legal aid organization in DC in 2017. They donated $100,000 to NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2017. They were VPAP’s biggest donor in 2017 ($50,000). Regardless of what anybody thinks of their causes they certainly seem left of center.

        The second biggest donor was Ronald D Abramson ($25,000). Mr Abramson is one of the Leadership Council members discussed above. When you look him up on VPAP’s own website:

        Republican – $4,500
        Democrat – $1,060,733
        Other – $50,500

        They’re not going to post conservative news or conservative opinion.

        The best alternative would be to set up an alternative site … perhaps with a merger of Cranky’s Blog and Bacon’s Rebellion. Solicit funding from the wealthy people who generally donate to Republicans. As per Cranky … go way beyond just political donations into a whole database of facts about Virginia (including the successes and failures of the various public school system). Publish whatever news and commentary you want.

        In my opinion, you are fighting a losing battle with VPAP.

        • Thanks for that analysis, Don. It had never occurred to me to do it. But given the guidance that David Poole is getting from his board, the partisan slant of the contributors may explain a lot.

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            No, it does explain a lot. No maybe about it.

            Why?

            There is a lot of money, influence, and power at stake here. Huge amounts. Trump scares the hell out of these people, and understandably so. Hence polarization.

      • Pretty amazing. Right now VPAP posts a “news” article from Politico on electronic, internet based voting in West Virginia. On Politico’s web page today are a few other articles (not written by the same author):

        It’s time for Democrats to play hardball with the FBI
        Brett Kavenaugh isn’t Robert Bork. He’s John Tower.

        The author of today’s “news” article is also credited with helping a number of other Politico editorials such as “Trump Cyber Security Drops”, “What’s the point of indicting those Russian Spies?”, “Pros and Cons of Aggressive Posture Toward Beijing”.

        Shapiro isn’t the only example of VPAP doublespeak.

  4. Well, I do think the VPAP News and Editorial feed is slanted. However, it could be a lot more slanted. I don’t see articles from Blue Virginia any more than I see articles from Bacon’s Rebellion. What they do post seems consistently left of center.

    My bigger issue is that the articles and editorials that are posted are typically elitist Virginia. As of now, there are 3

    • Sorry … There are 31 news articles, 24 of which are behind firewalls. There are 10 editorials, 9 of which are behind firewalls. The Washington Post digital subscription costs $50 per year (basic), The Richmond Times Dispatch costs $12 per month (after a lower priced first month). How much would it cost for me to subscribe to every paywall used by VPAP in a year? Hundreds of dollars? Thousands of dollars? I would think if VPAP wanted to make their news and editorial feeds more accessible they would add more free articles and editorials to the long list of paid for articles they presently post.

      • Excellent point. Almost everything now resides behind a paywall, which severely limits the usefulness of VaNews unless people are willing to pay for a lot of online subscriptions.

        It looks like there’s a market opportunity for someone to produce a similar newsletter capturing the best of the blogs. While a lot of it is dreck, some of it is pretty good. While much of the commentary on Blue Virginia sounds like it was written by rabid dogs, some of it is pretty well informed and worth reading. (I suppose the same could be said of the conservative blogs.) Best of all — no paywalls on blogs. It’s all free reading.

      • Yes, with all those paywalls, VPAP is all but useless. As a “free” subscriber you either pay through the nose, or you hand over all you private information to read “local news” one article at a time. I quit on the second day.

        But this high cost is not the case for everyone. You get this service free, compliments of the taxpayer if you are for a state and local politicians and/or government employee.

        You see, VPAP is just another one of those big government rackets, and it is one that operates not only locally and state wide, it also operates as a very useful tool for national news aggregators for liberals throughout the nation, as Rippert points out.

        So, in short, VPA is one part of a vast and growing Liberal Leviathan State information sharing and propaganda machine, taking us all into the dystopian world of George Orwell’s “1984”. That horrible future is now on our doorstep, only a click of your cursor away, your state nanny.

        The last news outlet in the world that VPAP is going to publish is Bacon’s Rebellion, a group not enslaved to the liberal progressive party line.

        Of course, these folks at VPAP hide behind their much publicized bogus claim of providing their readers with a high minded non-partisan public news service. Instead, all we got is a yet another whorehouse imposter in the middle of our public square. And auxiliary spin off of the Washington Post and New York Times.

        • For an example of how this works, click onto VPAP and then click onto a article by the local C’ville paper, the Daily Progress. To read that article you either have to subscribe to the paper, or to answer one or two personal questions about your life and personal circumstances or preferences.

          So, as a result, if you choose not to subscribe, the Daily Progress will have key parts of life story, and/or current up to date details about you, if you read a single article. After the 20 or so articles you read, imagine what they (the Daily Progress and VPAP), know about you.

          Now, imagine this mass data mining operation going on tens of thousands of times every day all over in Virginia, all those Virginians giving their private personal information away to “read” articles posted on VPAP. And its going on all over the country too.

          Who gets that great volume of private information on Virginia citizens, and out of staters too? How is it used? Who buys and sells it? How are those proceeds divided up between VPAP, the local papers, and outsiders? Who are those outsiders? And who gets compensated for all the clicks on local stories read for free by politicians and state and local employees, whether they be in or out of state?

          How is all that private information sold, and used? By commercial interests? Political parties? Pollsters, and other highly partisan interests, not to mention demographers of all sorts and kinds.

          And imagine too, the control that VPAP exercises over the news sources that it uses as linked in sources. Do they either tow the right line or if not, are they are cut off as a linked in source?

          And why is it not true that every time the so called board of VPAP announces a change in its selection process, it ramps up the power of VPAP over its linked in sources?

          And if that is what happens when it happens in public, what might VPAP do in private, to get the news it wants or prefers?

          I do not have the answers to any of these questions. Including whether state politicians and employees get the VPAP service for free. I have not read the privacy policy of VPAP. But I have a suspicions based on what little I know just from using, or trying to use, the site. And should not VPAP answer these questions so the public and its users know what is going on here?

  5. Steve Haner, Jim Bacon, agree with Reed: h*ll to the NAW.

  6. When Poole picked up something of mine from here, that was nice. Likewise when he picked up some guest commentary I’ve sent in to a traditional newspaper, and I intend to do more of those (and perhaps he will still use them). I’ve had a couple of nice “beats” but mainly because I’ve read reports or attended meetings others didn’t have time for, not because I’m working sources like I did as a real reporter.

    I’m not doing this to get my name or views out there through VPAP. But to treat Jim and me differently than VA Mercury or (as noted) Shapiro is just obvious as hell. As a pre-WB reporter (before Woodward and Bernstein) my goal has always been to print news and raise hell and anybody who believes reporters are paragons of disinterested truth-seeking is a fool. The raising hell part has always been there.

  7. I find this equally amusing and infuriating. Who does VPAP think it is anyway? It started as a way to track money used for politics — donations from PACs and the like. On the one hand, this is useful. On the other, it is just another way of letting big corporate interests continue the “Virginia Way” with big donations to politicians without and true ethics commission with teeth that other states have. If you disclose your nucks you can do anything you wat.
    Now, they are judging what a “news” organization is. Their concept of it dates back to the monopolistic times when everything had to be attributed there were “two” sides on every issues including of fourth, ten or 17 sides. Public relations flaks displeased with coverage could go to the publisher who was typically part of the Old Boy and Girl School who could be convinced that things should be reported their way.
    The Internet changed all that. Actual journalists faced decades of job cuts and lower pay. The best of them went on to blog and scrape by as best they can and as traditional media declined. There’s plenty of good coverage by such independents. So what if they have a point of view? Why judge them by the failed, outdated newspaper model?
    Suddenly, now, you have VPAP rather pompously decided which of the news outlets is legit– which is commentary and whether they president “both” — it is always only two in some false equivalency.
    The VPAP board has exactly ONE real journalist. The rest are flaks, corporate types and politicians. They apparently are coming up with nonsense about what constitutes a true journalist endeavor. Who is board chairman Nicole Riley anyway? She is a flak who heads a small business advocacy group. Google her and you will find lots of right-wing op=-eds bashing Obamacare and the like. Who gives her the right to decide if a worthy venture like Virginia Mercury is legit or not? Just who are these people anyway and why should we journalists care if we are considered Kosher enough by flak terms to be in their little daily newsletter?
    I have blogged in the past that VPAP does good work but it is a fox in the hen-house thing where true journalism is seriously at risk because VPAP is funded and run by the very entities that need the most scrutiny.

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