Who Will Inform the Electorate? What Would T.J. Say?

TJby Gerald L. Cooper

It’s sad to see The Virginian-Pilot go slowly down, like the first ironclads Monitor and Merrimack, in this sea-bound community. The old gal’s final voyage has probably begun — at least the vessel that “serve(d) the public with such skill and character … and … exercise(d) First Amendment freedoms with vigor and responsibility,” as the late publisher, Frank Batten (died at 82 in 2009), is still quoted on the masthead of the opinion pages of the shriveling newspaper.

It was distressing to learn last week that readers would lose the words and insights of Bob Molinaro and Bill Sizemore, both mainstays at The Pilot. The newspaper won’t be the same without Bill’s high-level of investigative reporting and Bob’s column of down to earth sports comments — often questioning the commercial excesses of big-money athletics. Others are  rumored to be leaving, too, but we readers with long-term loyalties are being fed the departure facts piece-meal, like barnyard hens. So we peck through the grain as it’s scattered in front of us, hoping our favorites will survive another cut.

Even the most faithful University of Virginia alumni in Tidewater might wonder if Batten should have withheld the $100 million he gave to UVa in 2007, instead endowing The Virginian-Pilot. Wisely invested that  $100 million could yield $8 million annually at 8% and pay a good hunk of operating costs — at either the university or the newspaper.

In Charlottesville, the University got the $100 million and created the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy — “the largest single gift in the history of the University,” said a news release. It quoted Batten, “Talented public leaders are needed from a range of professional backgrounds. It is critical to get younger people excited about the responsibilities and opportunities of public service in all its manifestations.” Thus emerged a mission statement for a School of Leadership and Public Policy.

One may wonder which would do more to keep Virginia’s citizens informed and its public servants honest — a vigilant, independent newspaper or a highly selective college of public policy. To confuse the choice, we read how Thomas Jefferson, writing to his friend, Col. Edward Carrington in 1787, cited his preference for newspapers as a means to keep well-informed “the opinion of people.” At that time a state-supported university was but a gleam in his 44-year-old eye.  Fast-forward to 1810 – 1819: When Jefferson labored to create the University of Virginia, he searched for funds to build its grounds and compensate its faculty.

There is evidence to suggest that the Founder might have, in his typically enigmatic manner, urged a donor such as Frank Batten to endow a respected Virginian-Pilot newspaper instead of sending a small fortune to central Virginia to establish a new department in the government-supported prototype of the elite eastern universities. This same founder of the University of Virginia had written in 1787, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter” — newspapers — as the best vehicle by which to keep the people of the new democracy well informed.

Will newspapers continue to have major influence in the cause of nurturing and defending democracy in the United States, or is the influence of print journalism in irreversible decline? What would best insure that our government “of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” as we face 21st century challenges? Would a time-tested, independent newspaper, dedicated “to serve the public  with skill and character” be most useful to democracy, or would a college curriculum designed “to get younger people excited about the responsibilities and opportunities of public service” reap greater benefits for the public good?

Jefferson, the explorer of dichotomies, might have believed that our 21st century democracy, still searching for balance and integrity in governance, needs both public universities and independent newspapers. And he might still “not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Gerald L. Cooper (BA, MEd, UVa) spent his 43-year career in education as an administrator, counselor and teacher. His final assignment in 1994-2000 was as executive director of the college access program, founded by Frank Batten and Josh Darden, that served ten public high schools in Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach.

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24 responses to “Who Will Inform the Electorate? What Would T.J. Say?”

  1. Good article and it motivates me to point out the irony of people blaming the media for not covering stories … or getting it wrong.. while we watch them slip slowly beneath the waves…

    People have made that choice. Seriously.. We choose to not pay for news.


  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    The print media largely caused its own demise. As the nation grows more diverse, ethnically, racially and politically, the newspapers continued to retain and hire people who write for themselves and those who think alike. They also cut back on reporting local news – the stuff readers care about. And retain overpaid, arrogant and lazy editorial staffs who tell the peons how to think. Bezos admittedly overpaid $250 M for the Post. How much are other new media sites worth that enable more people to post their views than the newspapers that still want to control who says what about what?

    There is more discussion from differing perspectives on Virginia issues on this blog in one day than the Post publishes in a year. But then, Bacon is not interested in being the only voice on Virginia as D.C. residents, Fred Hiatt and Lee Hockstader are.

    Bezos should continue to hire more local reporters and fund this by dropping the editorial board in favor of getting more diverse commentary, including that from readers. Soon he’d have something worth more than $250 M.

    1. well, as usual I do not agree with TMT.

      I think “news” is not commentary.

      I realize some folks think they’re the same.

      but even then – people DO have a choice as to what they read – and pay for – and the facts are clear – there are a TON of conservatives sites writing conservative commentary and conservatives don’t want to pay for it either.. even if it satisfies their own preferences for info.

      the same Conservatives “blame” WAPO and the NYT – all the time.

      and I ask – where is the paid Conservative Media?

      The Washington Examiner – a right wing rag if there ever was one – went out of print because Conservatives who loved it – would not pay for it.

      so – can’t have it both ways. If Conservatives want their own media to oppose the likes of WaPo and NYT – they are free to support it .. but I have no sympathy when they fail to support their own preferred media than blame the “liberal” media..

      what the doda?

      that dog just don’t hunt.

      I tend to read all of them including the Examiner and the WSJ but have to hold my nose sometimes.. but I still want to know the varying perspectives.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        My wife was the driving force in the cancelation of our WaPo subscription some 8 or 9 years ago. She didn’t see the value for the price. And she hardly votes the same as me. I have many Democratic friends who bemoan the ignorance of the editorial board on Virginia issues.

        Good example, Democratic candidate Kathleen Murphy (34 District HoD) has a long history of tax problems. Will the Post report them? Don’t forget this is the same newspaper where a reporter received negative feedback from the “separate” editorial board whenever he reported anything negative about Tim Kaine.

        I agree that the newspaper industry failed to adjust to the fact people don’t just read one or two news sources anymore. Move to the music model, $10 month for access to every newspaper in the United States. Split up the fees based on clicks.

  3. These days – “news” is picked up on RSS aggregators and more and more on Twitter and even though many news organizations have paywalls – they still post to twitter and usually you can find a way around them.

    My frustration with the “print” media is that they want you to pay for a full subscription – even if you are getting news from several newspapers.

    I would be more than willing to pay by the use – using some kind of common currency that can be in the “coin” range but I simply cannot afford to pay ful year subscriptions for a dozen different newspapers. Trying to get them to understand that – is futile.. they only know one business model and they want you to pay. As a result – good papers are now going out of business – in my view – because they are unwilling to alter their business models to deal with the “many news sources” world.

    I’d like to see a newspaper version of EZPASS when i go to the site – read the article and put my coin in the meter and move on… let me pay for what I use but don’t make me pay out the nose … and watch them go down the tubes.

  4. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    While I enjoy this blog, let’s be honest….it does not inform the public at large very much. Those interested in public polilcy? Sure.

    But I have to say that the decline of newspapers is a serious issue in our nation. I remember in the frothy days of the early to mid 00s…..especially the popularization of blogs…..we were told that they would “replace” newspapers.

    Outside of this blog, there isn’t another blog in the Commonwealth that actually offers facts and news. The few that remain are just partisan playpens or just link to newspapers and blather with their own commentary on the newspaper story.

    If there aren’t any newspapers, how are people going to know anything about their local governments? Maybe, if you’re lucky, you live in a place where a local radio station offers some semi-detailed coverage of City Hall. But beyond that, I”m at a loss about how a citizen could keep up with local gov’t. Fewer than 5 people are “regulars” at any Council or BOS meetings, so attendance doesn’t do it. I guess people could watch their local access channel (if they have one) to see a meeting, but realistically, how many people have the time to do that? 2% of the population?

    1. It’s usually Conservatives who complain about the media not those pesky “liberals”.

      The Conservatives claim that media is overrun with biased liberal papers and TV but when I look around – the internet, cable TV , talk radio is awash with Conservative blather. O’Reilly makes point that FAUX news beats all liberal TV – combined – even as he complains as how the liberal media dominates the news.

      I mean WTF…

      Where is the Conservative WaPo and NYT if there are so many Conservatives whining about those two papers?

      Cville resident is right. I have yet to see a single Conservative blog site that covers local govt meetings – with the exception of Virginia Virtucon which picks and chooses what it wants to harrumph about.

      Gruber made the mistake of calling out Americans for what they don’t know.

      As CR states, with the exception of BR – the average person has no clue how government really works – but they are more than willing to listen hard right commentators hackneyed perspectives.

      A poll was just taken in Fburg about the new HOT Lanes that will start operations in December. How many existing commuters were aware it would affect them on their daily commutes? 51%.

      Ask folks what law enables their tax-free employer-provide health insurance and they are clueless… Ask them if Medicare Part B is subsidized by the govt and they’ll say “no”, I paid into it.

      you can go on and on – but the horrible truth is – we have the govt we deserve because we really could care less how it works unless it gores our particular OX.

      1. Larry, you ask for the conservative equivalent of the NYT. If you want a conservative slant on the news of the day, try the Wall Street Journal, which is a conservative newspaper that also covers a lot of national news, in addition to their top-notch financial reporting. (Equating the WaPo with either the NYT or WSJ is not a valid juxtaposition. It just is not at the same level of coverage or quality of reporting.) I haven’t looked at it in the past few years, but once upon a time, the Christian Science Monitor did solid news reporting without any bias that I could detect.
        And it appears that you are pointing out the mote in the eyes of the conservatives while missing the beam in your eye. You ask about Conservative blogs who cover local gov’t meetings. I don’t see you listing the local liberal blogs which cover the same meetings. Where are they so you can contrast them to the lack of conservative blogs? Do they even exist, or do you not care since you want to take another gratuitous pot-shoot at people who disagree with you?
        And I would like to re-write one of your paragraphs: “As CR states, with the exception of BR – the average person has no clue how government really works – but they are more than willing to listen hard left and right commentators hackneyed perspectives.”
        Instead of dropping down into a “left” vs. “right” diatribe, why not accept that people from across the spectrum are no longer subscribing to print media, or watching the local news beyond the sports and weather information. That is a problem for this nation, in that (as you rightly allude to in parts of your posting) an uninformed voter is usually not a voter, or one who is easy swayed by the last talking head he or she listened to just before walking into the voting booth. Neither of these cases is good for America’s politic.

        1. JNL – I agree with much of your view except the folks who complain that there is no Conservative media to balance the Liberal media.

          There is but even if there were not – would you expect the “demand” from Conservatives to drive the market for it?

          Conservative blogs? are you kidding? Have you not noticed the proliferation of sites like Breitbart or the Daily Caller or Red State not to mention the Laura Ingrams and Heritage, Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sara Pallin, to name just a few…???

          I would say, in fact, that Conservatives don’t trust the print media anymore and instead flock to these blogs and FAUX news.

          Conservative thought and media has exploded in the last few years but a lot of it is just so far off the chart and not even Conservatives really put much stock in it but it has spawned a sub-culture of hard right – who, just like the leff – do not understand the facts – but unlike the left – want to shut down and vandalize govt.

          When you ask the right – their lineage these days – and if they have descended and evolved from Reagan and Bush I & II – they say no – those guys were “leftists”.

          so where is the current crop of conservatives coming from – on the political scale?

          the closest I can come – is the John Birch Society and Ayn Rand though I’d certainly stand to be corrected.

          The left – in comparison – is pursuing the same policies it did under Reagan. I do not think they have moved left – and you know something is up when the current crop of Conservatives disowns Reagan just a couple years after he was their hero.

          The other thing I have noticed is “deniers” not only for Climate – but all kinds of things. “Wiki” is now said to be “liberal” and actual govt sites about healthcare and the budget are said to “lie”. The POTUS is the one who creates the deficits.. not Congress.. people have no clue that the employer-provided is the number 1 tax break in the tax code and costs the treasury more than 250 billion a year – ..

          where am I going wrong JNL?

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    This is a very thoughtful but upsetting piece. I agree fully. I have had a personal relationship with the Pilot and what is has historically stood for since 1973 when I was a summer intern.

    To be sure, the Pilot strayed. It was a balls-chopping, union busting place when I worked there in the late 1970s and its editorial voice drifted from progressive to Main Street conservative to neocon before finding its senses.

    The Pilot supported me and other reporters in investigative reporting. I was in my late 20s and could have cost the company a lot if I was wrong. But they stood by me and we prevailed — in one case for seven years in a libel suit for a story that took us seven months. We finally won when the guy we wrote about was convicted of 57 felonies for the stuff we exposed about plus a lot more. No one does that any more.

    I have known some of the people you mention since the mid 1970s. I hate to see them go.

    1. this is a microcosm of how jobs are changing in our economy and how people trained in one discipline that is less and less in demand and they lack skills for the jobs that are available.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    No one is paid to report or write for this blog. It is pure gratis — public service. If you don’t like the fact that we are not a great supplier of reporting, why don’t we set up a fund and you can contribute generously?

    A reporter for metro in Virginia makes maybe $65K and when I worked for a national magazine I made considerably more. With this as a bench mark, I can send you my checking deposit number if you email me.

    I think you owe us an apology for soooo taking us for granted.

    1. Bacon pays me. $8,000 per article and $200 per comment. He doesn’t pay you?

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        You are getting screwed. Larry talked Bacon into $1000 per comment. He’s made so much money on volume that he uses a ghost writer now. 😉

        1. no. anyone who knows my comments – knows that if there was any justice in this world – I’d have to pay Bacon!

          Bacon does need to be recognized for his contributions … he’s done a good job providing a form with substantiative ideas and commentary.

          I’m amazed at just how much content – he and Peter generate… not just “content” – quality content – though sometimes tinged with ideological warts.

          1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            Seriously, Larry, I agree with you. There is more substance on this blog and any bias is readily apparent. Unlike the MSM, bloggers and commenting parties don’t pretend they are sans bias and speaking in the public interest.

            And we commenting parties do a pretty darn good job of attacking the argument, rather than the person even when buttons get pushed.

          2. re: ” do a pretty darn good job of attacking the argument, rather than the person even when buttons get pushed.”

            yes.. and I’m guilty of getting close to the line sometimes.. I know.. and probably need reminding..

    2. Cville Resident Avatar
      Cville Resident

      Whoa. I’m sorry my post came across wrong. I was simply trying to state that while this blog draws people who are interested in public policy, I doubt the average Joe out there is reading it like the old daily newspapers used to. It was a comment that was lamenting the future w/o daily newspapers to cover City Hall.

      I think this is the best blog in Virginia, and I always enjoy the reporting by you and Bacon.

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I am SOOO naive! Never trust bacon

    1. Only one problem – Bacon pays in Confederate bitcoins.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        But they were “minted” by Jefferson Davis himself.

  8. Thanks for your comments, Peter. Yours were the only thoughts that related to The Pilot. All others were talking about their agendas – like the U. S. Congress.
    The unidentified guests at the Pilot party (or wake), of course, are the corporate folks that FB always joked about (“Lawyers … !” he’d say; which he could have learned from Jefferson: “Deliver me from those lawyers in Richmond” is found in his autobiography). It is they who are causing both the demise of The Pilot’s journalistic quality by attrition, and the sequestering of its hallowed debt-free status by penny-pinching — thus supposedly making The Pilot a plum for the right purchaser. Neither Buffett nor Bezos has been sighted in Norfolk.
    And, irony of ironies, the only potential purchaser who has ever identified himself publicly was Dr. M. G. “Pat” Robertson. He spoke publicly about using The Pilot as a training ground for Regent University’s journalism students. Thank heaven Frank Batten was not around to contemplate that dangerous liaison! For Robertson has sworn upon the alter of his own creed the evisceration of our bill of rights and four freedoms.
    So help us, Hannah! Thanks to the Pilot for exposing yet a few more conflicts of interest and banking shenanigans in Virginia Beach — in the mayor’s office, where Will Sessoms had so enthusiastically endorsed ex-governor McDonnell, before his indictment. Now,The Pilot reports, Sessoms failed to recuse himself from “dozens of votes benefiting bank clients who together had borrowed at least $140 million from the institution,” identified as TowneBank.
    Finally, the Pilot made a classic “miss” in endorsing Norfolk Southern for the “Corporate Darden Award for Regional Leadership.” There must have been toxic coal dust in the eyes of the CIVIC sponsors and the Pilot’s corporate endorsers of Norfolk Southern. Touching base with the Pilot’s staff environmental writer might have been enlightening — if he’s still around.
    The Sierra Club of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Group are the ones who deserve a Corporate Award for Regional Leadership — They have presented scientific evidence to support the mitigation measures requested by Norfolk residents and called for by Norfolk City Councilman Thomas Smigiel’s proposed resolution. All that stands in the way is Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim’s delay in placing Smigiel’s proposed resolution on the Norfolk City Council’s agenda. (Unlike Virginia Beach, Mayor Fraim in Norfolk said he recused himself from all votes benefiting TowneBank in the past, and he this week resigned from TowneBank boards on which he was serving.
    So thanks again, Peter, and if you’re craving a place at the Oceanfront, by all means call an elected official in Virginia Beach. They know the ropes.

    1. Well, the Free Lance Star in Fburg went belly up a few months ago and was bought by what some call Corporate Raiders who are transparent in their plans to flip the paper once they get it’s financial affairs tended to – which means shedding a third of more of the workforce… so far through attrition and suggestions to some staff.

      FLS has been an excellent paper but their main source of revenues – ADs has taken a hit and the quality of the content has slipped… noticeably… at times.

      There is a paper called the Augusta Free Press which I know not that much about except that they seemed to know how transportation works in Va , they tweet on twitter – and part of their business is selling web-based products like websites and the like – which one might think is a “natural” for newspapers… to gravitate towards.. both as an industry and as a business model.

      The thing that pushed FLS into bankruptcy is rich in irony. They built a print plant hoping to print major newspapers for local distribution – like the NYT and WSJ but there are competitors and so they ended up with the Washington Examiner as their primary customer and we’ll all know the rest of that story.

      They always made a profit but their loan for the printing plant stipulated a performance metric and the loan was called it when their revenues fell below the performance criteria.

  9. should newspapers publish what people want to hear in order to survive?

    Are newspapers going broke because they are not publishing what people what to read?

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