Ed. — This originally appeared in the Friday, Jan. 31, print edition. Since it first ran, Tribune announced it is moving The Pilot’s operations to Newport News. This is a significant development, though the newspaper will maintain some presence in Virginia Beach at its plant on Greenwich Road.
BACK BAY — I love journalism and its potential to help inform communities and, sometimes, inspire us to do better. It is a human endeavor, with all the faults of the people who do it, but we need it. I would not have founded The Independent News if I did not believe this.
I am writing again about our region’s leading news organization, The Virginian-Pilot, to reiterate its importance to our communities and to our city. This will be brief, but I hope it might lead to a longer conversation about what comes next for our local journalism.
I care about The Pilot because it is still the most significant news gathering operation in our region and in Virginia Beach. If it is cannibalized — as recent ownership issues, the sale of downtown Norfolk offices and further buyouts suggest is happening — there is no news organization capable of stepping up to fill the void.
That includes The Independent News.
Some folks have suggested that a diminished Pilot means opportunity for me. That’s not really true. This is a very small newspaper. That is what it will remain. We’re growing with an expansion to the Oceanfront, but this is only designed to grow a little.
The best use of this newspaper is to try to cover our core communities, especially in the southern areas of Virginia Beach, and to cover stories larger media outlets may miss. That means I do not always cover what larger media organizations are publishing or airing. Because they already have it covered.
Other small news startups in the market have not demonstrated the depth of coverage that would show they could step up to replace The Pilot, even in small ways.
One online outlet, Southside Daily, claims to be “the only daily newspaper dedicated to Virginia Beach,” but it appears (after a promising launch a few years ago) to have little current staff and lots of wire content.
Perhaps most importantly, it isn’t actually a newspaper.
The Virginia Beach Sun, once a paper of some significance to locals, remains online, but it not going to fill in the need for public interest journalism. Once, I saw it run the byline of public relations person who penned a press release. Another time, it used information directly from Wikipedia for a cutline about a dragonfly.
The last “print” version I saw of it in a local Starbucks appeared to be bound with a report cover. Really.
Look, these outlets are what they are, just like this one. They have their fans, but they can’t come close to The Pilot newsroom. Neither can The Independent News.
We have some fine broadcast journalists in Hampton Roads, but local TV newsrooms have different demands and constraints. That is another conversation.
The bottom line is that we are in the process of losing an institution we have not really figured out to replace. My hope is that someone with deeper pockets than mine — a low bar, admittedly — will buy and bankroll The Pilot’s core public-interest news gathering capability. Someone local — and someone who already has their axes fully ground.
Or launch something new, perhaps with a weekly print edition and a hard news focus. It’s doable.
The Independent News will not become a regional or even a citywide newspaper. The Indy is at its best when I can focus its coverage. It means, for example, I can run columns by local supporters of gun rights or gun restrictions because I know them, ask them to do it and they kindly say yes. Readers may disagree with them. Free people can do that. Smart people keep having conversations.
Were it feasible, stepping up to challenge The Pilot would mean losing some of the things I love doing with this newspaper, such as covering the 4-H livestock show, running essays by citizens and publishing a big election guide. These are not money-making endeavors, but they matter to readers. There’s no good tradeoff that comes with overextending this paper. We would lose too much.
This newspaper cannot replace The Pilot’s news-gathering capability. We should address the issue at hand — our future local journalism. For now, that means supporting The Pilot and its journalists while we have them. It also means considering what comes next.
Thanks for reading.
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