VIRGINIA BEACH — The coming move of The Virginian-Pilot’s newsroom from South Hampton Roads to the Peninsula is a culmination of events that reflect not only technological change but how journalism is devalued in our divisive digital culture. What matters most is that we are in the process of losing our best local newsroom. This is the tipping point.
The institution of The Pilot is important not because of the newspaper itself but because of the journalists it represents and the local journalism we will lose if, ultimately, we lose The Pilot. More often than not, local stories of note about Virginia Beach come from a team of Pilot reporters who are dedicated to our city. Fox News and CNN are not going to cover Virginia Beach City Council. Facebook has never been to a School Board meeting.
The best solution to ensure the survival of local journalism is unlikely, but let us at least consider it. We need an act by powerful people that may, in some ways, work against their own interests for the betterment of all. We need to return The Virginian-Pilot to local ownership by buying it away from Tribune.
The Pilot is an institution that has its roots in Norfolk at the end of the Civil War, and it has expanded its influence regionally, including to our city, which has a great many of its readers. It was family-owned for much of its life, certainly during its prime. Now, its removal from its longtime home in Norfolk comes after the shuttering of an office in Virginia Beach this past year and after other closures of bureaus in South Hampton Roads cities. This move from Norfolk is happening despite assurances from those at the top that readers will not see much of a change.
This is not so. This is a huge step toward the weakening of local journalism. With that comes a rise of greater power for elites, politicians and government institutions to control public life with little challenge by a watchdog press that informs the public.
It is hard to believe telecommuting journalists or those with undefined workspaces at the Virginia Beach printing plant will be able to do the job as effectively as they would in a real newsroom — or editors based on the Peninsula will serve Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk or Virginia Beach as effectively as from here. The guild representing local reporters understands that its work and professional fate will be better should local control be restored and sufficient monetary backing provided so they can do their work.
You may believe the big newspaper is a liberal rag or not nearly as progressive as it might be. You may struggle to remove the traditional decorations of newspapers – wire content, opinion writing, even the fact that it is delivered on paper – from the ever-relevant public-interest newsgathering capacity that truly matters for an engaged community. You may argue that The Pilot will never again be what it was when print was a dominant medium. Well, so what?
It’s the local journalism itself that counts. It’s the capacity to cover our governments and public affairs to a standard.
The Pilot delivers information we would not have otherwise. You do not have to like everything it does to see the value in its existence, particularly for local news consumers in our city, Virginia’s largest. We will be poorer when The Pilot’s core main operations move away. We will be destitute if The Pilot dies altogether. The journalism some consumers believe appears by magic online for “free” actually relies upon monetary backing and legwork done by professionals who are accountable for their work. These professionals should work in the places they cover.
If The Pilot eventually dies, there is no replacement for the largest newsroom that has covered Virginia’s largest cities, including Virginia Beach, for generations. Local news startups, including this one, are neither monied nor capable enough to match the depth and breadth of coverage even a diminished Pilot produces. There is no online business model to replace a newsroom that covers public meetings other media organizations, including The Independent News, may miss due to their own priorities or resources.
The best hope for our local journalism, however unlikely it may seem, is for the vital newsgathering capability of The Virginian-Pilot to be returned to local ownership and backed with money by people who understand competent journalism actually costs and shall, to put it plainly, sometimes annoy the very sort of people who can do this.
We need folks with deep pockets, even if they have been stung by what they perceive as unfair reporting in the past, to step up and buy our local paper back. Ideally, they should protect its core function — covering public life aggressively and accurately even when it clashes with the interest of the powerful.
This is perhaps an absurd call for selflessness in a time of division for our country and in many of our communities, but perhaps only an absurdity will save us from our unwillingness to preserve local journalism. This is a call for the powerful to act against a climate of secrecy that only benefits power. And this is a call for people who dislike our local paper for real or perceived slights to overlook emotion and see the logical greater good local journalism provides when we support it.
We need to act as a community of citizens and leaders to save the newsgathering capability of The Pilot, even if that means restructuring it or, if it will help some swallow such an idea, renaming the thing for an area code.
Tribune Publishing is the Chicago-based media group that bought The Pilot from its past local ownership, and we must consider its recent actions. Tribune’s interest in what traditionally has been Virginia’s finest newspaper appears to have been, at least in part, a real estate deal more than a move to sustain local journalism. Around the U.S., our traditional press is being stripped for exterior parts at the risk of the engine of journalism. This engine helps power a free and just society even when we do not like what it says.
The best possible outcome now is for someone local, likely a group of civic leaders and institutions, to buy The Pilot back from Tribune and reestablish it as a newsroom dedicated to covering our communities. Whether what emerges is disseminated on paper or only online is a secondary concern and a matter for later discussion.
There is still local newsgathering capacity left to be saved for our city and neighboring communities by restoring The Pilot. Local people with resources need to believe we deserve a local free press. We must either act with urgency or resign ourselves to greater helpings of misinformation and spin.
We must have the will to save the leading newsroom in our community, even if it means carrying The Pilot back from across the water.
Please let us buy our paper back.
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