Two bills that would have given online-only local news publications like ARLnow some of the same privileges afforded legacy media outlets failed in Richmond over the past few weeks.
In the House of Delegates, HB 1920 would have included online local news publications that employ at least one full time journalist in an exemption from local Business, Professional, and Occupational License (BPOL) taxes.
Current statute exempts radio stations, television stations, newspapers, magazines, newsletters and “other publication[s] issued daily or regularly at average intervals not exceeding three months.” Online publications are not considered an “other publication” in Virginia, in part because the state exemption was originally passed in the late 1980s, before the advent of the modern commercial internet.
ARLnow’s parent company, which is based in Arlington and pays a mid-four-figure BPOL tax annually — nearly 10% of the company’s net income for 2022 — appealed the exclusion from the media outlet BPOL exemption to the Arlington Office of the Commissioner of Revenue in the fall. The office rejected the appeal, citing a 2020 Virginia Tax Commissioner ruling against a food blog that was also seeking the exemption.
Introduced by Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington), the bill garnered support from other Virginia online-only local news publishers but Arlington County officials expressed concern about a loss of tax revenue. Several other online publications, including Axios, are also based in Arlington.
HB 1920 was ultimately “laid on the table” by a House finance subcommittee, with committee members expressing both interest in studying the bill’s financial impact and surprise that legacy media outlets are excluded from BPOL.
Also considered this year was SB 1237, proposed by state Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), which would have given local governments and businesses the option of placing legal notice ads in qualifying online local news publications. Currently, such notices must be placed in printed newspapers to satisfy legal requirements.
Obenshain argued that numerous online-only local news publications have as many or more readers than their print counterparts, while citing the continued closure of print newspapers across the country, including the Richmond-area Chesterfield Observer earlier this month.
Here in Arlington, residents and County Board members have at times expressed frustration with the county placing its legal notices in the relatively lightly-circulated Washington Times newspaper. Board members, however, said that doing so is the most cost-effective way to meet state notice requirements and placing notices in the Washington Post, for instance, would be considerably more expensive.
Arlington County spent more than $37,000 with the Washington Times, an unabashedly conservative daily paper owned by an offshoot of the Unification Church, between fiscal years 2018 and 2019, according to a Freedom of Information Act response to a resident’s query in 2020.
The owners of ARLnow, Page Valley News and the MadRapp Recorder were among those to testify in favor of the bill last week. It was opposed by the Virginia Press Association and the publisher of InsideNoVa on the grounds that newspapers provide a permanent physical record of such notices and Virginia newspapers publishers already post notices online.
The state Senate’s judiciary committee ultimately voted 6-9 against the bill, after expressing concerns about which publications would qualify under SB 1237 and whether notices would be lost if online publications closed.
The vote was largely along party lines, with six GOP members voting in favor. Among those voting against it were members of the Democratic delegation from Fairfax County: Sen. Jennifer Boysko, Sen. Chap Petersen, Sen. Dick Saslaw and Sen. Scott Surovell. Previous attempts to pass a similar bill on the House side by Del. Hope have also failed in committee.
Online-only local news publishers who supported the bill — there are currently more than a dozen such local sites throughout the Commonwealth — have vowed to try again to gain bipartisan support for a modified version of this year’s bill during next year’s General Assembly session.
Separately, a bill from Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington) to provide tax credits that would benefit both print and online local news publishers, also failed in a House finance subcommittee. The bill, HB 2061, had the support of the Virginia Press Association.
The Sun Gazette newspaper has not published new articles on its website since Friday and may have printed its last edition.
Several sources tell ARLnow that the free weekly paper, which has separate editions serving Arlington and parts of Fairfax County, has effectively shuttered, though no notice of a closure was published online.
Sun Gazette staffers, meanwhile, have been hired for a new local newspaper called the Gazette Leader.
Editor Scott McCaffrey, sports editor Dave Facinoli and advertising director Vicky Mashaw are among those hired for the new paper, with Mashaw assuming the title of General Manager.
Jim O’Rourke, CEO of Arizona-based O’Rourke Media Group, confirmed to ARLnow that his company had hired the Sun Gazette vets and would be launching the new local publication later this week. The goal is for the print edition to go out Thursday and a new website to launch then or shortly thereafter. Two-thirds of papers will be mailed to local addresses, the rest distributed by other means, he said.
O’Rourke declined further comment, saying that a formal announcement with more details would be published with the first edition.
An email sent by Mashaw, obtained by ARLnow, suggests that the Gazette Leader will have much of the same local news focus and coverage area as its predecessor.
“We are excited to communicate to you about the launch of the Gazetteleader.com and two new weekly print publications that will serve Arlington, Great Falls, McLean, Tysons, Oakton and Vienna,” the email said. “You can expect hyper-local community news coverage, original reporting, the most advanced local news website in the region, easy to read and access newsletters delivered directly to your inbox, an e-edition replica of the print products and so much more.”
The Sun Gazette was the successor to the daily Northern Virginia Sun, which ceased publishing in 1998. The paper is owned — at last check — by Northern Virginia Media Services, which previously owned but then sold two publications, Leesburg Today and Ashburn Today, in 2015, and sold the website InsideNoVa.com in 2018.
There’s no word yet on what might have led to the staff departure and possible closure.
ARLnow and its sister sites celebrated another year of hard work, journalistic achievements and client service at our holiday party Monday night.
One change: the venue. Rather than eating and drinking at a local restaurant, as usual, we had beer, wine, soda and pizza in the common area of our coworking space in Ballston. It’s one example of the belt tightening underway over the past couple of months, amid a downturn in the economy and among media companies in particular.
Round after round of layoffs have been announced at U.S. media companies this fall, including at CNN, Buzzfeed, Tysons-based newspaper chain Gannett, and email newsletter company Morning Brew. The Washington Post is set to undergo more layoffs early next year, its publisher announced today, while Rosslyn-based tech publication Protocol shuttered last month.
ARLnow and our sister sites are no exception to the pain felt among advertising-supported news outlets. After a torrid start to the year, which brought about plans for additional hiring, our company’s revenue is down in the quarter to date.
We started to see the slowdown, as did other media companies, in July. October and November were particularly bad months. The good news is that we’ve seen a pronounced recovery in December.
That does not mean we’re out of the woods by any means, however. Many are predicting a recession in 2023, though projections for how deep and prolonged it will be vary to a significant degree.
Despite the economic challenges, we have committed to our nine full-time employees that no layoffs are planned and we will do whatever is needed to avoid them. Instead, we have cut back on some technology expenses, non-essential spending and our freelance budget.
You can also expect to see ALXnow editor Vernon Miles helping out with ARLnow, to offset some of the freelance cuts.
We are fortunate to be operating in a market that is bolstered economically by federal spending and to have a loyal adverter base and a growing roster of paid members. Other local news outlets are not as lucky.
Still, we can use your support. If we can add 200 new ARLnow Press Club members (less than 0.1% of our monthly readership) between now and the end of the year we should be able to keep ARLnow’s freelance budget at current levels. If you’d like to support our reporting while getting an early look at the next day’s news, please consider subscribing.
The media business is always evolving, but now seems like a particularly volatile time. In the interest of transparency, we wanted to discuss some other factors that are affecting our business now and into the future.
Artificial intelligence and automation
We have spent much of the past year working on no-code automations that allow our editorial and business teams to operate more efficiently. For instance, most social media posts are now automated and we can publish events, announcements and other user-submitted content with a single click.
Arlington maintains a sizable network of traffic cameras, but a significant portion of those cameras have been “temporarily unavailable” in recent weeks.
It’s a problem that the county county is promising to fix.
The publicly viewable feeds of conditions on Arlington’s main roads help with real-time reporting on breaking news of crashes or hazardous driving conditions, such as heavy snow. The feeds also allow residents to check conditions before heading out.
Arlington County has more than 200 traffic cameras trained on its roads. As of last weekend, at least two dozen were out. A few weeks ago, in Pentagon City and Crystal City alone, about 40% of cameras were out, according to public safety watcher Dave Statter.
For comparison, it looks like only about 10% of the traffic cameras @VaDOTNOVA has along the entre length of I-395 in Virginia aren't working. That seems a lot more reasonable. https://t.co/RpSD8MWQ4G
— Dave Statter (@STATter911) October 21, 2022
Residents noted outages were an issue when the county moved the feeds from Trafficland.com to an in-house website back in 2015.
The outages have a variety of explanations, but the county is working on addressing them, according to the Dept. of Environmental Services.
“A camera feed can stop working for several reasons like equipment failure, communications issues, or planned construction,” spokesman Peter Golkin said. “Sometimes only a camera’s public feed is impacted while the internal feed continues. Although a single camera supplies both feeds, they can be independently impacted — especially in older analog cameras.”
Thanks for responding. Would also be interested in knowing what rules/guidance the County has issued on the operation of the cameras.
— Dave Statter (@STATter911) October 24, 2022
Public feeds are produced by the DES Transportation Engineering & Operations (TE&O) Bureau. Feeds are also shared internally with the county’s emergency services agencies.
He said while TE&O’s first priority is maintaining the internal feeds that support critical county services, given limited staff and resources, the bureau is “still stepping up its checks of the public feeds.”
“Many public feeds have been restored in recent weeks,” Golkin said. “To avoid confusion, staff are looking at ways to differentiate long-term, planned outages from temporary outages on the public website.”
The outages compound another issue: the county’s policy of censoring public feeds during incidents — from minor crashes to major public safety incidents. Turning off the feeds makes real-time reporting more difficult for ARLnow and other news outelts.
@ReadyArlington If you could rotate the traffic camera there that would be appreciated
— Arlington Now (@ARLnowDOTcom) October 21, 2022
Arlington says it controls what is relayed via traffic cameras during certain incidents to protect privacy.
“Arlington County upholds its values of transparency with public safety information beyond camera footage, including daily crime reports, press releases, emergency alerts, and EMS/fire event summaries,” the county said in a statement. “Camera access furthers our transparency but must be balanced with community privacy concerns.”
ARLnow was provided the following criteria that go into evaluating when to stop publicly broadcasting a traffic scene.
Cameras are diverted to protect:
- Health information: This includes identifiers related to a potential patient, like their face, demographics, and health condition. This is all protected information until the person is determined to no longer be a patient, which occurs after they sign a refusal to be assessed or transported.
- Law enforcement tactics and officer identity: The County protects the identities of law enforcement personnel who serve in plain clothes or undercover roles. Cameras may also be diverted during an active incident, such as an Emergency Response Team (ERT) response, to safeguard tactical information and ensure the safety of all present.
- Victim and witness privacy: Victim and witness privacy protection is always central, but especially if there are juveniles present — something responders wouldn’t know for sure until arriving at a scene. The County also seeks to protect victim and family privacy and dignity by diverting footage in a medical incident, especially when next of kin must be notified of a significant event.
It’s unclear how much identifiable information can be obtained, however, given the relatively lower resolution of the feeds.
Proposed legislation from Del. Alfonso Lopez that would support local journalism has withered away without bipartisan support.
HB 1217 would have provided up to $5 million annually in income tax credits to eligible news outlets that employ local journalists and up to $10 million annually in income tax credits to businesses that advertise with these outlets.
The newspaper industry has seen a slow decline over the last two decades — as documented on CBS’s 60 Minutes this past Sunday.
The decay of local newspapers is driven in large part by a loss in advertising revenue as classifieds have moved to services like Craigslist and other ads have migrated online to Facebook, Google and other large platforms. In recent years, hedge funds and private equity firms have further squeezed local news by acquiring hundreds of newspapers and slashing costs — which has boosted profitability but led to additional layoffs.
In the past year, however, there’s been a push to enact federal policy to stop this trend, and the activity at the federal level has sparked state-level bills.
Lopez’s bill died this legislative session during a finance subcommittee meeting, with six Republicans voting against it and three Democrats voting for it. While the Arlington Democrat said the objections didn’t seem related to spending, he didn’t offer further theories about why it failed.
Lopez said he intends to keep applying pressure until this measure is adopted.
“I think we need local journalists to keep our constituents informed of what’s happening at the local level,” he tells ARLnow. “I’m going to bring this bill back every year until it becomes a law in the Commonwealth.”
The bill makes business sense because it would encourage ad revenue, which pays the salaries of local journalists, according to Lopez. It’s also good for democracy, he said, as areas without local coverage tend to have more government and small business corruption and see lower local election turnout.
Virginia Press Association Executive Director Betsy Edwards says it’s unfortunate the bill was killed.
“VPA supported this bill because it would have helped local newspapers through income tax credits,” she said. “While we did not work with Delegate Lopez in drafting this bill — we support what he was trying to do to help local news.”
Lopez modeled his bill on the federal Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSA), included in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which effectively died when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) withdrew his support.
The LJSA was the fruit of advocacy by the Rebuild Local News coalition, coordinated by Steve Waldman, the founder of Report for America, a nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms.
“It became clear to me that, in addition to improved business models and greater philanthropy, the crisis is so severe, and the threat to democracy so urgent, that we needed better public policy,” he tells ARLnow.
(Updated at 9:55 a.m.) Clarendon-based Axios is growing quickly, in part due to its entry into a shrinking business: local news.
The media company, which covers national news with short, punchy articles, has launched more than a dozen daily city and regional newsletters. One spotlighting the D.C. region debuted this week.
The new venture, Axios Local, aims to “help readers get smarter, faster about their hometowns.”
Following the acquisition of a local news publication in Charlotte, Axios launched six newsletters earlier this year, from Denver to northwest Arkansas. By the end of October, Axios Local will have eight more locally-focused newsletters, including D.C.’s.
Publisher Nick Johnston tells ARLnow that Axios distinguishes itself from other local news outlets by applying its well-known smart brevity style to individual cities and regions.
“We call it ‘smart, lifestyle reporting,’ where you get a lot of hard, scoopy news but you are also writing about the community,” says Johnston. “People care about museums that are opening or cool places to eat or what’s happening with festivals [over] the weekend. Can you combine all of that with a little bit of a local voice? Would readers respond to that? So far, the early response has been great.”
Axios aims to cover a mix of bigger cities, smaller cities, and college towns, he says. The nation’s capital was a natural choice because of its size, audience and endless supply of topics — not to mention the fact that it’s Axios’ home turf.
“D.C. is a big, awesome, dynamic city with a great market,” Johnston says. “Also, an audience that knows us a lot from our political reporting.”
The key is to hire great, in-the-know journalists, notes Johnston.
Axios D.C. is written by Chelsea Cirruzzo, Cuneyt Dil and Paige Hopkins. Both Cirruzzo and Dil have plenty of local bonafides, with Hopkins coming from Charlotte, where the already-popular Charlotte Agenda was rebranded Axios Charlotte after being acquired for a reported $5 million.
The D.C. newsletter will cover the District as well as Arlington, Alexandria and neighboring Maryland counties. Dil tells ARLnow that the newsletter’s goal is to cover the regional conversations that folks are having, not necessarily every city council or county board meeting.
“That [can] be about housing, transportation — Metro is always a regional story,” he said. “Everyone’s interested in what’s going on in terms of lifestyle, food and entertainment-wise in D.C.”
The pandemic revealed the importance of a regional focus, Dil notes, since COVID-19 crosses borders and the impact of policies extends beyond individual jurisdictions. Arlington’s Amazon-fueled redevelopment boom is a prime example of that, he said.
“There’s now Amazon and redevelopment everywhere. It’s part of this massive regional story of the whole area changing right before our eyes. We want to cover that,” says Dil.
Amazon, it should be noted, is Axios D.C.’s first advertiser.
First week of the new Axios DC newsletter (which I’ve generally enjoyed reading!) and the Amazon HQ2 ads keep on coming…
There’s something to say about target demographics here, I think. pic.twitter.com/0fI7pfwjD5
— Teo Armus (@teoarmus) September 24, 2021
Dil and Johnston say the region’s size, with two states, one city and a number of localities, does present a challenge.
“It’s been fascinating to get a sense of how you pick and choose,” says Johnston. “There’s just so much happening. And, also, how do you cover it in a comprehensive way?”
He said a recent story about vaccine mandates for public employees struck this balance, explaining D.C.’s mandate and ticking off mandates in other jurisdictions.
In terms of operations, many Axios employees still work from home, but Johnston says the Clarendon office at 3100 Clarendon Blvd remains the company’s “central hub.”
After this fall, Johnston says staff will focus on getting a better sense of what appeals to readers and how the business works in various local markets. The current plan is to launch newsletters in a dozen more cities in 2022.
The growth comes as Axios shakes off failed talks of merging with The Athletic or being acquired by German publishing company Axel Springer. The latter ended up buying Rosslyn-based Politico, from which the Axios founders split when founding their company in 2017.
Still independent and newly-invigorated by its foray into local, Axios recently announced a number of promotions, including moving Johnston to the newly-created publisher role, after he previously served as Editor in Chief. He will oversee both the local news operation and “Axios Pro,” a new subscription service.
“I’m super excited about just continuing to grow as fast as we can,” Johnston said.
Photographer Taking Silly Cicada Snaps — “Oxana Ware is a talented photographer based out of North Arlington, but along with her business side, she likes to have fun and be a little silly at times. That’s why it just seemed right to her when she decided to have a full photoshoot with cicadas, complete with handmade props.” [WJLA]
County Marking Sit-In Anniversary With Art — “It was delayed a year due to the pandemic, but a commemoration marking the 1960 civil-rights sit-ins in Arlington is now beginning. The Arlington County government had planned to mark the 60th anniversary of sit-ins at Arlington lunch counters with special programming on the Arlington Art Truck, using prints by artist Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. to immerse the public in the experience, in 2020. But the effort was a victim of the pandemic – until now.” [Sun Gazette]
Arlington-Based Axios Making Moves — Digital news outlet Axios, based in Clarendon, is launching local news publications in a number of cities this year, including Washington. It is also reportedly in discussions to be acquired by a German news conglomerate. [Washington Post, Marketwatch]
Masks Coming Off For APS Athletes — “It looks like Arlington school officials have abandoned their masks-on policy for most athletes while engaged in competition.” [Sun Gazette]
ACFD Assists with Potomac Search — “Person seen going into Potomac River & not resurfacing… [After a search involving D.C., Arlington and other water rescue teams, medics] transported an adult female in critical life threatening condition. Law enforcement will investigate the circumstances.” [Twitter, Twitter]
Secretary Pete at DCA This Afternoon — “U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Mary Kay Henry, International President of the two million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) will host an immigration roundtable discussion with 32BJ SEIU’s airport workers at National Airport (DCA).” [Press Release]
Arlington County Board Communications Manager Mary Curtius was a journalist when the reporters wrote drunk and sometimes edited sober, and when the editors ashed their cigarettes on reporters’ desks if they were lucky.
She started writing when “cut-and-paste” literally meant cutting sections of type out and sticking paragraphs together with rubber cement glue.
“We probably went home high every day, we were inhaling so much rubber cement,” she said. (On that note, the photographers, stuck in dark rooms all day, were probably loopy from the developer and fixer chemicals.)
Curtius reported from Los Angeles, Jerusalem and Capitol Hill. She was the Middle East bureau chief for the Boston Globe and Christian Science Monitor. She covered Congress for the LA Times and before that was the paper’s National Security Editor. To have more time with her kids, she switched tracks 11 years ago and started handling communications for Arlington County.
Today is Curtius’ last day as Communications Manager for the County Board before she retires. After five decades of working — she started cleaning homes at 13 — she says she looks forward to visiting friends and family now that she is fully vaccinated, traveling and volunteering. And rest. She looks forward to rest.
“I don’t think there are a lot of people who can say they never had a bad job and never got to do anything fun,” she said. “I’m lucky. I’m really lucky. It’s been a great ride.”
And sometimes, the ride was dangerous. She remembers taking a road trip out of Jerusalem with two male reporters, and when she got into the car, she saw they were working through a bottle of whisky. The two polished it off over the five-hour drive.
“It was completely terrifying,” she said. “That was how they lived… I was always ‘the good girl.'”
She had to be, to get ahead in a male-dominated field.
But her distinguished journalism career took a toll on her family life. So Curtius joined the county 11 years ago to be home more with her kids. During her tenure, Curtius said the changing media landscape and the dawn of social media caused her job to morph too. She has been part of a few major crises — Snowmageddon and the Derecho storm and now the coronavirus — and has helped Arlington prepare for Amazon’s arrival.
“It was a great job,” she said. “It’s a great county — God’s truth — it’s a great county. It was an amazing experience to be doing something that directly related to my community.”
Curtius remembers spending 18 months documenting how Arlington transformed from a sleepy town to a bedroom community for Pentagon workers to a bustling metropolitan area. She found all the Board members and county managers who were still alive and put together plans in the 60s and 70s to accommodate the Metro and concentrate development around stations.
“That video captured the ‘Greatest Generation’ — people who had these ideas and laid the foundation of modern Arlington,” she said. “I really enjoyed meeting those people. Almost all of them are dead now.”
Over the last decade, she said local media coverage has waned. Before joining the County Board in 2006, she said TV stations would set up cameras to get clips from County Board meetings. No longer, except for major news like Amazon’s arrival.
“It seems incredible to think about that,” she said.
Since then, the Washington Post has pulled back on local coverage, and there are not as many news outlets focused on county government — the Sun Gazette and present company excluded, she added.
“Of course, it is happening across the country,” she said. “It’s really distressing, just as a reporter, that there’s not a lot of local coverage.”
Ovi Visits Local Elementary School — “In conjunction with the launch of Ovi O’s, Alex Ovechkin’s limited-edition breakfast cereal, the Washington Capitals’ captain surprised Arlington Traditional School, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, and a local Giant store with a visit on Sept. 10.” [NHL]
9/11 Remembrance Ceremony in Courthouse — “Officials in Northern Virginia held a moment of silence to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon. Sen Tim Kaine, Rep. Don Beyer, military commanders, local Arlington County officials and members of the Virginia House attended the remembrance ceremony on Arlington County government plaza.” [NBC 4, WUSA 9]
Local Leaders Set Housing Goals — “Local governments around Greater Washington now plan to set targets for housing production over the next decade, as part of a regional initiative to build 320,000 new homes by 2030 and ease the region’s cost pressures.” [Washington Business Journal, Twitter]
ACPD Plans ‘Coffee With a Cop’ — “Wednesday, October 2 is National Coffee with a Cop Day and the Arlington County Police Department is hosting four events with our Community Outreach Teams to celebrate. Community members are invited to join police at these informal events to ask questions, voice concerns, get to know their neighbors, interact with the Community Outreach Teams and meet officers from other sections of the department.” [Arlington County]
Orthopaedic Office Celebrates Grand Opening — “Ortho OIC Orthopaedic Immediate Care, the area’s first independent orthopaedic specialty urgent care… will be holding a grand opening event on September 19 from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. The event is open to the public and will feature a ribbon cutting ceremony.” [Press Release]
Farewell, Subway-Centric Paper — “The Washington Post is closing down its free daily commuter paper, Express, this week. The final edition of Express will be published on Thursday. The staff learned of the news at a meeting at noon on Wednesday.” [DCist]
Local Brews for Crystal City Oktoberfest — “Oktoberfest is returning [to Crystal City] in 2019 with a new partner, local Arlington brewery New District Brewing. The second annual celebration, which will feature a selection of local beers, live entertainment, and a variety of food trucks and vendors serving traditional German fare, will take place on Saturday, September 28, 2019 from 1-4 p.m. at The Grounds, located at 12th and South Eads Street in Crystal City.” [Press Release]
D.C. Developments Now Touting Proximity to Arlington — The announcement of a large, new mixed-use development in the District touts its 750 market-rate residential rental units, 42,000 square feet of co-working space, and “great access to… emerging areas, including National Landing.” [Twitter]
Catholic Newspaper Reducing Publishing Frequency — The Arlington Catholic Herald will be moving from weekly to biweekly publication, as part of a series of changes that also includes expanding the number of households to which the paper is sent. [Arlington Catholic Herald]
Sewage Leak Along Spout Run — “Residents are advised to avoid a generally inaccessible portion of Spout Run due to a sanitary sewer main break east of the Spout Run Parkway-Lorcom Lane fork. County staff are on site establishing a bypass.” [Twitter]
Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley
People are more interested in the news these days. Part of that is due to the political climate, but part of it is that there’s an abundance of news and news-like content online, which often makes it difficult for readers to know whom to trust.
“The political situation we’re in now has actually made people much more consciously aware of journalism, and what good journalism is and what it isn’t,” said David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance (NMA), a Ballston-based nonprofit that advocates for the news industry. “Journalism is much more central to people’s consciousness in public conversation than it was certainly three or four years ago, 10 years ago.”
The Trump presidency has certainly accelerated the public’s focus on journalism, according to Chavern, but more people are having a harder time knowing where their news is coming from.
“There’s always been conspiracy theories,” Chavern said. “They were usually delivered to you by a crazy uncle over the dining room table. And that was clearly different from what was on TV and what was in the newspaper and in the driveway. Those are three clearly different sources of information. In the internet blender, all that stuff is delivered exactly the same way and it puts a big burden on readers to pay attention to where things come from. And what stands behind them.”
NMA’s mission, along with its partner organization the American Press Institute (API), is to promote good journalism through advocacy, education and training.
“Journalism plays a central role in a democracy,” said Jeff Sonderman, API’s deputy executive director and executive vice president. “We want people to be informed of what’s happening both in their government and more broadly in their community. We want people, in any given place, to be able to have a shared conversation with each other about what’s happening here. What do we want to happen in this community? How are we making decisions together? And journalism is really the medium that facilitates that, that both creates a platform for it and also shapes it into a responsible platform.”
Before moving to its Ballston headquarters (4401 N. Fairfax Drive) in 2012, API hosted training seminars for journalists at a facility in Reston. As fewer and fewer newsrooms had the money to pay for these seminars, API shifted its business model toward online and in-person training, and research.
“We’re really interested in supporting changes in journalism that make it more innovative and use new technology and storytelling in data and science, but in the service of making those organizations sustainable financially and otherwise, so that they can continue to exist and do the work that’s really are the core of what we’re working on,” Sonderman said.
With accusations of “fake news” running rife through the industry, API has done a lot of research about mistrust of media in order to inform its newsroom training. It’s also partnered with the Trusting News organization to help newsrooms adopt practical, everyday strategies for instilling trust in readers.
“Trust is the foundation of the relationship that any journalist wants to have with an audience,” Sonderman said. “It’s difficult to do all these critical things about serving democracy and informing citizens if there isn’t a foundation of trust to build that on.”
“Newsrooms need to be more transparent about their process. Something as little as adding a sidebar to a story explaining why the news outlet thought it was important to cover the story and how the reporter researched it can go a long way toward establishing a trusting relationship with readers,” Sonderman said.