It is the best of times and the worst of times.

For the print media who cover Virginia politics.

It’s hard to ask for more.

Virginia was a battleground state in the presidential election and we saw more of the candidates than we had in decades. In 2009, the Democrats have a contested gubernatorial primary for the first time in a generation with a major national figure, Terry McAuliffe, trying to wrest the nomination away from Creigh Deeds and Brian Moran.

The upcoming general election in November with Bob McDonnell on the GOP ticket will be viewed as a referendum on Barack Obama and a barometer on the national mood.

With the exception of the halcyon days when larger than life figures such as Doug Wilder, Chuck Robb and Ollie North were at the center of Virginia politics, I can’t imagine a more exciting time to be covering state politics.

Politics has become a hot commodity and we’re in the middle of it.

If you can stop thinking about your job.

Mandatory 10 day furloughs on top of job cuts on top of eliminating the company’s contribution to 4o1K’s at Media General. 

Layoffs on top of layoffs on top of wage freezes on top of furloughs at the Virginian-Pilot.  It even put itself up for sale and couldn’t find a buyer willing to pay a reasonable price.

Everywhere there are fewer reporters responsible for writing more frequently on more platforms that ever before.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it was “just another recession” that you had to hunker down and weather until the economy turned around. 

But this time it’s different.

Newspapers reporters and opinion writers are not in a business that’s going to rebound when the economy turns around.  They’ve joined the ranks of Americans who realize that their industry is unlikely to survive in its present form, regardless of how quickly the nation emerges from the recession.

Unless you’re working for the Post or the Times (and there’s even pressure here), it’s hard to believe that your paper will look three years from now anything like it does today.

The problem is elementary. Newspapers have a large amount of relatively fixed costs- staff, printing, buildings, etc- and declining advertising revenue streams.

And no one has come up with a way of fixing it.

The media companies have not been able to adequately “monetize” their internet presence. And all the consultant-driven gimmicks that the papers have adopted such as “we’re going to dispense with national news and focus entirely on our local area”- sound to me like someone whistling while walking past the graveyeard. 

Every time I give a speech I ask the audience this question: “How many people here read a newspaper everyday?” 

The answer has a direct correlation with age. If I am speaking in a group where most of the audience is over 50, almost 100% of the group raises their hand. Even if they didn’t read a newspaper everyday, they’d be embarassed to admit it. Many of them tell me “I like the feel of the paper in my hands.”

But if I’m speaking in a group comprised of people under 30, barely one in five ever raise their hand. If you’re under 30 and actually do put your hands on a paper everyday, it’s as if you’re indulging a secret, guilty pleasure.

In terms of the daily paper, I think that we are seeing the end of the Virginia media as we know it.

One has to regret many of the impacts that will accompany this. The talented and dedicated individuals who are having their pay checks reduced and are losing their jobs. The loss of a major financial supporter for many community groups and civic initiatives. The damage to the common culture that occurs when we’re all not starting from the same information base.

Yet, in terms of political coverage, I’m actually a long-term optimist of what can be done and where we might be heading.

While the newspaper industry as we know it may be dying,  our thirst for information may actually be growing. Those of us, for example, who have an interest in politics want and expect more information more quickly than we ever have before.

And I am hopeful that we’ll figure out a way or, better put, a variety of innovative and engaging ways to cater to this thirst effectively.

First, we are already doing this to some extent. 

For example, the Virginia Public Access Project (www.vpap.org) led by David Poole, a former journalist, has completely transformed the information base and discussion about political money in Virginia in a manner that represents a vast improvement over what a daily paper could ever accomplish.

Second, I think that a genuine opportunity exists to develop a daily media outlet (probably on the web)  that could provide political coverage on a par or superior to that offered by almost any newspaper in the state today. What if five or six of our most talented reporters and commentators hooked up with a couple of skillful marketers and started a Virginia-based knockoff of The Politico?   Imagine a focused political daily with good information, distinctive voices and a bit of an edge. Given the money that flows into Virginia politics today, I would be surprised if this could not become a self-sustaining activity, either as an enterprise or perhaps a nonprofit.

Finally, let’s not forget how the economics, brash democracy and meritocratic nature of the blogosphere has enabled anyone who a passion for politics and something worthwhile to say to obtain an audience, even if they are not connected to a major media institution. The remarkable ascent of baseball statistician Nate Silver to the unofficial position of National Polling Maven during the 2008 presidential campaign is a vivid illustration.

Like so many people of my generation, my first job was as a paperboy delivering a daily. I know how saddened I’ll be when the notification eventually arrives about the cancellation of my daily newspaper deliveries. Yet three years from now, I truly believe that I’ll be consuming and contributing to media outlets that may be even more interesting and exciting than today’s news vehicles.

2 Comments

  1. I’m one of the “under 30″ and while I don’t read the newspaper everyday, I would certainly like to. When I first moved to the Richmond area, I was given a free month subscription to the Richmond Times for answering some kind of survey. I loved it. I always loved reading the paper in my hometown everyday. If I was still there, I’d still be reading it everyday.

    I can relate to the older people who say that they like to hold the paper in their hands. I do too. It just has a relaxing quality to it.

    As a former Mass Com major, I know that the old guard media system is in its dying days, and it’s sad to see. I just hope that our society doesn’t completely jump on the technology bandwagon and that there is still some kind of place for the daily newspaper. After all, I’d hate to see newspapers end up like BETA tapes and AM music radio.

  2. I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum from you, Lee. I happen to be one of the “over 50″ crowd who gets his daily dose of newspaper news online, usually before 5:30am.

    I’m also one of the oldest political bloggers in Virginia, both in age and longevity of the blog, even though I cannot bring myself to do a daily- or even weekly, sometimes- article.

    I agree with Bob, the traditional “ink stained wretch” is soon to join the telephone switchboard operator in obsolescence. Sad in one way, terribly exiting in another. I am among those who remember that the most idiotic question one could ask when the called party answered the phone is now the most common, and most logical. “Where are you?”

    I have long thought about the type of news service that Bob envisions, and I too see it logically fitting a state-wide mold rather than national.

    There will always be, I suppose, small-town, family-owned newspapers with limited circulation. Car dealers, grocers, and realtors need some sort of advertising outlet after all. But for real news with a state and local basis will shift to some sort of online outlet.

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