Tom Whipple remembers 1996 as “the year everybody went online.” It was also the year that his Arlington County neighbor William Dolan III ran for Virginia attorney general.
“We had a subscription to the RTD [Richmond Times-Dispatch], which came in the mail about three days late,” said the affable Whipple. But the Internet was revving up, so he started poking around and found that nearly all of the state’s 33 dailies were online.
There was, he discovered, more coverage of the race than either he or Dolan knew.
Whipple, who rises early, about 4:30 a.m. or so, began copying and pasting stories about Virginia politics from the newspaper sites into Microsoft Word that fall. He printed out all that he could find, then walked down the street to Dolan’s house. Whipple stuck the printout into the plastic bag holding Dolan’s copy of The Washington Post.
Dolan told others about Whipple’s printouts, and they told others. Whipple would send it to anyone who asked, as long as they had an e-mail account so he didn’t have to hand-deliver the report. Over the next 15 years, about 2,100 people — legislators, reporters, lobbyists, state employees and Virginia political junkies — signed up for what became the daily e-mail known as the Whipple report, the Whipple wire or the Whipple clips.
“It’s the Bible of the Virginia press corps, the Virginia political class . . . pretty much everybody reads it in the morning,” said Bob Lewis, political writer for the Associated Press in Richmond. “It’s indispensable.”
The report, formally named VaNews and now run by the Virginia Public Access Project, was one of a handful of digital experiments born as entrepreneurs, idealists and amateurs tried to figure out what the Web could do. One of the precursors to news aggregation sites and blogs, Whipple’s newsletter vacuumed up stories published around the commonwealth and redistributed them. Unlike most of those experiments, which quietly failed or faltered, his idea lives on.
“No one paid him a thing. He did it as a labor of love,” said David Poole, executive director of the access project. “We feel pretty humbled trying to keep it going.”
Some glitches were to be expected. Whipple originally did a simple copy-and-paste of complete stories into his newsletter, which likely violates copyright law. But providing just a link to stories wasn’t an option; in those days links on many Web sites quickly expired, often after a single day. And no one officially complained.
Whipple heard rumors that some Republicans wouldn’t subscribe because of the name. He has been married for 53 years to former state senator Mary Margaret Whipple, a leader in the Virginia Democratic Party.
“I played it totally straight, nonpartisan, just like in my old job,” said the retired CIA analyst who specialized in the Middle East. “As long as somebody was talking about state politics, it went in there.”
Others agree. Longtime subscriber and Virginia’s speaker of the House, William J. Howell (R-Stafford), said that Whipple showed “absolutely no bias, nothing snarky. It’s been a very handy way to know what’s happening around the state.”
Jeff Ryer, spokesman for the Senate Republicans, called it “a mainstay for observers of Virginia politics.” Reporters were the biggest fans, Ryer said, followed by lobbyists and politicians.
“It’s quite an honor for a reporter’s story to appear first,” Ryer said. “I don’t want to say reporters are competitive about it, but they are certainly conscious of it. If somebody’s story did not get carried on Whipple, well, let’s just say noses got out of joint.”
Whipple, 75, chuckled at the idea that anything but the news value of a story affected the order in which the stories were listed.
“People thought I was more journalistic than I was,” he said recently while showing off his basement office, near the laundry room. There, under a fluorescent light , he would settle at his Apple computer, now with two screens, a fax machine, copier and printer. “Editors would call and ask if I knew job candidates. I knew more about Iraq than about Southwest Virginia! My only claim to fame was figuring out very early on that people would want this.”
The newsletter came out seven days a week, whether Whipple was at home or on vacation. The goal was always the same: to get it out by 7 a.m. For years, he sent it through a slow-as-molasses 4800 baud modem, which could take an hour to transmit. Eventually he installed a faster Internet connection, and later he hired a company to send the newsletter out even faster.
“I’ve done this all over kingdom come,” he said, from Anchorage and from Disneyland, from a vacation house 200 miles north of Toronto. “I never tried it from the other hemisphere, though,” he said, noting that he once suspended publication for two weeks when he was in Australia.
In 2011, when Whipple decided it was time to quit, he began asking around for someone to take on the task. A business organization had previously approached him but “I had ideological problems. They were just not the right people to do it,” he said, declining to publicly name the organization. He talked to The Post, but that didn’t work out either. He approached a few universities, and one said it would take on the report only if he would give it $100,000 and his mailing list.
“They couldn’t quite catch on to the value of getting to 400 or 500 opinion leaders, every member of the General Assembly and every newspaper editor in the state,” he said, shaking his head. Whipple was trying to give away — for free — a product he had built on his own time and dime, and no one seemed willing to accept the gift.
“I finally thought of VPAP, and they immediately understood its value,” Whipple said.
The public access project hired a Web programmer, stopped the practice of republishing entire stories in favor of short summaries and hyperlinks, and set up searches to more efficiently find stories. Subscribers doubled to about 4,200.
It costs the organization about $25,000 a year to produce, Poole said. And he pointed out that he helped send readers to newspaper sites. He said he directed about 100,000 Web viewers to The Post last year.
Back at Whipple’s basement office, there is still activity at 5 a.m. Instead of searching for news stories about Virginia politics, he’s looking for information about the state of oil exploration, production and depletion.
“This is going to be the story of the 21st century, the switch from the end of fossil fuel to — what? Nobody likes the term ‘cold fusion,’ but it could solve darn near everything,” he said, warming to his subject.
You can subscribe to Whipple’s daily and weekly e-mail newsletters about “peak oil” by sending him your e-mail address.