With News & Messenger shuttered, what fills the void?

November 17, 2012

For those in the business, the future of news is a topic of constant discussion and often depressing uncertainty.

With the announcement last week that the Manassas News & Messenger, Prince William County’s sole newspaper of record, is being shuttered by the end of the year, it’s a topic that is especially relevant in the coming months and years for county residents who want to keep up with local events.

The News & Messenger helped provide the kind of daily reporting prized by those who want to know what happened at the government board meeting, to keep track of the police blotter or to check out the weekend calendar. Some say the presence of journalists at public meetings makes government more responsive and transparent.

Even though other publications and Internet services cover the region, it’s unclear whether who, if anyone, will be able to provide the prime forum for a community of more than 400,000 that the hometown newspaper has been serving since 1869.

Some community bloggers say they will provide that new community space. But most are unsure what the future holds.

Blogger Al Alborn wrote that even though blogs have provided valuable insights, many people aren’t discerning enough about what they contain. “Blogs are taking the mantle of traditional newspapers in one way that is a bit scary: People often believe what they read simply because some blogger took the time to write it. That means someone at a keyboard somewhere may use the written word as a tool of propaganda to craft public opinion, influence policy and election outcomes, and simply mislead the public.”

Prince William County Board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) said he has noticed that as the staffs of the News & Messenger and The Post have decreased in number over the years, fewer people approach him to ask about county issues.

“People will always be interested in local news,” Stewart said. “But where do you go for local news? Right now, there just aren’t a lot of resources for that other than the local papers. As those are withering away, I’m not sure what’s going to replace them.”

Uriah Kiser, 30, left the News & Messenger to start PotomacLocal.com in 2010, and he launched ManassasLocal.com last week.

The Potomac site, which covers eastern Prince William, focuses on crime, transportation and community events, he said. His days are split between reporting the news and making ad sales calls. Even though three paid freelancers work for him, his mostly one-man operation demands that he do everything.

His site gets about 30,000 unique visitors a month, many of whom return more than once, he said. He’s able to generate enough income to pay his bills, but finances are tight. “Were betting that people still want the news,” he said.

With the advent of online news sources, finding a way to generate that revenue has vexed organizations big and small. But Kiser said he thinks that even though times are changing, news should and will be pursued as it has for centuries.

Even though bloggers often “shoot from the hip and hide in the shadows,” he said, “that’s not the future of news. We still have to pick up the phone and walk . . . and cover our community just like we did 100 years ago. That’s journalism, and that’s what people want.”

The News & Messenger is the product of the 2008 merger of the Potomac News and the Manassas Journal Messenger, and was bought in June from Media General by a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, the holdings company chaired by investor Warren Buffett. (Buffett also holds a large stake in The Washington Post.)

Company officials said financial losses were too great to make the paper sustainable. A total of 105 positions were eliminated, and some employees will have the opportunity to transfer within the company.

Jeremy Borden covers Prince William County, Va., for The Washington Post.
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