By Sky Wilson, contributor
Accurate, fact-based and independently-presented news matters as local media outlets continue to support and encourage civic engagement, said leaders of four Harrisonburg-area news organizations on Thursday.
“A news media that’s trusted is central to our democracy,” said Bob Leweke of WMRA, the local NPR member station that covers 28 counties throughout the Shenandoah Valley, Central Virginia and Southside Virginia with 55,000 listeners.
While it’s sometimes awkward for news outlets to cover the media industry — and thus, themselves — the tumult in the broader local news landscape as well as among many of the institutions these outlets cover has thrown a brighter spotlight on them.
That’s what Massanutten Regional Library aimed to do with its live panel discussion Thursday night called “Local News: The Evolving Landscape of Journalism in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.”
“We at MRL have always appreciated the fact that there’s a vibrant and varied local news ecosystem in the Harrisonburg area,” said Michael Evans, the library’s director of advancement, who said he hopes this is “just the first” of a series of library programs exploring local news. It was also the library’s first virtual program for adults since the start of the pandemic.
In addition to Leweke, the panel featured Jim Sacco, editor of The Daily News-Record, Isabella Marcellino, producer and reporter at WHSV TV3 and Bridget Manley, one of The Citizen’s publishers.
Leweke, who serves as news director and host of the local “Morning Edition” program, said Harrisonburg is fortunate to have a local newspaper, radio station, television channel and online newspaper as many communities around the country lack some or all of these resources. Studies have shown that in “news deserts,” citizens are less civically engaged.
Trust is key
All the panelists mentioned that the trust of their readers, viewers and listeners remains central to everything they do.
And each outlet highlighted their continued reporting on local politics and elections, as well as early voting coverage for the 2020 election, in order to give citizens the accurate information they need.
Manley highlighted The Citizen’s next day coverage of city council meetings and Harrisonburg City School Board meetings as important features of hyperlocal journalism.
Sacco, who became the The Daily News-Record’s managing editor in September 2019, agreed, saying it’s important for citizens “to know that anyone who works in city hall should have to answer for what happens in city hall.”
WMRA must air national and international news via their NPR programming, but when the station does have funds to pay freelance local journalists, the goal is to report on high-impact stories in the immediate area, Leweke said.
Each of the news organization leaders stressed the value of news tips as a way for citizens to make their voices heard. At one point, Sacco held up his reporter’s notebook to his webcam showing he had scrawled “I take news tips, too,” when he realized he was the only one who hadn’t said this out loud.
However, one of the biggest challenges facing local journalism is shrinking resources.
When one question from a viewer asked what they’d like to cover more regularly or extensively, Sacco replied :“Everything. I’d like to cover everything in-depth.” But he added that The Daily News-Record does not always have the time and “elbow grease” to cover everything they’d like to.
The Daily-News-Record is Harrisonburg and Rockingham County’s daily print media source, having served the area since 1899 and was bought by Ogden Newspapers, a West Virginia-based chain, in 2018.
All the news organizations have felt the pinch of trying to cover more news amid shifting technological and business landscapes.
“We are doing the best we can,” said Marcellino of WHSV, which is owned by Gray Television. “Our biggest thing is to bring you the truth.”
Manley, of The Citizen, said the “local news business model” is a challenge across the nation because it can be hard to convince people to pay for something that seems so readily available.
“It’s hard when there are a million different news sources and people don’t know who to pick from,” added Marcellino.
But, the panel emphasized the importance of the hyperlocal journalism their outlet is able to do, which is why all four organizations focus their resources on Harrisonburg, Rockingham County and the Shenandoah Valley.
“I have to give people a product they can get nowhere else in the world,” Sacco said.
The value of independence
Audience members offered questions and concerns about how local journalists decide what stories to tell and whether politics ever affect the outlet’s objectivity.
“I think the biggest misconception is that all we care about is the gloom and doom. That’s certainly not it,” Sacco said. “It’s keeping you informed. And you’ve got to be informed of the good stuff and the bad stuff because you’ve got to be prepared.” He also said he is proud of The Daily-News Record’s improved objectivity in recent years.
Each panelist said combating misinformation is a major challenge for contemporary journalists, and social media remains a primary battleground for media literacy.
“I see a lot of people reading the comments or reading the headline,” Marcellino said. “Go into that article. That’s where a reporter spent their day. Start reading.”
Manley said she hopes local journalism can “keep trucking” through this complicated time of media distrust until the pendulum swings back.
“We need to maintain an objective, fair, fact-based organization because in the end that wins and I’m convinced of it,” she said.
‘We’re all in this together’
The event was presented in partnership with JMU’s Madison Center for Civic Engagement and is part of the “Democracy and the Informed Citizen” initiative by the Federation of State Humanities Councils made possible by support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Virginia Center for the Book in partnership with the Pulitzer Prizes.
And while the event attracted about a half-dozen questions from community members, the last question of the evening focused on what those community members can do to support and “ensure high quality journalism.”
Bob Leweke weighed in immediately: “Pay for it.” That prompted widespread agreement from his fellow panelists.
“Pay for it, please!” Manley added. “If you can, donate! If you can’t…thank the advertisers for advertising with them…share the articles.”
Marcellino said she wants viewers to “ask questions.” And Leweke agreed, encouraging listeners to “be engaged.”
In the end, Sacco said, it’s not news outlets versus the people or us versus them.
“We’re all in this together,” he said.
The panel was recorded and will be posted for on the MRL YouTube channel: www.mrlib.org/youtube.
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