Winter 2008

A Retired Newspaper Journalist Takes What He Knows to the Web

‘What “sold” RappVoice to the local audience was solid and timely reporting, analysis, and in-depth explanation of complex subjects ….’

By James P. Gannon
I am an old newspaper guy—a reporter columnist, Washington bureau chief, and finally editor of The Des Moines Register. I love ink on paper, the feel of newsprint in my hands, and the old standards of newspaper journalism as I came to understand them in the 1960’s, when reporters simply reported, editors edited, and opinions went on the editorial and op-ed pages, where they belonged.

EDITOR'S NOTE
An interview with James Gannon was done by the Nieman Journalism Lab to explore what happened when his Web site's service provider shut down and RappVoice disappeared.
In other words, I am as outdated as a polyester pantsuit. So what am I—a retired journalist nearing the age of 70—doing operating an online news service? 

First, some history. I got into this unruly world of Web-based journalism about two years ago, in October 2006, when I created and launched The Rappahannock Voice (www.rappvoice.com), an online community “newspaper” for my home community—a scenic, rural retreat along the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, about 75 miles west of Washington, D.C.. “RappVoice,” as the locals call it, covers only local news—Rappahannock County government, school news, local politics, business and people. 

RappVoice was started out of frustration with the inadequacy of local news coverage in Rappahannock County, where I’ve lived since I left daily journalism in the mid-1990’s. Our county has no daily papers, no radio or TV stations, and only one local weekly, The Rappahannock News, whose local coverage at that time tended toward light fluff and little enterprise or hard news. 

Seeing major local stories going unreported, I decided—almost on a whim—to create an online news service. No geek, I knew nothing about how to do Web journalism, but I soon found that a common blogging software (WordPress) could be adapted to look like a news Web site and, with some help from a local Web designer, RappVoice went public. With less than $1,000 in start-up costs and a simple, how-to manual as my tech training, I entered the publishing business. 

I was amazed at how quickly RappVoice took hold in our media-deprived area. My ability to publish a story immediately—often within a few hours, or even minutes of an event—was an eye opener to local readers and left the local weekly looking stale when it published several days or a week later. RappVoice did stories in greater depth than the weekly and published them when they were news, not history. We dug out news (like a story about the county’s most famous business—The Inn at Little Washington—needing to borrow $17.5 million to buy out a disgruntled partner) that the paper wouldn’t touch. 

What sold RappVoice to the local audience was solid and timely reporting, analysis and in-depth explanation of complex subjects, like county budgets and taxes, salted with some OMG (Oh My God) stories, like a rare sex-and-gore murder trial. The audience boomed, and soon local advertisers (real estate agents, a bank, a fencing company, a dentist, etc.) wanted to advertise on RappVoice—without any sales pitch from me.

I valued credibility for RappVoice over controversy; I wrote mostly about what happened, not what I thought of it. I insisted that readers posting comments on stories sign their real names, just as a good newspaper shuns anonymous letters to the editor.In short, I found that the old-fashioned journalism that I learned decades ago at The Wall Street Journal remained much in demand on the local level. I put a high premium on accuracy, completeness, clarity and fairness—the old virtues of traditional journalism—and submerged or masked my opinions about what I reported. I valued credibility for RappVoice over controversy; I wrote mostly about what happened, not what I thought of it. I insisted that readers posting comments on stories sign their real names, just as a good newspaper shuns anonymous letters to the editor. (This substantially reduces the number of comments posted, because many Web-users prefer to rant under screen names, but it eliminates anonymous cheap-shot attacks.). 

Publish—Until I Quit

Two years of experience convinces me that RappVoice could be replicated in countless local communities—rural towns, suburbs or even urban neighborhoods— where local news coverage in print and broadcast is weak. I think it means the journalism of the old values can reach and win over new readers in a Web-delivered package. What we knew as “print journalism” doesn’t have to die—it can be reborn, still clinging to old virtues, with digital delivery. Take it from me: Old dogs can learn new tricks. 

This doesn’t mean it’s easy. RappVoice takes an inordinate amount of my time—going to county meetings and hearings, interviewing, writing and editing. RappVoice ate my retirement freedom, swallowed me whole. Disappointments: I had hoped to recruit many locals to write for the site but found few willing. I had hoped for more feedback from readers but found few willing to stand up publicly to state opinions under real names. 

Internet publishing has its special perils. In early December 2008, a cyber-disaster struck RappVoice. With no warning to clients, the Web-hosting firm I used suddenly shut down its servers—apparently because of financial trouble—making RappVoice inaccessible to readers. Worse, my archive containing two-plus years of work disappeared and may be gone forever. I am outraged by the Web-host’s irresponsible behavior, and chastened by my failure to keep a back-up. I am attempting to restore or rebuild RappVoice, but the outcome is uncertain. 

Even with payments from the local weekly newspaper that published some of the RappVoice stories and my advertising revenue, my income does not match what an entry-level reporter might earn today. Possibly, in a larger community, the income from such a site might be higher. But my experience suggests that an independent, local online news service is a viable avocation for those who can afford it, such as a retired journalist or someone who doesn’t need to support a family. The rewards are more in personal satisfaction than in monetary payoff. 

Reality check: the work is demanding, the deadlines ever-present, the financial rewards very modest—a few thousand dollars of revenue. Moreover, sustaining this project over time poses a dilemma. It’s mostly a one-man band; if I quit, the music stops. With no successor in sight, RappVoice is both a triumph and an albatross. With apologies to Samuel Coleridge, I feel like the Ancient Mariner, sailing precariously on the Internet sea, wind in my sails, but unsure what’s over the horizon.



James P. Gannon is the retired former editor of The Des Moines Register, and a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and Washington bureau chief of The Detroit News.

2 Comments on A Retired Newspaper Journalist Takes What He Knows to the Web
Larry Meyer says:
December 31, 2008 at 4:57pm
Jim's honesty outstrips his modesty.

I'm one of the newcomers to Rappahannock County. The natives ("been here's") call us "Come here's.") I'm still an occasional visitor to our second (and eventual retirement) home. Soon as I arrived, I heard, then confirmed, that RappVoice is required and respected reading in a county that's home to a significant number of D.C.'s current and retired powerbrokers. Even as he wears out that reporter's shoe leather, he treads carefully the family, historic, economic, agricultural and political faults of a charmed but often hard-scrabble place.
Tracy at WSB says:
December 24, 2008 at 12:51pm
Congratulations on your success; there are many of us out here now doing the same thing. And I am particularly thrilled that you are doing it at age 70; I walked out of a long old-media career last year in my late 40s and I laugh at those who mistakenly insist online news is for and about the chronologically young - not only are my husband and I working ferociously at this in the 50 vicinity, but many of our thousands of collaborators - I don't like the term "readers" - are in their 40s, 50s, beyond (I know of at least one well into her 80s - rock on).

You have some words that many who seek to do this would be wise to heed, particularly: Don't expect you're going to recruit people to write for your site, in large numbers or with any frequency. If you have enough revenue - and we are just about there - you can hire people, perhaps (we pay freelancers for assigned coverage and are about to hire a part-time reporter/editor), but otherwise, if it's YOUR site, it's YOUR site and you are accountable for it. We have positioned ourselves as 24/7 news for our community and that's a major commitment, but we are up to it, and -- as has been shown during a local weather crisis these past two weeks -- our community collaborators, in great numbers, are eager to contribute information when they have it and when they feel it will benefit someone else, and they do that in comments, e-mail, tweets, Facebook notes, phone calls ... we've just been riding the wave of herding that information into a coherent stream that everyone can access.

Continued good luck!

Tracy Record
editor/co-publisher, West Seattle Blog
westseattleblog.com
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