Thank you, Harrisonburg

Brent Finnegan -- November 6th, 2008

When I started this blog in 2006, I had a vague idea that it could become relevant to the community, but I never imagined it would become a news leader in the city. It was something I wanted someone else to do, but no one would. Through trial, error and experimentation, I figured out how to do it myself. In that process, I became more politically aware and civically engaged.

These are some of the things I’ve come to understand over the past two-and-a-half years.

Good investigative reporting is incredibly time-consuming. We haven’t done much of it on hburgnews because of the time and effort it requires to produce. The IPv6 and Free Clinic stories are a few examples of original reporting, but even those aren’t as in-depth as Dave Reynolds’ investigation of local dental practices.

Curiosity is key. Most of what I’ve written here has been driven by curiosity. If an informed and educated public is “necessary to the well being of a free society,” we need curious journalists. When they’ve become jaded, it’s time for them to step down and let someone else take over.

It’s not difficult to break news. A combination of the right RSS feeds in Google Reader, email, and a few well-informed friends will do it. When I started blogging, I was surprised when I scooped the local media. Now, I’m often surprised if they publish a story first. The days of the 24 hour news cycle are long gone.

Just because it’s in the news doesn’t make it news. Media services are obligated to their advertisers to publish roughly the same amount of content, regardless of how much actual news is happening.

Just because it’s not in the news doesn’t mean it’s not news. There are a lot of important stories that fall through the cracks or are intentionally ignored. If you know where to look and who to ask, you can find them. And sometimes if you write about it on a blog, a reporter might take notice and follow your lead. In other words, news is not the exclusive purview of professional reporters.

Bloggers need reporters. Reporters need bloggers. Whether we like it or not, we’ve developed a symbiotic relationship. Paid reporters scan the Internet for leads, and sometimes find them on blogs. Bloggers are rarely in the field reporting, so we rely on material we can quote and link to, giving them additional traffic. The majority of what I’ve posted on hburgnews over the years has been excerpts and links to news reports from traditional media sources.

The traditional AP style is stiff, and the TV news formula is disingenuous. Most people simply accept that the AP style is the way all news should be reported, and that video news reports should go something like this. I disagree. The Internet has provided a new way to read and explore facts and events: the link. Anyone not linking to sources is missing the point of the Internet. I’ve tried to use Wikipedia as a link model, so that a story or snippet contains an internal or external link to a related story. Linking helps to add context, depth, and gives credit where credit is due. Do what you do best and link to the rest.

Likewise, good video news should get the reporter out of the way of the story. Corny standups and disingenuous inflection are unnatural. If you ask the right questions and cut it together the right way, there should be little need for voice-over.

News blogging is a process, not a product. I agree with blogger Jeff Jarvis when he wrote, “The building block of journalism is no longer the article.” At least where news blogs are concerned, big news stories should be spread out over several posts, as new information becomes available. Imagine if the Q&A with council candidates had been one post. It would’ve been unreadable. We can read and retain more if the information is spread out over time.

Give us the information. There’s a difference between information and propaganda, but so many people seem to confuse the two. The proliferation of opinionated weblogs in recent years is a testament to our First Amendment. However, I believe (here we go with another opinion; how ironic) that so much of what’s presented as information on blogs is actually propaganda. I’ve certainly shared my opinions on hburgnews, but the primary focus has always been on information. Accurate, relevant information is the most valuable service a blog can provide.

Crowdsourcing is the future of online journalism. We’ve all heard that “technology is the future,” but technology is only as good as its content. Blogs, Google Groups, Twitter, and Flickr pools give everyone the opportunity to contribute to a story. Wikipedia is predicated on the “sum of human knowledge” model. News blogs can do (and have done) the same thing.

Unpaid blogging is unsustainable. We can do it for a while, but most of us have other obligations or more appealing ways to spend our “free time.” It’s nearly impossible to post insightful things daily and indefinitely, while holding down day jobs. I believe the only way not-for-profit blogs like this can work over a longer period of time is to form collectives, or confederations of bloggers who can agree to a set of standards and principles, who share the burden by contributing to one website. That’s what I’ve set up for hburgnews. I hope it works, because I certainly can’t keep on doing what I’ve been doing.

As promised, I’m “throwing in the towel, sort of.” I hope to resume blogging here at some point, but I don’t know exactly when that will be, and I seriously doubt I’ll be as active as I have been recently. But the blog will continue on without me. If you have a news tip, or if you’d like to join the collective and become a contributor, email the group: hburgnews [at]

But even if it dies out eventually, I’m encouraged by some of the other local blogs I’ve seen spring up lately, such as The Valley Observer, the state and Blue Ridge Data, as well as political blogs I respectfully disagree with, like Virginia Conservative. In one form or another, I believe citizen journalism will flourish in the vacuum created by such a small local media market.

I’m grateful to to the contributors, commenters and readers for helping to make this blog bigger and better than I imagined. Thank you all.

Best wishes.

24 Responses to “Thank you, Harrisonburg”

  1. Adam Sharp says:

    Brent, I’ve been pointing people from across Virginia and the country to as an example of how excellent 21st-century citizen journalism can be.

    I’ve been proud to watch this site develop from conversations with you in ’06 to the best damn election coverage ever (in Harrisonburg, anyway).

    I’m also glad to see someone who can generate an idea and develop a concept into something real, then give it to a group of people to nurture. You never monetized the site, nor did you become an unbalanced dictator pushing an unpredictable agenda. That is rare among bloggers, and people too.

    (I’ll leave it to the readers to decide if bloggers are people.)

    I think I get to buy you lunch next time. Good luck on your next project, and don’t forget to figure out what you want to do when you grow up. :-D

  2. Renee says:

    I really believe the blogging community you’ve set up here, as well as the pieces of technology you’ve used on the blog can serve as a model for other small towns with curious people like us that want news served to us like a conversation with a friend, rather than a dry newspaper article or local evening news clip (not that they are all dry, but you know what I mean).

    I’m proud to be a part of our “little” hburgnews (that I think has now grown beyond little) that I feel will stay around and thrive because of the standards you started with and have upheld here, Brent.

    Thanks again for what you did, I’m really looking forward to being involved on an ongoing basis. I will definitely miss the pieces written by you, though. I hope we can keep up the frequency and quality of posts and conversation in your absence.

    Good luck in whatever you are going to do with your new free time!

  3. Renee says:

    and LOL – BurgVegas?

  4. Sarah says:

    Thanks, Brent, for all you do and have done. This site is well-done and thoughtful, and I look forward to its future.

  5. David Miller says:

    I’m just happy (beyond all the praise I and others have heaped on) that Harrisonburg has this alternative/additional news source. Growing up here and knowing how monopolies can suck makes this a really really really important thing.

  6. Jonathan says:

    I’ve been away from Harrisonburg for some time now, but check the site regularly to keep up with things. Thanks for the great work setting it up Brent. I hope the great reporting continues into the future.

  7. Patrick says:

    I’ve moved from Harrisonburg to DC since graduating from JMU, but I use hburgnews to stay in touch with the city. You’ve done a great job with the site Brent, and I too hope the site continues to grow and flourish.

  8. Barnabas says:

    So are you gonna have some free time to hang out?

  9. Breslau says:

    All those other blogs are crap. This is the one. This is the best news source in the city mostly because of you, Brent. When I finally found a news source besides the DNR about Harrisonburg, I freaked out. When I saw how unbiased and community-based it really was, it became one of my favorite things on the Internet.

    Thank you, Brent.

  10. Justin C says:

    I have to echo all the comments above, this site has been a true blessing for those of us wanting to stay connected with the community but not trusting local news like the DNR.

    It’s sad to see you have to scale back your activity, but very understandable. I agree that the future of this site is in the hands of the readers. Getting a large number of people to occasionally post is much more sustainable than a small band.

    The best example would be the free open source software movement. Linux would never have been created by 20-30 programmers working full time for free. If a company wanted to recreate a distribution like Fedora 9, it would cost an estimated $10.8 billion today, yet it was created for free and can be downloaded for free because a huge number of volunteers worked together selflessly for the common good.

    Thanks for starting the ball rolling Brent, looking forward to seeing where it goes from here.

  11. finnegan says:

    Again, I’m humbled and appreciative of the comments. It’s good to know that the countless hours I’ve spent here paid off.

    If the phrase “Mission Accomplished” wasn’t so tainted by Bush’s speech on that aircraft carrier, that would have been the title of this post.

  12. mikekeane says:

    You are the man Brent, you even made it to my bookmark bar. i’ll miss your regular contributions to this blog, i hope others can fill your shoes. thanks for the good work and inspiration. you should consider professional journalism at some point if your other endeavors don’t work out.

  13. Watchman says:

    First, a salute to you Brent. You are a man who takes his ideas, beliefs, and ideals, and acts on them. We, who live in the Harrisonburg/Rockingham area are better men, women, and Americans because of your efforts. I pray that God will lead, guide, and protect you.
    Second, I want to apologize to you and to the others that have put their minds and efforts into the To often I find when I am critical I express myself in ways that tear down rather than build up. This is a personal demon I have wrestled with far to long. I look forward each day to reading the stories and “everyones” comments. You Brent, and the others that blog here have helped me stay informed, you have brought freedom of expression to our country when such is under attack. You and all the others are an inspiration. As Paul said, keep pressing toward the mark so one day your reward will be, “well done good and faithful servant”.

  14. TM says:

    Thank you, Brent. I felt the same way you did about this town with out a blog and I’m glad you were the guy to actually do it. I’m proud to have contributed to the blog near the beginning and while I hope to read it for years to come, I’m sure everyone agrees it won’t be the same. Hope to run into you again sometime and best of luck with future endeavors.

  15. finnegan says:

    Just to clarify (I’ve received some private comments about this) I’m not attacking any individuals in this post. I wanted to rant about one local newspaper reporter in particular, but I don’t think this is the time or place for it. My comments about TV news should not be construed as a personal attack against Mike McNeill or TV3, but rather a criticism of a style of reporting that I believe is outdated. My intention there is for people to re-think news, instead of accepting the status quo.

  16. the state says:

    thanks for the mention, brent. you are our go-to-guy for local news! what shall we do?
    we are excited and ready, however, to work with the other local blogs out there to bring a new take on news, politics, art, music, food, and whatever people want.
    long live hburg news!

  17. David Miller says:

    I took your critique of existing news structures and their deficiencies as constructive feedback, not criticism. I don’t know about everyone else but that’s how you came off in my eyes.

  18. Although I’ve only known you for a short while, I wish you well in your future activities.

  19. Thanks, Brent, for a job very well done, and all the best in your upcoing activities.

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