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] googlegroups.com

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.

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