After retirement from my Foreign Service career with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), I worked for 10 years, until 2008, with the Connection Newspapers, a chain of 16 weekly community newspapers in the Metro area. I did a little bit of everything for the business and learned a lot from the owner and from the publisher, a talented journalist and an unabashed liberal.
When I started with the Connection in 1998 major U.S. metropolitan newspapers were already in decline as advertising dollars got gobbled up by other media and the internet. The community newspaper niche in the industry was starting to feel it, too. Still, there were several weeklies in Northern Virginia, including three serving Reston — the Reston Connection, the Herndon-Reston Observer, and the Reston Times. The Reston Connection circulation peaked around 12,000 per week, with a full-time reporter and often an intern on the Reston beat. The paper would average 36 or 40 pages each week. Among the three papers, there might be 20 stories a week about Reston issues and events.
Fast forward to 2017. The Observer is long gone. The Reston Times no longer exists by itself, but as part of the Fairfax (County) Times, with an occasional Reston story. The Reston Connection survives, but with one reporter covering four or five communities. Circulation is sharply lower and the paper offers 16 or so pages each week.
So what? This decline in local newspapers, I believe, diminishes our community — reducing our knowledge of events and understanding of trends, even weakening bonds that hold us together. Instead of having access to 20 stories each week with different perspectives, we now see maybe five or less. Many stories and subjects are lost to Restonians altogether, beyond what they get by word of mouth. Other big and important ongoing stories and issues get brief items, with few follow-up accounts. We lose the in-depth coverage and any real analysis of events that will affect the future — except for the odd editorial piece and material produced by Reston 2020 which digs in and analyzes government actions in particular.
Let me give a couple examples of what we are likely missing. Hundreds of people in the Reston area are actively involved in a group calling themselves Herndon-Reston Indivisible (HRI, which obviously should be RHI!). HRI first took shape shortly after the inauguration of him whose name we dare not speak. The Indivisible movement is mass political action sweeping the country, working to resist the policies and actions of the administration including: treatment of immigrants, Russian influence, environmental protection, elections, women’s rights, health care, and more. Our own HR Indivisible is one of the biggest and most active — lobbying politicians, encouraging new, progressive candidates to run for office, marching and protesting. There are several meetings each week and many of your neighbors are engaged. It’s been in high gear for six months, yet it is largely invisible in the community. Three newspapers would have been all over it 15 years ago, following people involved and impacts on Washington and Virginia pols.
More intensely local actions get little ink. A current example is District Supervisor Cathy Hudgins rush to rezone Reston to increase our population density from 13 to 16 persons per acre. Doesn’t sound like much, but could mean 20,000 or more additional people, taking us to around 100,000. We’ve had three acrimonious public meetings to date and a final one coming before the Board of Supervisors brings down the hammer on our fate. Yet, how much do you and your neighbors know about it, and are you ready to fight? Of course, most of you aren’t because you’ve seen so little news of these events. I could count the stories on one hand.
Already, we’ve lost some sense of community and our democracy, I fear.