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Alexandria: Inside the media crucible

January 11, 2011 - 12:00 PM
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Recently, John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper's, wrote a note strafing the very idea of the Internet. Online journalism is a mugs' game, he writes; most of what he sees on the Web is "unedited, incoherent babble indicative of a herd mentality, not a true desire for self-government or fairness."

John R. MacArthur should move to Alexandria.

Whether it's pushing out articles on outrageously neglected African-American graveyards, reporting on a local attorney who believes a barbecue restaurant will become a "clubhouse for conservative persons," or simply taking awesome photos of the local high school's first night football game, it's impossible to argue that competition, whether online or in print, has made Alexandria media worse.

Alexandria, population 155,000, is better covered than many bigger cities. It's a situation that has editors scrambling. “Thanks for invitation, but no time,” Alexandria Gazette Packet's editor, Steven Mauren, wrote in an e-mail replying to TBD's two requests for an interview.

No surprise! Founded 227 years ago, the Gazette Packet got serious competition in 2005 with the arrival of the Alexandria Times, a weekly broadsheet that walks the same crime-schools-local-gov beats that are the lifeblood of community papers (and aggregators of their work). In the last three years, the Alexandria infosphere has been invaded by two online news orgs: Alexandria News, which launched in 2008, and AOL’s Patch, which in late 2010 began drilling down into Del Ray and Old Town in the city of Alexandria, as well as four of the Fairfax localities that share the Alexandria postal designation.

“Alexandria could support a daily,” says David Sachs, the Times’ 26-year-old editor. “It’s a big enough city.” And it’s a city with stories independent of its media-hogging neighbors to the north, Arlington and the District.

There's enough news that the various outlets have developed their own personalities: The Gazette Packet, owned by Connection Newspapers, is town's gray lady, the Times its scrappy alternative, the Patches go deep and extremely local with lots of photos of dogs, and the Alexandria News bets big on photojournalism.

One thing all these newsrooms have in common is their small size — the Times' edit staff is Sachs and Derrick Perkins. The Gazette Packet lists four edit staffers, and Carla Branch and James Cullum pump out most of the News. Del Ray Patch is just Hansen, though he shares content and occasionally co-bylines with other Patch editors, especially Old Town Patch’s Sharon McLoone. All the people I spoke with have the kind of personality that lends itself to local news’ demanding tempo. Cullum, in particular, is a marvel of time management, not only reporting and taking great photos at all hours but he’s also married, an amateur boxer, and zips over to the western Sahara whenever he can to cover a civil war in Morocco for his blog. “I don’t really sleep that much,” he says, a trait he says he inherited from his father, jazz musician Jim Cullum Jr.

Both Cullum and Patch’s Hansen used to work for newspapers. Cullum was at the Fairfax Times; Hansen was on the Washington Times’ sports desk until it eliminated its coverage of news not directly related to hating Obama. Strangely, for such a supposedly transient area, everyone I spoke with had deep local roots — Sachs grew up in the city’s Beverly Hills neighborhood, Hansen went to West Potomac High in Fairfax, and Cullum moved to Alexandria from San Antonio when he was 8.

Being from Alexandria “definitely helps,” says Sachs. “I have been able to get leads and tips from childhood contacts and people I grew up with.” Not that he needs tips: Sachs maintains there’s enough news in Alexandria to “fill an 80 page paper every day.” Hansen gets some story ideas by hanging out in St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub, which he walks to from his home in Del Ray. A Wisconsin grad, he’ll poke his head in at the Dairy Godmother and talk Badgers with owner Liz Davis. And like all the other folks, he pays careful attention to what his competitors are doing. "To not do so is kind of dumb," agrees Cullum. "Naturally we're gonna read our competition because I know they read us, too."

The reporters run into one another at city council meetings, at football games, and on Twitter, where they're increasingly connecting with readers. (Hansen says he and the Times' Perkins recently had a good time Tweeting to each other at a special tax district meeting at George Washington Middle School.)

All these outlets have done good journalism in the last year, and all have had their scoops: I particularly liked Michael Lee Pope's story about how Northern Virginia police departments abuse their power to withhold information from victims of crimes and Perkins' story about bullying and accountability. Hansen mentions a couple high points, including the “T.C. Hoes” Facebook bullying story and another about the resignation of the Alexandria Country Day School headmaster who resigned after porn was found on his computer. Cullum picks his stories on the city's homeless and his recent photos of First Night, the city's New Year's celebration. "Alexandria's small, but with these pictures it looks like Gotham City!" he says.

But life for a community reporter doesn’t allow much time to gaze backward happily; as Hansen says, “Right after you write one story you’ve got to go out to a schoolboard meeting.” And those are the stories that remain competitive, not just the nuts and bolts stuff, but the narratives that'll define life in Alexandria in the next year.

There’s the odd position in which the city’s sole high school, T.C. Williams, finds itself, for instance: designated “persistently lowest-achieving” by the U.S. Department of Education despite sending 80 percent of its students to college and graduating Dermot Mulroney. There’s also the Defense Department’s Base Realignment and Closure plan, which will parachute 6,400 new workers into the city in September into a massive facility that will put no tax revenues into town coffers. And there's always the chance that the president will visit another city business.

Will the tight race to do these stories first and best shake out some of these competitors? To help figure it out, TBD has examined some of last year's most-covered Alexandria stories. Below, an arbitrary decision on who won what — even though the real winners are the town's citizens.

• On August 5, 70 mph winds briefly reigned holy hell on Alexandria’s regionally recognized center of smug parenting, Del Ray. All of the city’s media outlets covered the cleanup, but TBD has to give the edge to Del Ray Patch, which didn’t let the fact that it hadn’t launched at the time stop it from banging on the story like a screen door in a hurricane. Drew Hansen, the site’s editor, posted photos of downed limbs, crushed cars, and blown-out windows, tweeted the mayor’s press conference the next day, and connected residents with emergency services. “I think there’s a little difference in the journalism we do,” says Hansen. “You know, we have the ability to get things out a little quicker.”

• On May 29, a Select XV rugby team from Dundee, Scotland (one of Alexandria’s sister cities) alighted at George Washington Middle School and proceeded to thrash Alexandria’s Select XV team within an inch of its life, 28-7. While the Times got great color, the GazPac's story had two quotes that gave it Alexandria's only victory that day: 1) Alexandria’s Jim Canny called the inaugural 1974 beating Dundee administered to Alexandria a “learning experience”; 2) Dundee Coach Shannon Wilson’s lock-up-your-daughters trash talk: “Put this one out for the local ladies. If you see some [good looking guys] in kilts running around, let them know the Dundee Rugby Team’s here.”

• Patch did a typically exhaustive survey of this Thanksgiving Day run, posting no fewer than four previews, three photo galleries, and a next-dayer from opinion columnist Adam Gerard in which he interviewed participants in the Doggy Dash. Still, Alexandria News just busts through the tape on this one with Scott Newsham’s photo of a turkey in a golf cart.

• In June, the city council voted to reshuffle the board of the Torpedo Factory, one of Old Town’s signature attractions, with tourism and business interests getting more seats than artists. A compromise in late October ended the ensuing kerfuffle. GazPac’s Michael Lee Pope got some great background in July, including the tidbit that former Sen. John Warner had been frustrated in his attempts to sell copies of his work at the Torp (the center does not allow sales of reproductions). But only the Times’ Sachs got really into the sausage-making, telling us for instance, how Paul Smedberg, a councilmember who favored the plan, felt “miffed” by the people who called the plan a "takeover." He even gets an awesome quote from Councilwoman Alicia Hughes: “Looking at this board, the thing that reminds me of is a new person coming to play in the sandbox, just like a little girl’s first day at school.”

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