Seventeen years ago when my wife and I moved to Manassas, Va., this ink-stained wretch found himself in the heart of a newspaper boom town. With a population of less than 35,000 at the time, Manassas was the target audience of three local daily newspapers, the Manassas Journal Messenger, Potomac News and Prince William Journal. The Washington Post also had a small local bureau in the city.
The Internet revolution was in its infancy then, but as the news editor of Congressional Quarterly’s BillWatch legislative database, I had transitioned into the digital space and was an early convert to the gospel of digital media. I wanted to believe that daily print newspapers had a future but was skeptical. The move to Manassas gave me hope.
My hope for daily newspapers, at least as we old-timers know them in newsprint, died on Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012. That was the last day of publication for the News & Messenger, the product of an Oct. 13, 2008, merger between the Journal Messenger and Potomac News.
World Media Enterprises, owned by Warren Buffet, who has been buying newspapers across America for two years, blamed the demise of the News & Messenger on bad business conditions. “We do not see a long-term viable way to maintain a daily news operation here,” the company said upon announcing the decision in mid-November.
So Manassas is starting the New Year without its own daily newspaper, ending an era that dates to at least 1869 when the Journal Messenger started publishing.
“We can only hope that the existing papers among us ratchet up their daily coverage of our community in our sudden absence,” the News & Messenger said in its farewell editorial.
My friend Mark Tapscott, who once served as editor of the Prince William Journal and who now serves as executive editor of the Washington Examiner that absorbed the Journal Newspapers in 2004, shared his thoughts with me on the closing of the News & Messenger. “The biggest puzzler here,” he said, “is how a county of 400,000 people doesn’t have sufficient demand to support at least one newspaper or website devoted to local news.”
The good news is that we may. While we in Manassas won’t have our own daily newspaper anymore, the larger Prince William County will have two weekly newspapers and two websites covering local news in the future.
Even better news from my perspective as a proponent of online local coverage, InsideNova.com will survive. World Media Enterprises had planned to close that Internet side of the News & Messenger, but Northern Virginia Media Services bought both the website and the well-read companion Facebook page.
The fourth Manassas-area media property is the AOL-owned Manassas Patch. True, the substance of that website is soft and the site may not last much longer in light of developments at Patch. But it’s a local media player for now.
In the late 1990s, I covered sports for both the Manassas Journal Messenger and Prince William Journal and later wrote a weekly column for the Journal. During that stretch I authored one of my favorite feature stories, a piece on former Washington Redskins kicker Mark Moseley, whose son played for Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas.
Those were heady days, with press boxes at local high schools full of local reporters competing for the attention of local readers.
But the truth is that even though I remain nostalgic for the small dailies of the past, I haven’t read them regularly for more than a decade. I get my news online, local and otherwise, and I take my cues about what matters from fellow news consumers via Facebook, Twitter and other digital outlets. Potential but unpredictable readers like me are part of the reason that World Media Enterprises could not imagine “a long-term viable way to maintain a daily news operation.”
In this case, though, the messengers are the ones who deserve to be shot, figuratively speaking. The biggest reason most newspapermen can’t imagine the future is that they have defiantly viewed the market through the green eyeshades of newsrooms past for more than a decade. Now they are scrambling to make sense of a world they spent more time ridiculing than trying to understand.
Here’s hoping the new media titans in Manassas have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors — and that this will be the place where someone finally concocts the winning formula for profitable local news in the 21st century.
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