In the role of om­buds­man . . .

Rappahannock News - - EDITORIAL & OPINION -

IF SUC­CESS in the news­pa­per busi­ness is mea­sured by the quan­tity of read­ers and the qual­ity of their en­gage­ment, then the last cou­ple of weeks can be num­bered among the most suc­cess­ful in the his­tory of the Rap­pa­han­nock News –cul­mi­nat­ing in the news­pa­per-spon­sored “Rapp Live” com­mu­nity fo­rum last Thurs­day (June 18), at­tended by hun­dreds of people.

The oc­ca­sion for all this cit­i­zen en­gage­ment was, of course, con­cern about the fu­ture of Rap­pa­han­nock’s county seat, the town of Wash­ing­ton. (A record­ing of which can be found on our web­site at bit.ly/rap­plive1.) It marked the very first in a se­ries of such town hall-type events spon­sored by the news­pa­per. Planned for Au­gust is an “Ask the Sher­iff” ses­sion.

The pri­mary in­tent of this first Rapp Live event was to al­low cit­i­zens to learn first­hand (with­out any me­dia fil­ters) con­crete de­tails of a Big Wash­ing­ton de­vel­oper’s vi­sion for Lit­tle Wash­ing­ton. It was also in­tended to cre­ate an open fo­rum for cit­i­zens to ask di­rect ques­tions and posit con­cerns and crit­i­cisms.

Even though this twofold goal was achieved, some par­tic­i­pants felt that the news­pa­per failed in pro­vid­ing “equal time” to the de­vel­oper’s crit­ics. Be­fore the event, we had been ap­pre­hen­sive about this pos­si­bil­ity, but al­ter­na­tive for­mats had not seemed work­able.

An­other, ear­lier crit­i­cism of the news­pa­per cen­tered on how we had “missed” this big story to be­gin with — how it had taken Big Wash­ing­ton’s big news­pa­per to “break” this im­por­tant news to Rap­pa­han­nock res­i­dents. Was Rap­pa­han­nock’s home­town news­pa­per asleep at the switch?

To the con­trary, the Rap­pa­han­nock News had cov­ered in some de­tail, as it al­ways does, Wash­ing­ton town coun­cil meet­ings in which the de­vel­oper’s plans for in­di­vid­ual prop­er­ties were dis­cussed. And a much longer, front-page story, more than a month be­fore the Wash­ing­ton Post story, wove to­gether a larger mo­saic of the town’s en­vi­sioned fu­ture.

Still, be­ing much closer to the sub­ject than the Big Wash­ing­ton re­porter, we may have “lost sight of the for­est for the trees” — or in news­pa­per par­lance, “buried the lead.” More­over, the prin­ci­pals in the story spoke to the Big Wash­ing­ton re­porter in ways ob­vi­ously not geared for a pri­mar­ily lo­cal Rap­pa­han­nock au­di­ence. In­deed, this seemed to fuel much of the sub­se­quent “ou­trage” ex­pressed by lo­cal res­i­dents.

Should the Rap­pa­han­nock News have played up such po­ten­tial con­flict and framed the story in more dra­matic fash­ion, com­plete with some kind of sen­sa­tional head­line? Yes, that would have got­ten ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion, just as the Wash­ing­ton Post story did.

But per­haps a more en­dur­ing and re­spon­si­ble role is to con­tinue to do what we’ve been do­ing — serv­ing as a fo­rum for dis­cus­sion on the is­sues most im­por­tant to Rap­pa­han­nock cit­i­zens. This is our mis­sion, whether in our reporting or opin­ion pages, on our web­site or as town hall hosts.

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