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From AJR,   August/September 2008  issue

Voice in the Wilderness   

A retired journalist provides up-to-the-minute local news online in his rural Virginia county.


By Kevin Rector
     

Two years ago, James Gannon felt a growing frustration with local news coverage in Rappahannock County, Virginia, a rural area about 70 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.

Gannon, a former Detroit News Washington bureau chief and onetime editor of the Des Moines Register, had moved to the county with his wife, Joan, after taking a buyout from Gannett in 1994. Over the years, he had become interested in local politics, but he had a problem with how it was covered. The Board of Supervisors, the county's main political body, has its monthly meetings on Monday. The only local newspaper the weekly Rappahannock News is published on Thursday. For Gannon, the three-day wait for news was too much.

"It just bugged me as an ex-editor, as a journalist," says Gannon, who lives just outside the town of Flint Hill.

Wrestling with the frustration, Gannon, 69, brainstormed a solution: "I thought, 'Maybe I could start up something online that would provide some community coverage and local journalism of a better quality, for nothing other than to satisfy my own desire,'" he says. "Sort of on a lark, I decided, 'What the heck? Let's try it.'"

Today, Gannon's online county news service, the Rappahannock Voice, which launched in October 2006, gets about 3,500 unique visitors each month in a county that only has a population of about 7,200. It provides coverage of "issues that are of real concern here," Gannon says, like property taxes, land use and zoning issues. Most of the site's content is Gannon's own, the product of his attending meetings and keeping an eye on the small-town economy, but he also taps community volunteers for commentary and local sports coverage.

Gannon says he doesn't look at his site as a replacement for the Rappahannock News, but as a supplement to it. Still, he holds his fledgling project to a high standard: "My whole approach to this was to do this the way I would do a newspaper, in terms of the standards of journalism and reporting," he says. "I'm trying to do what a really good local newspaper would do in the community and do it on the Web and do it on a very timely basis and in more depth."

Through those efforts, he's managed to break some big news. In April 2007, the site attracted more than 15,000 unique visitors after Gannon reported the name of one of the first victims in the Virginia Tech shootings Emily Hilscher, a Rappahannock native. He also reported a story on ownership shuffling at the Inn at Little Washington a world-renowned inn and restaurant in Rappahannock that was picked up by Washingtonian magazine.

Scoops aside, though, Gannon's biggest contribution to the community is his simple but timely local coverage. "Being a small county, we are a little late at getting news out at times with the weekly newspaper," says Robert Anderson, chairman of the Board of Supervisors. Gannon "goes out right after our meetings and does his reporting on RappVoice, and I think it's a service to the community."

Anderson, who has known Gannon for about a decade (they are both members of the local Lions Club), says that while Gannon makes no secret of the fact that he has his own opinions on local issues, his reporting always gives "a fair version of the county situation" and "a fair representation of the procedures by the board."

John Fox Sullivan, the longtime publisher of National Journal and a part-time resident of Rappahannock County, calls Gannon a "world class journalist" and "a real pro" whose accurate and timely reporting has people visiting the site. "You often hear, 'Gee, did you see what Gannon had on RappVoice today?'" Sullivan says.

While solid reporting was always at the heart of his plan, Gannon says he didn't know how that reporting would translate into a fully operational Web site. "The thought sort of intimidated me," he says. "I thought, 'Can an old dog learn new tricks?'"

Eventually he came across WordPress software and recruited a local Web designer to adapt it to his needs. Suddenly, his site was live and easy to manage. "A techno-dummy like me can do it," Gannon says. "I was amazed at how easy it was to get started and how virtually almost cost free compared to starting, well, any sort of business."

Gannon says it cost less than $1,000 to get everything up and running, and then it was off to the races. To attract readers, Gannon used a variety of methods. He posted blurbs of his stories on the county's active listserv, where residents exchange community news, and posted printed versions on community bulletin boards. He printed and handed out bumper stickers and business cards. He made a deal with the neighboring county's daily newspaper the Culpeper Star-Exponent allowing it to run his stories. He also relied on word of mouth, a powerful advertising tool in a small town.

At first, Gannon says advertising didn't even cross his mind. "I had given no thought zero thought to advertising. I didn't know I had anything to sell," he says. Soon enough, though, local advertisers came to him. Although Gannon maintains that the site is not a business, it now brings in more than enough revenue to pay all the costs.

Still, while Gannon makes some money from advertising, it hardly could qualify as a salary, and with a ballooning audience, Gannon wonders what the impact will be when he stops.

"I've sort of created this thing that has control of my life pretty much, which is one of the dilemmas of this," Gannon says. "How could this be sustained over time if I got to the point where I didn't want to spend many, many hours a week going to meetings and chasing after stories?"

Peter Arundel, president of the Rappahannock News' parent company, Times Community Newspapers, says while he respects the quality of RappVoice, his company's paper provides much broader reporting on the community. "I challenge Gannon to put out anything even a quarter of [the News'] breadth in community coverage," he says. "I mean hell, anybody can launch a blog."

Whatever you want to call it a blog, an online news service, one man's hobby Gannon's Rappahannock Voice has claimed a following online. It's a labor of love but also an experiment in online news coverage launched by just one of the many talented editors these days who find themselves outside of the country's newsrooms.

"Here's some guy who's retired but still wants to stay in the game," Sullivan says. "He absolutely loves being back in the thick of things."

For Gannon, the experiment has been eye-opening.

"It's kind of made a believer of me," Gannon says. "I'm an old print guy. I love newspapers, and I still love picking up newspapers and turning the page reading, but that's happening less and less. This is where journalism is going whether we like it or not, and you have to get with it."

Rector wrote about the personal blogs of mainstream journalists in AJR's June/July issue.