Fauquier County is big. It’s 650 square miles–-about the distance from central Virginia to Florida.
And with that size come problems, especially in news coverage. Add in recent industry trends that have whittled news staffs and bureaus down and a problem emerges: In Fauquier County, there are fewer than half the reporters–roughly 10– covering it than there were about a decade ago.
It’s not a news desert (officially) but—like a lot of other places in Virginia and around the country– there is a lot of news to cover and not an equal number of reporters to cover it all.
That’s why Lou Emerson and his wife, Ellen Fox Emerson, who run FauquierNow.com, have partnered with two local philanthropists and a longtime journalist to create the Fauquier Media Lab.
The lab is a journalism “incubator” that they hope will help bring more reporters and in-depth journalism to their northern Virginia county.
“There just are not enough reporters covering the community,” Emerson said. “The lab truly is a place to take crazy ideas, vet them, refine them and try things. The best ideas will show up on Fauquier Now.”
Under the agreement with philanthropists Barbara “Bobbie” Crafts and Ralph Crafts and journalist Leland Schwartz, the Emersons will facilitate the lab and publish stories created by writers from it, Emerson said. Schwartz will work as the director of the lab, as well as one of its writers. All of the startup money came from the Crafts.
“There just are not enough reporters covering the community. The lab truly is a place to take crazy ideas, vet them, refine them and try things.”
Stories created in the lab will be the type that don’t stray out of the county lines, Emerson said. Pieces will center on issues close to the county’s residents: schools, healthcare, transportation and business.
They are the subjects that the Emersons know readers want to read about but are often the ones their three-reporter team at Fauquier Now doesn’t have enough time and resources to dedicate to covering as much as they would like, he said.
This is where the lab comes in.
Emerson said he sees the lab as a place to take time-intensive stories and subjects and give them to writers that have the time and ability to flesh them out.
Other than the obvious benefit of bringing more collaborative and innovative journalism to the area, there’s another goal behind the lab: Help pave the way for a new business model for local journalism—one that can generate its own revenue and sustain itself through its own profits.
“Journalism needs to be a business that figures out financial models to support itself,” Emerson said. “That’s what we’re going to try and do. Build something sustainable, that ultimately helps us hire more journalists.”
“Journalism needs to be a business that figures out financial models to support itself. That’s what we’re going to try and do. Build something sustainable, that ultimately helps us hire more journalists.”
There’s a lot to figure out with the lab going forward, Emerson said. What subjects will they turn into projects? What’s a good short-term project and what’s a good long-term project? It really is an experiment to see what will help the lab be a success.
It could, after the seed money runs out, stay open or shut down, Emerson said. The future will tell.
“It may be naïve, but I look at what the Crafts have agreed to provide and think if we can leverage that and create multiples of that investment then we will be able to put more people on the streets that will make the coverage better,” Emerson said. “It’s about figuring out how to meet the audience where they live, not where we live. It’s a great opportunity.”