Alexandria (Va.) Times sold

December 28, 2007

I know I said I’d not be posting on my vacation, but the last couple of days have been kind of rough. The last straw was waking up and finding that the Alexandria Times, where I’ve freelanced for the past few months, had been abruptly sold to NewsUSA, a company that rewrites press releases and then places them in newspapers across the country. As in, every “article” is promoting a product.

I met the CEO of NewsUSA at the Times’ holiday party two weeks ago–a party where many of the guests were not employees of the paper or even advertisers, but people who were unsure how they had landed invitations at all. We speculated that these invitees were people the publisher hoped to turn into advertisers, but now I’m fairly certain that the party was for interested buyers. It feels kind of low, but I don’t have all the facts and can’t speculate.

What I do know is that a talented staff of three (editor, reporter, and photographer) were let go without so much as a two weeks’ notice, and that my fellow freelancers and I are shut out into the cold. I know that a damn good paper–not a great one, but a good one, especially considering the shoestring budget on which they operated–is gone, replaced by a sham. Again, the Alexandria Times was never the Washington Post, but they didn’t aspire to be. They filled a different niche.

When I first met the publisher, John Arundel, I told him that I believed if any newspaper would survive the tsunami sweeping our industry, it was the community weekly. It would survive in a much different form, perhaps, but it would survive because community papers cover things that big papers can’t or won’t cover. The Alexandria Times had those stupid pictures of Girl Scouts winning awards and church bake-offs and neighborhood parades. But they also told some damn good stories. There was the one about the only two Alexandria basketball players to make it to the NBA–they’re good friends now; there was the one about the Alexandria Vietnam vet who, on returning from his tour of duty, visited the Vietnam Wall to find his own name. There were all those articles about hidden, hole-in-the-wall eateries (but, as the author of most of those columns, I admit bias). Anyway, it was a decent little paper and it’s now gone.

I want to draw a moral from this about paying for news or about being a conscious consumer of media or something, but I can’t. It’s just so absurd; such a random, tragic event–like a hit-and-run or like being hit by a stray bullet meant for someone else.

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