When residents of Bristow hear police sirens screaming past their homes on a Sunday night, their first reaction might be to grab their phones and click on the Prince William Times website to see what’s up.
This is extraordinary. A decade ago, residents would have little choice but wait until the next morning to learn the same information. As the news cycle accelerates, so have expectations. Local news in our little corner of the world has largely kept up. Prince William is lucky to have a strong weekly newspaper - and its online accompaniment -- covering a county of 460,000 residents.
Many communities are not as fortunate. As advertising moves online, local newspapers are closing at an alarming rate. A study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reports the U.S. has lost nearly 1,800 local newspapers since 2004. Rural counties with poorer, older populations are most at risk — 500 rural papers have closed since 2004.
People in these communities are missing the information they need to make decisions in their everyday lives: where to live, how to navigate road construction, where candidates stand on the issues they care about.
The loss of local news is especially disheartening because it consistently ranks as the most trusted information out there. In 2018, Poynter reported that 73 percent of Americans had confidence in local newspapers. That “trust score” beats the national TV news (55 percent), national newspapers (59 percent) and online-only news outlets (43 percent) by a wide margin.
It’s understandable. When a news story breaks, local reporters can be on the scene in a few minutes. They know the firefighters, the chairman of the board of supervisors, the teachers and business owners who are at the heart of local news.
And if we get the story wrong, our readers set us straight. They can share their opinions in letters to the editor. We report their protests from public hearings. We allow their voices to be heard.
The Prince William Times has its roots in the Gainesville Times, which came to life when the last daily newspaper in Prince William, the News & Messenger, was in its final years. When the Gainesville Times, Prince William Times and Fauquier Times were purchased in 2016 by a dedicated group of local investors, it was with the understanding that local news is vital to the strength of a community.
There was an acknowledgment that the traditional model of news-gathering needed a modern update, but that honest, trustworthy journalism remains our core mission.
At the Virginia Press Association last weekend, several local news publications received awards for their coverage of Northern Virginia. Our sister publication, the Fauquier Times, earned the title of best mid-sized weekly newspaper for the second year in a row.
These achievements underscore the reality that Prince William County, although no longer home to a daily newspaper, is fortunate to have avoided the fate of becoming a “news desert,” like so many other similarly sized communities.
As we enter 2019, we ask our readers to consider the unique value of local news. Yes, the Washington, D.C. area is flooded with journalists and news organizations of every sort, but they’re not paying attention to the issues that matter most to you and your neighbors.
They don’t attend county meetings to hear debate about whether eastern Woodbridge can accommodate 300 more housing units. They don’t delve into the future of the Rural Crescent, or detail local crime rates, or press local leaders about school overcrowding. Only local news outlets do the reporting necessary to get to the bottom of such issues.
We are under no illusion that the fast pace of the information age will slow down any time soon. In order to be able to continue to serve our readers, we will have to innovate and evolve.
New ways to present the news are emerging every day, but solid news-gathering by dedicated reporters provides the necessary foundation for the information our community needs.