Editorial: In the role of ombudsman . . .

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.) 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.

Walter Nicklin