A year old and counting, local news site gains a foothold

Story by Chris Graham

Brent Finnegan waited for a while to see if anybody was going to step up to offer the kind of local-news website that he’d seen in other locales in Virginia and across the United States.
And then one day he realized something – nobody was volunteering.

“Eventually, I just caved in – because I realized that nobody else was going to do it,” said Finnegan, who launched hburgnews.com in July 2006 – though to say that he launched the site might be overstating things a bit.

Finnegan admits that his goals at the outset were quite modest.

“I basically just thought, This is something that I’ll try for a couple of months, it may work out, it may not – it’s just a hobby, and probably 10 people will read it. And here I am a year later, and after 400 posts in the first year, and a lot of comments – probably over 4,000 comments – there’s nine contributors now, and daily readership is between 100 and 400 unique views on the average day,” Finnegan said in an interview on “The Augusta Free Press Show” last week.

Finnegan, a filmmaker whose documentaries have been broadcast locally on WVPT, a Harrisonburg-based PBS affiliate, said his heart has been in journalism dating back to the first time that he saw the 1970s-era film “All the President’s Men.”
Finnegan, a filmmaker whose documentaries have been broadcast locally on WVPT, a Harrisonburg-based PBS affiliate, said his heart has been in journalism dating back to the first time that he saw the 1970s-era film “All the President’s Men.”

“I like that kind of aspect of journalism, the sort of back end of journalism – digging up the stories and figuring out what’s going on behind the scenes. So that’s been some of what we’ve been doing,” said Finnegan, whose hburgnews site serves as the alternative media in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, much to his own surprise.

“Even Charlottesville has two alternative weekly papers and fairly well-connected online community,” Finnegan said, adding, “I don’t know what it’s going to take” to get a Charlottesville-type scene going in the Friendly City.

“Maybe we don’t need a print newspaper here. Maybe the time for that is slowly passing us by. Maybe it’s supposed to be online,” Finnegan said.

The medium isn’t as important, in Finnegan’s mind, as is the substance.

“To me, it’s more about citizen journalism. It’s about the people who live here taking the information and processing it themselves and sharing it with their neighbors – and trying to get the local community more interested and more engaged in what’s going on around them,” Finnegan said.

“The way I see it is Harrisonburg is a microcosm of planet earth – and we can’t prevent an oil spill in the Pacific Ocean, but we can inform the citizenry of Harrisonburg that Blacks Run, the stream that runs through the middle of the city, is being directly affected by us when we don’t clean up after our pets and we wash our cars. That’s something that people don’t know, but it’s important,” Finnegan said.

One year old and counting, Finnegan thinks hburgnews has just begun to scratch the surface of its potential.

“I don’t think that mainstream commercial media outlets should have a monopoly on the information and the dissemination of that information. I think that’s dangerous,” Finnegan said. “Look at what happened in the runup to the war in Iraq – the WMD argument obviously didn’t hold water, and the mainstream media went along with that, and the only people questioning it were certain alternative-media outlets like blogs.

“I don’t think it’s even reached half of its potential at this point,” Finnegan said. “Right now, there’s only a handful of people reporting on things, and I think we need more volunteer citizen-journalists. I’d like to see more members of the community really take ownership of it.”

Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.

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