Sunday, September 25, 2011

From the Newsroom: Feeling mixed emotions as Current ends but The Burgs begins

From the newsroom

Michael Stowe, managing editor

michael.stowe @roanoke.com





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Our newsroom bustled last week as we prepared to launch The Burgs, a new print publication and website.

We're excited about the changes, and confident you will find the content both informative and engaging, but also empathetic to readers concerned because the New River Current will end publication on Wednesday.

"It's like losing a friend," one told me.

This feedback reinforced to me the special connection that the NRV community has developed with the Current since it was launched in 1988.

I understand.

I, too, feel a strong bond to the Current, even though I'm one of the editors who decided to replace it with The Burgs, a new print publication and website that launches this week.

My Current roots go back to 1992, when I landed my first job out of college in the paper's New River Valley bureau, primarily writing for Current.

My first boss and editor in the bureau, Beth Obenshain, not only shaped me as a reporter but inspired me to become an editor. Obenshain wasn't the Current's first editor but she led it for longer than anyone, from 1989-1999, and shaped it into a beloved community forum. I felt lucky to follow her as the paper's New River Valley editor in 1999, a job I enjoyed for five years.

I've been involved in redesigning or revamping Current numerous times through the years but the basic format has remain unchanged. It's published every day but Mondays and has included features on local people, community events, and listings of all sorts of information, from real estate transfers to the local crime report.

Most people are aware, however, that media consumption has shifted dramatically in recent years. Newspaper readership and ad revenues have declined as people have shifted to getting news in digital formats. Current was no exception to that trend.

We had three primary goals when we decided earlier this year to rethink our NRV news coverage: 1. Develop a digital-first publishing strategy that will integrate social media and increase our online readership. 2. Cut expenses to offset revenue declines. 3. Focus our coverage on growing communities to make the best use of our limited staffing resources.

After months of meetings, we settled on the plan we're rolling out this week with the launch of TheBurgs.com on Tuesday and the first print edition publishing on Thursday.

While these changes are dramatic and uncomfortable in some ways, the primary goals of our 10-person New River Valley news bureau have not changed.

First, our job is to cover breaking news in the New River Valley, whether it is the collapsing of a high school gym roof in Blacksburg, the naming of a new town manager in Christiansburg, the investigation of a homicide in Radford or a proposal to build a wind farm in Floyd County. Beyond the breaking news, we want to tell you about the trends that might affect the valley's future. If Christiansburg continues to grow at its current rate, how will it affect future plans to build schools and roads?

Most of those stories will be written by our NRV news reporters - Lerone Graham (police and courts), Mike Gangloff (local government and politics), Tonia Moxley (Virginia Tech and Radford University) and Jeff Sturgeon (business and technology) - and many will include pictures from photographer Matt Gentry. You'll find that coverage online first at TheBurgs.com and in The Roanoke Times' broadsheet news pages the next day.

Second, we'll use The Burgs, as we do with the Current, to highlight the community events and people that make the New River Valley a special place to live. Two community journalists will focus their reporting on news and achievements in local schools, businesses and youth sports. The biggest change you will see is an increased emphasis on publishing photos and community information contributed by readers.

We will update TheBurgs.com multiple times a day with news reported by our staff, content compiled by our community journalists and photos and stories submitted to us. You can see all the content online -- and we will publish the best of it in print four times a week, Thursday-Sunday.

The Burgs name has generated some criticism. Readers outside of Blacksburg and Christiansburg feel excluded and worry that their communities will be ignored. I understand those feelings, too.

We settled on the name because those towns are where most of our NRV subscribers live, and Montgomery County is one of the fastest growing localities in Southwest Virginia. We believe our best opportunities for attracting new readers and growing our advertising base are in those towns. Still, you will soon see that we have no plans to ignore Dublin, Radford, Pulaski, Pearisburg, Giles, Floyd or other NRV communities.

We acknowledge this change may carry with it some risk. But it's one we believe will serve our readers and strengthen us financially for years to come.

Back when the Current first launched, it was seen as a risky move. Chuck Burress, the Current's first editor, said this week that our corporate brothers and sisters at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk didn't think it was a good idea. Burress recalled them smirking and saying: "You really think you're going to be able to do this six times a week?"

Yet that plan worked out pretty well for more than two decades. We believe this one will, too.

Change is rarely easy, but I encourage you to check out The Burgs and share your reactions as we build something new.

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