April 24, 2009
By Mark Dewey
Last week a herd of buffalo which had been living as relics on a farm near Round Hill crashed its fences and made a run for the old grazing grounds, remembering, perhaps, that its kind was here first. As of this writing, eight of them are still roaming the patchwork of pasture, woodlands, and patio furniture that western Loudoun has become.
During most news cycles, that would be the story to tell, but this week the story is The Blue Ridge Leader: we’re going out of business.
When The Rocky Mountain News went out of business after serving Denver for 149 years, the columnist Mike Littwin noted that, “newspapers don’t simply close. They die.” That’s because newspapers exist to tell stories, and though story-telling may not be the reason people exist, it’s bred in our bone, along with the need to matter.
The Blue Ridge Leader is the right thing in the wrong time, like those buffalo. Phil Hahn, the paper’s founder, believed that keeping up with the times meant paying attention to the day’s events and talking to the people behind them, not retooling. He recognized the internet’s convenience but didn’t jump to build a website for his paper, which wasn’t a convenient undertaking, after all.
Some people say that all newspapers are like those buffalo now, displaced from their ancestral lands by new technology. News is different now, they say. Information transfer systems like Twitter will unroll ribbons of text across your computer screen, like tickertape from the wire services of old. “Anyone and everyone who sees or hears just about anything can put it online,” Wendy Kaufman reported this week on National Public Radio. In fact, she said, Twitter feeds from cell phone users on a ferry first informed journalists that Captain Chesley Sullenberger had ditched his Airbus A320 in the Hudson River. “Sometimes it’s nonsense,” Kaufman said, “and sometimes it’s breathtaking.”
If that’s the future, then The Blue Ridge Leader is the past, because like any decent paper, it tries to make sense, not just convey information. Seventy-five percent of the information that comes into our office doesn’t make the paper because it doesn’t matter enough to warrant space. We have to decide what matters most, and why, and if people think we’re wrong, that means the give-and-take of making sense is underway, because I make my sense in light of yours, and you in light of mine, until one of us stops talking. Right now, folding The Blue Ridge Leader feels like saying that it doesn’t pay to talk about this place. But that’s not true.
“The column is called The View From the Ridge,” Phil told me three years ago, “and you live on the ridge. So write what you see.” And try to make sense. That went without saying.
Today I see a herd of buffalo. Bearded, surly, undomesticated beasts. They stand six feet at the shoulder and weigh 1800 pounds. Their heads are bigger than a bale of hay, and the hump of muscle on their backs provides more thrusting power than the engine of a Honda Civic. Last week one of those buffalo was hit by a car on Route 7 and survived until sheriff’s deputies arrived to put it down. Another buffalo on the scene charged the sheriff’s cruiser, ramming the door with its head and its horns, and then backing up and charging again, and again, and again.
I also see The Blue Ridge Leader. Most of the stories the paper has told in its 25 years relate to growth and its attendant change. In 1984, 60,000 people lived in Loudoun County, most of them in Sterling and Chantilly. Today that number approaches 300,000. Purcellville itself has grown from a village of 1,600 to a town of nearly 8,000, virtually engulfing Hamilton, Lincoln, and Round Hill.
What does growth like that mean? What does change like that mean? What does ramming that cruiser again and again in brute frustration mean? We could say that it doesn’t mean anything: it just is. But those two buffalo and those two cars, one car wrecked by one beast lying dead beside the road while the other creature tries to push the cruiser out of its world, back through the portal of mystery from which it emerged, its blue lights flashing and its sirens screaming, “Get the hell out of the way!”—that picture looks so much like a living symbol of the conflict caused by change that calling it merely information is a waste of food for thought. Why pass up the chance to ponder what it means?
That’s what this job has given me: a chance to make sense of what I see. It made me pay attention. It made me ask why. It made me listen, and wonder, and take notes. It made me try to understand. It’s a better way of living than the way I lived before, and I’m grateful for that. Thanks, Phil. Thanks, Jane Ann. Thanks, western Loudoun County. So long.