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Project News: A Manifesto (of sorts)

May 23, 2011

I posted this on my personal blog at craigorndorff.com, but for those of us reaching us via our social media efforts, you may not know what we’re all about. So with no further adieu, I present to you a portion of that post outlining the who, what, when, where and why of this project. For the whole post in context, click here.

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Still, for reasons I’ll get into below, I continue to see a real need for a new media resource for Shenandoah County and for political and public affairs coverage in the locality. My professional and personal position has changed over the last few months, and after continuing to play with the idea, I’ve finally decided to stop complaining and deliver.

It is with that background that I announce a new project of mine: The Shenandoah Sunshine Project. What is Shenandoah Sunshine? This project is intended to create a free, citizen powered resource for political and government news driven by the power of new media (including blogging, video and social networking). That, however, sounds supisciously like a simple pitch for advertisers, or a (albeit long) Twitter post. So, in that grand jouralistic tradition, I present the who, what, when, where, why and how of Shenandoah Sunshine.

So who are we? Well, for right now, you’re reading his words. Yes, at the present time, Shenandoah Sunshine is a one man band. However, because of the unique platform of new media, we hope that to be relatively short lived. We want to get other citizens involved in reporting on local politics and government. Even if you don’t have the time or interest in lugging a camera (or even pad and pen) to a local government meeting, we still want to hear what you’re interested in. Every platform we use will include some way for you to interact with us and provide us with tips, suggestions, and story ideas. Beyond that, we also hope to be a platform not only for reporting but for commentary and analysis as well–left, right, center, progressive, conservative, we want to hear from you, and provide you with a platform beyond the limitations of the letters to the editor section of the local papers in which to do it. For my part, I plan on restricting myself to a reporting role, covering meetings and reporting just the facts. If I step beyond that to offer opinion, I’ll be clear to label it as such, but I hope to control myself in that regard. But if my reporting appears to be biased, I certainly want to know that as well.

And just what are we going to provide? Well, think of us as CSPAN for Shenandoah County. We’re going to provide news and analysis about Shenandoah County Government and Politics across various social media platforms (video, twitter, facebook). Again, we are strictly limiting ourselves to just government and politics in Shenandoah County. If you’re looking for box scores, the line-up of acts for the Shenandoah County Fair, or what happened at the Relay for Life, sorry, we won’t have it–that’s not what we’re about. We are purposely focusing on the realm of public affairs within a limited geographic area. In short, we hope to be the C-SPAN of Shenandoah County. We want to provide citizens with a front row seat to government and politics in action. We will provide reporting and yes, film of town council and Board of Supervisor meetings and political events. Even CSPAN could be accused of being biased to a certain degree–even a camera angle or selection could be considered a form of bias–but we feel by providing the source material in a way others haven’t, we will be able to provide both a more comprehensive and less biased form of coverage than has ever been attempted in Shenandoah County.

When are we kicking this off? Well, that’s a bit trickier. In a sense, it starts today with the announcement. We want to hear your feedback starting now. What do you want to hear about? Where do you want us to be? Think we’re full of crap and aren’t needed at all and we should be ashamed of ourselves for even suggesting this project? Let us know….even if that won’t call us off. Again, this is all about getting citizens involved in the process, and that includes us, the media. Yet, today, we aren’t launching any stories. We’ve reserved a spot on the major platforms we’ll be using (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress), but content will roll out slowly, because, right now, we haven’t started the heart of the project. That will come soon, though. Our first target: redistricting in Shenandoah County. Look for stories and information beginning tomorrow, and full coverage of next week’s public hearing on the issue before the Board of Supervisors.

Where will we be? This is not a traditional media project. Again, we have a narrow focus, and a different platform. We conciously will not have a traditional press outlet, for several reasons. One, for the kind of coverage we’re providing, we just don’t think that our model is an economically viable one. Other projects that have had a larger community focus have folded–there’s been multiple new printed outlets through the last decade that have come and gone. We just don’t have the financial resources to try, and we don’t think its worth it. Beyond that, we think the present outlets do a good job as printed resources for the community writ large, and we don’t see competing wtih them. More to the point, we hope to do something a little different here. As we’ll outline below, we see a gap in local government and political coverage, and I feel that, frankly, county politics is not taken a s seriously as it could be. To try and change this, I hope to go to where the dialogue is–social media. If the announcement of a public official’s child being born or their engagement can draw people’s attention, why can’t coverage of important issues do so as well? I have a hunch that its because nobody’s tried hard enough, and I want to give it a whirl. It might work, it might not–but it won’t be known until its tried.

So that leads us to another question–just why am I doing this? Well, for starters, I think that, quite frankly, there’s just not enough engagement regarding politics in Shenandoah County. Too often we’ll see public hearings regarding property taxes or school spending packed to the gills, but then at the very next meeting there will be one or two people. Same thing with letters to the editor–there will be a deluge when there’s big issues at hand, but then nothing for weeks or months. Should we just live with this? After all, those are important issues–why not let people live their lives the rest of the year? Well, there’s something to that argument–but the problem with that logic is that these issues often become problems only because of decisions that were made in the past, when people weren’t really paying attention. We don’t blame the citizens directly–people often just don’t have options to hear about this stuff. But we think it matters. Too often, as a political office, I’d ask people about who they were planning to vote for in local elections and I’d get the answer, “sorry, I only vote in presidential elections, the only one that matters.” The problem there is that the vast majority of government operations that affect us in our daily lives, from police protection to public schools to, yes, even turning on the water to brush your teeth in the morning, are the function of local government. It might not be the sexiest or most compelling part of politics, but local politics matters. Right now, I just don’t feel that the local media outlets do as good a job as they good. The Hearld, despite being just focused on the county, has unfortunately curtailed in-depth coverage. The Free Press, while far more in depth, has a clear agenda, and the lines between reporting and opinion are far too often blurred in their coverage. The Northern Virginia Daily does good coverage on occasion, bu they cover Winchester and Front Royal as well and therefore have to manage their reporting and don’t get to cover every meeting as they should. We also don’t think that government itself does as good a job as it should. We want to change that. There may be some that see us “attacking the powers that be” on that front, but we don’t see this as an agenda driven effort. If we have any agenda, its on the side of government transparency and civic engagement. That’s all we care about–we hope to be a platform for political discussion, but before we do that, we want to get people talking through unprecedented political coverage.

To expand on that just for a moment–we realize that we may not have a readership that is a cross section of Shenandoah County at first. Likely, our first readers will probably be those already deeply invested in the political process to begin with. That’s ok–that’s why we’re focusing on social media. We want to start a dialogue, and we feel the quickest way to do that is to give people an easy way to disseminate information regarding local government. Again, it may work, it may not–maybe people really just don’t care, and information on redistricting will never be as popular as baby photos. Someone needs to try, though, and it might as well be the nerd who awaits census data more than word of a classmate’s newborn…..I make no apologies on that front, but as I’ve always felt–somebody’s gotta be that guy in a successful society. It might as well be me.

So how are we going to pull this off? Social media is at the core of this project. A blog, twitter, YouTube and Facebook are at the center of this project. You will find us across all three platforms, and for right now, its going to be heavy lifting on my part. But I want this–I see a real need for this sort of coverage, and I feel compelled to try. There will be more coming across the next few days, and we encourage you to stay tuned. Above all, get involved: talk to us, let us know what you want to hear about, critique us. Because this project is ultimately about you, the citizens, and we believe that we can shine new light on the often confusing but always important nature of local government.

God bless this beautiful land we call the Shenandoah Valley, and god bless America.

Regards,
Craig L. Orndorff

Editor, Shenandoah Sunshine Project

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