Our View: New Times initiatives for 2020

Our View: New Times initiatives for 2020
(File Photo)

We’re excited to announce two noteworthy initiatives at the Alexandria Times, which we believe will significantly contribute to civic understanding in our city.

The first, which will launch on Jan. 29, is the inaugural episode of Speak Easy, the Times’ new monthly podcast series. These will be in-depth – but still fairly short at around 20 minutes – interviews with interesting Alexandrians.

Times reporter Cody Mello-Klein will take the lead in conducting the interviews and producing the podcasts, though various members of our staff will also be involved. Our interviewees will be Alexandrians involved in noteworthy pursuits. Civic leaders, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts of various stripes will join us on Speak Easy to discuss their ventures and their contributions to Alexandria.

To add to the fun, we won’t reveal the name of each interviewee until the day before the podcast is released. So check our website at alextimes.com or look us up on Facebook or Twitter on Jan. 28 to learn the identity of our first Speak Easy guest.

Our second 2020 initiative isn’t entirely new like Speak Easy, but rather an amplification of our investigative reporting efforts. The Washington Post’s motto, “Democracy dies in darkness,” is a reflection of that publication’s commitment to closely watching government operations.

Investigative reporting is the raison d’etre for all serious newspapers. It’s something we’ve always done at the Times, but we plan to do more of in 2020.

Requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act, commonly called FOIAs, are essential to investigative reporting. These documents are often email communications between city employees, but they can also be requests for minutes from old meetings or documents pertaining to land use decisions.

Many people are under the false impression that FOIA requests are free for media companies. In fact, while the federal government is not allowed to charge media companies for FOIAs, our state and local governments are allowed – but not required – to charge the media for information.

The City of Alexandria generally works well with media companies on information requests. City spokesman Craig Fifer is responsive and tries to steer requests toward free sources, while Assistant City Attorney Adrienne Fine, who is in charge of FOIA requests, works with the media to narrow requests and limit costs.

Despite their efforts, FOIA costs add up quickly, and many media companies simply can’t afford them. Even those that can are constrained by cost.

Given that greater government transparency – that democracy dies in darkness bit – benefits everyone, we think the City of Alexandria should consider a policy of providing 10,000 pages of documents in a given year free to media companies.

While 10,000 pages seems like a lot, it’s really not. The FOIA request done by the Seminary Hill Association that fueled Frank Putzu’s adjacent My View column consisted of 626 pages, mostly of emails, and cost more than $500. So if 626 pages is average, 10,000 would be 15 to 18 FOIA requests in a given year. That doesn’t strike us as excessive.

The Seminary Hill Association has shared those FOIA documents with the Alexandria Times, and we will be running stories based on them, stories that are important to understanding planning for the Seminary Road road diet.

But if the SHA hadn’t footed the cost, those documents would lie in darkness.