Baliles, 2009 Virginian of the Year, Addresses Question of Newspapers' Future

March 23, 2009 — The Virginia Press Association honored former Gov. Gerald Baliles, current director of the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, in Norfolk March 20 as the 2009 "Virginian of the Year."

The press association, which has a committee of journalists select an award recipient each year, awarded Baliles because of his great leadership in the commonwealth, said Ginger Stanley, the group's executive director. Baliles served in the House of Delegates from 1976 to 1982, as attorney general from 1982 to 1985 and as governor from 1986 to 1990.

Baliles gave a speech about "the fourth estate" and its uncertain future. He announced that the Miller Center would form a national working group of media leaders, academic experts and others to address the issue.

Despite recent surveys showing nearly half of all adults read a newspaper every day and spent more than $10 billion last year on them, Baliles noted some newspapers are shutting down, closing bureaus and laying off reporters and other employees.

"It is with some concern that I — and the faculty and staff at the Miller Center and friends across Virginia — have taken note of the troubles that newspapers in particular have been encountering — in recent months and weeks especially," Baliles said.

He said he was not against change per se, and he summarized changes in the delivery of news over the past few hundred years, but said he was worried people would not get accurate, timely local news or have the historic record newspapers provide. Moreover, the objective view newspaper reporters are known for is being replaced with partisan views.

He joked "that employees of the University of Virginia are contractually obligated to quote Jefferson," but the quote was serious and to the point: "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

To read the full speech, go to www.vpa.net/index.php/association/article/baliles-speechtext.