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Local Newspapers are essential for nonfiction writers

My research of Virginia in the 1960s and 1970s almost entirely depends on local newspapers.  I am investigating the impact of the discovery of an earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant in central Virginia on the man who discovered it, on local farmers who lost their land to the project, and on the nuclear power industry in the United States. 

Nothing beyond the most meager facts about the power plant in rural Louisa County, Virginia can be found on Wikipedia.  Nothing can be found on Twitter or Facebook or any of the plethora of social media sites that have materialized faster than lawsuits in our endlessly litigious world.  

That’s why I am extremely grateful to Louisa County’s own local newspaper, The Central Virginian, for not only articles about the origins of the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant but also their vivid photos that capture the enormous scale and impact of the project.

Archives of The Central Virginian aren’t online, at least not for the years I was investigating, 1968 to 1975.  I called the Louisa County Public Library and learned that the library had The Central Virginian newspapers neatly organized by year, bound in thick books, and stored in their easily accessible stacks. They aren’t on microfilm like The Daily Progress, the Charlottesville local newspaper.  I actually had to open the large bound books and inspect page after page of The Central Virginian to find what I needed.  I’d take a photo of the article or image and email it to myself.   Once home, I transcribed the article or copied the image for use in my research.  

As my research grew, I developed a fondness to certain reporters who took the time to interview the property owners affected by the construction of the nuclear power plant.  I felt like I shared a common interest with these reporters, especially one particular reporter who worked for the larger regional newspaper, The Richmond Times-DispatchJean Purcell worked the Louisa County beat for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and dug deep into the lives of the people who lived there.  Farmers and teachers and politicians, she interviewed them all.  She reported on the announcement of the nuclear power plant construction, on the people that lost their farms to the project, and the controversies surrounding the discovery of the earthquake fault under the power plant site.  Then, all of a sudden, her articles stopped.  I was heartbroken.  I had lost a wise and dependable friend.  I searched for her name on the web and discovered she’d retired and became involved with other activities. Ms. Purcell has since passed but I was able to find one of her children on Facebook and send them a message to tell them how much I greatly admired their mother’s reporting.

The demise of local and regional newspapers is a huge loss for current society and future historians.  Too many of us get our news from TV pundits, Twitter provocateurs, or Facebook friends.  Where will future historians go to discover the small current events that ripple out and change history?