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R.I.P., Richmond.com

Yes, my relationship with Richmond.com is like Brenda and Dylan on “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Like Christian Slater and Christian Slater on NBC. Or maybe just like a 20-something with a broken career compass.

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The day the digital ink declared that Media General had purchased Richmond.com, it felt like my vintage-T-shirt-wearing, Emo girlfriend had dumped me for the Wrangler-clad high-school quarterback. Well, maybe the back-up quarterback. OK, the long snapper.

She was wearing his varsity jacket. Holding his hand. And he was about to turn her pithy, effervescent prose into a sterling inverted pyramid of facts, figures and objectivity.

Richmond.com is not a dead, static-ridden channel yet. Craig T. Nelson isn't throwing tennis balls at an empty homepage. It is, however, dead as independent media. Gone the way of Punchline, Inside Business and the “Mr. Belvedere” fiction newsletter I used to write and hang in Fan bar bathroom stalls.

I worked at Richmond.com two and a half times. I was an earnest college boy looking for a $20,000-a-year news-writing gig back in 2001. I quit after receiving a coupon book for a Christmas bonus, and came back a few years later to work as an arts and entertainment writer, movie critic and finally, editor.

And that half-year? Three separate stints as a freelancer. Yes, my relationship with Richmond.com is like Brenda and Dylan on “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Like Christian Slater and Christian Slater on NBC. Or maybe just like a 20-something with a broken career compass.

I was at Richmond.com for 9/11, when a Capitol police officer was so suspicious of my press credentials that he called for backup. I was there when Virginia Commonwealth University beat Duke in Buffalo, N.Y., in the NCAA tourney — shortly before our car broke down at a Niagara Falls casino parking lot. For the Ricky Gray trial, the Carver arson spree, the Henrico laptop rodeo and when someone stole Cher's wig.

Let me back up. If you haven't heard about Richmond.com or never visited the independent media portal, a brief history: Local businessman John Whitlock bought Richmond.com from Landmark Communications, which owns Style Weekly, back in 2000, and for a while, stories from Style Weekly, Inside Business and Richmond magazine — as well as unique Richmond.com-produced content — all hung out together on the same Web site.

Then the local media Diaspora began, and Richmond.com became an independent media entity. It added staff, scored partners — the Richmond Metropolitan Convention Center and Visitor's Bureau, for one — and soon enough, had corrections to issue, awards to hang and apologies to make. Our little girl was all grown up.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, when Whitlock, who had burned cash for years on his publishing experiment, finally cried uncle. There was, of course, an instant explosion of misinformation in blogs and bars. Here are a few facts: Most of the Richmond.com staff was canned, the holdovers are moving over to Media General, and the parent company's plans for the URL remain unclear.

And here's total disclosure: As one of Richmond.com's remaining two freelancers — I'm still a columnist and movie critic — I now work for Media General. At least I had a gig until I wrote this. If someone in a bow tie says I can't make a “tranny” reference, I'm either finished — or I try to convince him I was talking about a car part.

Looking back at the Richmond.com experiment, it endured fleeting success and ultimate failure for a few reasons.
First, the good:

Amazing people worked there. One of my former co-workers writes at Newsweek; another is a published author. The successful one moved into a fetish house.

There was the proverbial underdog envy. It was fun competing with a limited budget, limited experience and only one tie. Sure, we had to explain what Richmond.com was a dozen times a day, but people learned soon enough.

We also had freedom. With an editorial staff of five people and a gaggle of interns and freelancers, we could do anything. Develop a new beat without red tape, strike new content partnerships with a handshake, work until 3 a.m. and come in at noon. Celebrate a successful deadline by shot-gunning a beer, and not having to hide the empty can.

The bad?

Cramped quarters: Because most of our business decision makers hadn't taken journalism ethics 101, there was no wall between editorial and advertising. We chose our battles, axing a negative review here, writing a story to satisfy a sponsor there.

It was easy to rationalize because we were all broke. Once while writing a news story on home heating assistance, I realized that my income qualified me for the program. That said, without Richmond.com, we wouldn't have an opportunity to get paid for what we loved to do in the River City.

 We also had to fight the Agenda. I always found it strange to see blog posts and article comments accusing us of being liberal. If they only knew the political and religious convictions of our ownership, then the critics would be surprised we weren't publishing a digital church bulletin. Let's just say that one day while having lunch with the Richmond.com owner and the sponsor of our Faith & Values channel at Baker's Crust, I was surprised to have both my hands suddenly and simultaneously held before the meal. I was thought I was going to get baptized in my gazpacho.

Still, I give John Whitlock a ton of credit for sticking it out with Richmond.com. We were often a revolving door of employees — and that's what put a fork in Richmond.com at the end. He was a fair and nice enough boss. And I look forward to seeing his family band win the next season of “America's Got Talent” with a G-rated “Sound of Music” tribute. Also, I can't fault Media General for pouncing on the opportunity. It's a smart move and I hope it works out.

My best guess for the future of Richmond.com? It will become a true multimedia local portal, as in many publications and multisensory channels. Watch a news clip from Channel 12. Read a story from one of their rural rags. And, I'm crossing my fingers, you'll still be able to check out some old-school Richmond.com stories. S

Mike Ward is the former editor of Richmond.com and currently works as a freelance writer and editor.

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