At the helm of the Virginia Press Association, Ginger Stanley has fought attempts by politicians to bar access to public records and to conduct business behind closed doors. But after nearly three decades, she plans to retire from her position as the group’s executive director in June. A national search is underway to find her replacement.
The association has 220 members from daily, weekly and other specialty publications across the state, including Style, and holds an annual writing, design, art and photography contest that has more than 5,000 entries.
Stanley joined the association as its advertising director in 1984 and became executive director in 1988. Before that, she worked as a reporter and in advertising from 1972 to 1982 at The Herald Progress in Ashland.
A Richmond native, the 67-year-old has walked the state’s journalists through the ins and outs of the Freedom of Information Act, and has kept them aware of how to deliver the news quickly and accurately in the digital age. She’s stood behind news outlets through groundbreaking court cases and in lobbying state lawmakers for change. And she says it’s been incredibly rewarding.
But Stanley leaves her post with Virginia on shaky ground when it comes to the protection of access to public information, she says.
As in this General Assembly session, she’s taken issue with multiple bills concerning public notices placed in newspapers by local governments. Stanley also lobbied against a bill proposed by state Sen. Richard H. Stuart, R-Stafford, which would have removed the names of public employees from salary databases. The legislation, known as Senate Bill 202, died in the House late last month.
Style: What do you think is the most important part of your, and the Virginia Press Association’s role and mission?
Well, VPA was formed in 1881, so I don’t think the mission has changed a great deal since that time. The founders came together because they knew we needed a collective voice to look out for all issues that relate to the ability for journalists to collect information and get it out to their readers, and also for the camaraderie and the ability to help each other through resources that the press association presented.
So even as early as the early 1900s, the press association was involved in helping to train members and helping to bring legislation to the General Assembly that would ensure, long term, that government records and meetings would be open and stay open, so when gathering information we would have first-hand knowledge of what government is planning to do.
What do you think is the most important battle you’ve ever fought concerning access to public information?
I think one of the hardest and most consistent battles that we fight, year in and year out, is keeping information before the public that happens in public meetings. So often the attempt is to go behind closed doors and work through that closed-session process, to fashion actions and policies and just whatever procedures that public bodies are going to use.
In fact, at one point, we helped take one of these violations of a closed meeting all the way to the [Virginia] Supreme Court. That was the case of White Dog Publishing versus the Board of Supervisors, in Culpeper. And in that decision, which was a unanimous decision, 7-0, they ruled [in fall 2006] that the reason for making the meeting secret was not a reason that was legal.
So, even though we were successful in that particular case, I continue to counsel reporters on a regular basis about how they can challenge the reason for closed session and about how they can point out to their readers when these sessions are being held illegally.
Are there any cases that are happening right now in headlines in Virginia that you’re worried about as far as governmental procedures being opened?
There is a theme right now that we are seeing, and that is denying publishers the ability to collect and report on information that are in databases. Several years ago the legislature, I believe in 2008, passed legislation that said that government bodies should work hard to get their information into databases and online, so that everyone has the ability to see this information.
But over the last several years we have seen court cases [in the other direction]. For instance, the Daily Press on Feb. 6 had a court case in Newport News against the office of the executive secretary [which provides access to online court records] because they denied the Daily Press the database of the collection of court records that are sent to the executive secretary’s office. These are records that my members have been using for a long time and all of a sudden the decision was made not to release these records any longer.
In addition, The Virginian-Pilot actually had a court case last year, and they were successful in a judge identifying that databases of the police or law enforcement records where you could see an officer’s name with their position and salary, should be a public record.
So this is the direction we are concerned about. There was legislation just this year, in fact, that was just defeated … to not allow us to see databases of public employees as it relates to their salaries. This [attempt to block access to government databases] is a problem. … I am concerned that Virginia is taking a step backwards.
Were you surprised that legislation limiting access to information in public databases was proposed in the General Assembly?
I was surprised by who the patron was, because Sen. Richard Stuart is vice chair of the Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council and was chairman just a year ago. And of all legislators, I would have considered that he would run his bill past the council before taking it to the legislature.
What are some of the biggest strides that reporters in Virginia have made in the past 30 years?
The largest stride is now and over the last 10 years, and this has been rapidly evolving, where news is 24/7 on websites [and] it is being sent to readers via mobile devices. I had one publisher tell me that they were tracking how readers were getting their news during the day and the peaks were early morning reading the hard copy. By 9 a.m., they were getting it on their mobile device, whether it was a phone or a tablet. By noon, they were online at work and the peak was reading the newspaper online at work. Once again in the afternoon, their mobile devices were peaking.
So it’s very, very gratifying to me to know that with all the hard work that reporters go through to get this news, it’s getting out there all day long, every day. And newspaper readers have a better opportunity to get their news than in any other time in history. So, the fact that we don’t have as many hard copies in circulation at any given time doesn’t bother me at all because I understand that the way newspapers are being read today is all day long, every day, through many different forums.
With the increase of bloggers and other alternative media, do you think that maybe the press association should change [guidelines] to bring them into the fold?
I do think that we should be proactive and come up with classifications of members that make sense to the industry. We do have, and just a few years back, included online publications as a separate membership. Over the years, we’ve included free distribution as members and I think we also have an opportunity for freelancers to join as individuals. So, I think the next category will probably be bloggers. And this is something that the board will explore and look at because I think Virginia’s press has been very open to change and inclusion, and I see that down the road. S