Photo by Jay Paul
Jeff Bayard may be a newcomer to publishing, but his Richmond-based online magazine isn't content to pick the low-hanging fruit of easy stories. Bayard launched the Virginia Free Citizen last November to provide news coverage of events that "have a direct impact, positive or negative, on the individual liberties of Virginians."
Richmond seems the perfect place to launch such a venture, considering Thomas Jefferson had hoped our fair city would one day emerge as the nation's capital. Delivered entirely online at virginiafreecitizen.com , the content is geared to people who favor limited government. But Bayard says he has no political ax to grind; the aim, he says, is to shine a spotlight on issues that often escape the radar of mainstream media.
In its March issue, for instance, VFC featured a package of stories about human trafficking in Virginia, including new legislation to tighten enforcement. The centerpiece was a harrowing tale of a Midlothian woman rescued in her teens from the clutches of sex traffickers in New Jersey. The story was sourced and developed by Shelby Mertens and Kate Miller, former and current journalism students, respectively, from Virginia Commonwealth University, whom Bayard hired as interns.
"Human trafficking is pretty much the antithesis of individual liberty, isn't it? That's why we decided to tell her story," says Bayard, who credits his cub reporters with doing a "terrific job" handling a delicate topic.
Mertens, a recent graduate from VCU with a degree in mass communications, says it was an eye-opening experience. "We learned about the ‘lover boy' method that traffickers used to lure this woman into slavery and found out how human trafficking is used to bring in revenue."
The hard-hitting story wasn't a one-off: Virginia Free Citizen was one of the first media outlets to document the successful battle waged by Virginia farmers to throw off onerous state land-use regulations. Bayard touts that story as a classic illustration of private property owners protecting their rights.
Launching new media properties is always a dicey proposition, but the stagnant economy compounds those challenges. For the moment, Bayard — whose day job is marketing consultant for a Richmond graphics firm — pays interns out of his own pocket. As his team tries to unearth under-the-radar news items, Bayard plans to spend 2014 "building page authority" in an effort to drum up website visitors and woo advertisers. Eventually, he plans to hire a public relations intern to boost subscriptions to the site's e-mail newsletter.