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Oct. 8, 2009, 9 a.m.

Charlottesville nonprofit finds a path to a bigger audience: the local paper

In online-nonprofit-news terms, Charlottesville Tomorrow is an old timer. It’s been covering the growth and development around the Virginia city since 2005 — back when “twitter” was still a term confined to ornithological circles.

Born from executive director Brian Wheeler’s interest in local government (he serves as chairman of the county school board), the privately-funded Charlottesville Tomorrow isn’t just hyperlocal — it’s hypertargeted. No social calendars, no little-league scores, no general local news — just growth and development, covered at a level of detail no one else can match.

That focus helped Charlottesville Tomorrow build a positive reputation in the community and relationships with local media organizations, whose resources to cover those issues have shrunk. And one of those relationships recently became official: Charlottesville Tomorrow in August partnered with the local daily newspaper, The Daily Progress, to publish Charlottesville Tomorrow content in the Progress’ print and online editions.

Daily Progress managing editor McGregor McCance had Charlottesville Tomorrow on his radar for years. “It was a case where I was able to review them over a long period of time and personally get comfortable with what they were producing,” McCance said. “It wasn’t as if someone had hopped in the door here and said ‘hey, we’d like to start writing stories for the Daily Progress, what do you think?'”

This isn’t a nonprofit flirtation or limited trial run. Since early September, around 40 percent of Charlottesville Tomorrow’s articles have appeared in the Progress’ newspaper and website. No money has changed hands under the partnership, and both sides are fine with that. Wheeler sees it as an opportunity to get the Charlottesville Tomorrow brand in front of more people, while McGregor can integrate reputable growth and development articles into the Progress’ local coverage.

A casual relationship

The editorial workflow between Charlottesville Tomorrow and the Daily Progress is informal. Wheeler and McCance trade emails at the beginning of every week to arrange story coverage. Submitted articles are run through the Daily Progress’ copy desk, where editors are free to change headlines and tweak text. In some cases Charlottesville Tomorrow will use recommendations from Progress editors to conduct follow-up interviews and lock down certain points.

Finished stories appear in the Progress’ print and online editions, as well as on Charlottesville Tomorrow’s website. Online stories on both sites are structurally similar, but they differ: Compare the link-heavy approach of Charlottesville Tomorrow, with meeting transcripts and audio, to the barebones Daily Progress approach.

Both sides are pleased with the partnership thus far. Wheeler and his staff have made small adaptations, most notably in schedule coordination, but their output and processes remain largely the same as before the agreement. McCance said Daily Progress reporters whose beats overlap with Charlottesville Tomorrow seem enthusiastic about the partnership because it reduces coverage gaps. At this point, issues around heavy edits and rewrites are theoretical, and neither Wheeler nor McCance is too worked up about how they might play out.

McCance has a sense that the Charlottesville Tomorrow partnership may free up Progress reporters to pursue deeper stories, but he stressed that the new content won’t replicate the paper’s full-newsroom glory days. “Let’s face it,” he said, “even with their help, which is terrific, we’re still a thinly staffed paper trying to chase down stories instead of doing feature coverage all the time. It’s still not easy. It’s still extremely difficult.”

Three events close the deal

Wheeler and McCance noted separately that overlapping events created an atmosphere conducive to the Charlottesville Tomorrow/Daily Progress partnership. These same events may not be directly duplicative, but recognizing them could yield useful variations in other markets (nonprofits and mainstream outlets take note).

The events fell into three buckets:

— Over its four years of publishing, Charlottesville Tomorrow earned the respect of the community and, by extension, McCance and his publisher. This is the one area nonprofits may be able to control: Build a reputation by focusing on long-term growth and service. The cliche “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” also has the added benefit of moderating an organization’s burn rate.

— The extended decline of the newspaper business eroded the Daily Progress’ staff, making it difficult to adequately cover local government and related issues. This, as we all know, is happening everywhere, and that begs the question: If a respected local nonprofit can supplement newspaper coverage through a mutually beneficial relationship, why not give it a shot? A stubborn competitive instinct isn’t always an asset.

— The economic uproar of the last year made it easier to sell experimental ideas. Newsroom staffers who want to take a risk, and can show even a modicum of projected uptick on the bottom line, could use the turmoil to get sign-off on new ideas.

McCance offered a straightforward assessment of these interlocking elements: “The question is, if only one of those tracks had occurred over time, would we be doing this partnership? I don’t know. Probably not. Let’s be frank about it, we’re not paying them [Charlottesville Tomorrow] any money for the content. And I think their content is good. So for a newspaper that’s seen its newsroom staffing shrink by about 40 percent over the last four years, that’s not a bad option for us.”

Best practices from, and inspired by, Charlottesville Tomorrow

Given Charlottesville Tomorrow’s track record, and the growing interest in the nonprofit option, I asked Wheeler to share tips that could help similar organizations. Wheeler offered a few (see below), but he also credited the continued guidance he receives from the Charlottesville Tomorrow board. So consider this tip 1A: assemble a board of knowledgeable community members and listen carefully.

Wheeler’s other tips:

Mind the books. As executive director, Wheeler divides his time between administration, fundraising and creating content. Nonprofits need to file tax returns and monitor income, just like for-profit companies, so Wheeler recommends allocating money for a bookkeeper and assigning someone — likely the person at the top of the org chart — to also manage the outreach and fundraising components.

Give yourself time. Raise enough money upfront to get into a consistent workflow. Fundraising — and a mandate from his board — allowed Wheeler to launch Charlottesville Tomorrow with a two-year gameplan. This gave him time to get the editorial structure in place and build a reputation within the community.

Understand the needs of your market. The city of Charlottesville factored heavily in Charlottesville Tomorrow’s development. “There’s a real passion about this community and the quality of life,” Wheeler said. “This group of people [the board] said, ‘we really want to be a part of something that protects that’.” A similar nonprofit would struggle to take hold in a dispersed community with few common interests.

And here’s a final bit of analysis derived from my conversation with Wheeler:

The advantage of objectivity. Debating the pros and cons of a nonprofit news outlet requires tracking its coverage over an extended period of time. It’s like an NFL draft class. You can’t judge specific selections until years later when the swirl of talent, injuries, and opportunities settles into its natural state. What’s interesting about Charlottesville Tomorrow is that it has a track record. It can be judged. The Daily Progress, in perhaps the most overt thumbs-up a newspaper can offer, opened its print and online platforms to a nonprofit outsider.

Here’s the thing, though: Charlottesville Tomorrow has an agenda. At least one defined by its choice of topic — it focuses entirely on growth and development issues. Clearly, Wheeler cares about the topic.

But the commingling of agenda and objectivity is where Charlottesville Tomorrow is most instructive, because the organization is balancing that agenda against its hardwired objectivity. For example: The Charlottesville Tomorrow board is intentionally made up of Republicans, Democrats and independents. Funding comes from benefactors whose interests are sprinkled across the political spectrum. The content itself, which Wheeler describes as “gavel to gavel, C-SPAN style,” is delivered in a straightforward, just the facts sort of way.

Photo by Brian Wheeler used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 8, 2009, 9 a.m.
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