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March 14, 2011, 10 a.m.

Virginia is for (news) lovers: How a Charlottesville newspaper and non-profit make their relationship work

A year and a half ago, neither The Daily Progress nor Charlottesville Tomorrow were quite sure their marriage would work. One’s a daily newspaper, the other a nonprofit focused on land use and development issues. What they had in common was the same goal of supplying meaningful news to the people of Charlottesville, Virginia.

Not only did they make their union work, they’re thriving.

Since stories produced by nonprofit Charlottesville Tomorrow have begun appearing in The Progress — something we wrote about in 2009 — the paper’s coverage of growth, transportation, and development stories has increased, traffic to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s website is up, and the partnership has been lauded by Editor & Publisher for “Doing It Right.”

“It’s not something I anticipated, expected, or planned. It was something that happened over time,” said McGregor McCance, managing editor of The Progress. “I’m excited to see what happens next.”

Charlottesville Tomorrow executive director Brian Wheeler told me what happens next could be some growth of their own, by adding new staff and new beats — which in turn would mean more stories flowing into The Progress, which would mean more exposure for Charlottesville Tomorrow. It appears they’re moving past proof of concept (community news partnerships can work!) and onto expansion (we need more bodies!). But getting bigger will present new hurdles — notably, how to grow Charlottesville Tomorrow’s donations to pay for it and what role, if any, the newspaper can play in the process. And if expansion does happen, how does Charlottesville Tomorrow expand its coverage area in concert with The Progress’ own efforts?

“We’re reaching a fork in the road here, where we have maximized what we can do with our current staffing and current toolkit,” Wheeler said.

What they’re currently doing is bulking up the kind of nuts-and-bolts local coverage that can easily get set aside when a reporting staff shrinks. McCance and Wheeler are in regular contact, beginning with a weekly budget of stories and ideas. In some areas Charlottesville Tomorrow drives coverage; McCance points in particular to stories on the area’s water supply. One of the immediate benefits, McCance told me, was CT bylines freeing up reporters from The Progress to work on stories they might not have had time to get around to previously. The flip side, he said, is doubling down on stories on important topics. “We can get two pretty good, newsy stories out of a meeting that may have been one story and a mention at the bottom or a short sidebar,” McCance said.

Originally, stories from Charlottesville Tomorrow were also appearing on DailyProgress.com. But the partners adjusted that so readers now get a link to the full stories on Charlottesville Tomorrow’s site (denoted by a “CT” in front of the headline), a move that resulted in a significant jump in CT’s website visits and email subscribers. Wheeler said his site saw a 65 percent jump in weekly pageviews in the first year of the partnership with The Daily Progress. That visibility has helped Charlottesville Tomorrow meet its operating costs through donations (its annual budget is around $280,000, with two full-time staffers).

“With the partnership, they know that if they make a financial contribution to our reporting, they know the entire community is going to see it in the daily paper,” Wheeler said. “The partnership makes the donation more tangible to supporters.”

Expansion could prove tricky, since Wheeler splits his time wearing his reporter and executive director hats. Wheeler said he thinks the partnership with The Progress is a sign that readers are willing to fund reporting, especially in specific coverage areas. Looking at areas like health care or education, Wheeler said expanded coverage could dovetail nicely with funding if there are organizations that offer grants in those areas.

“Our hypothesis has always been that this community wants in-depth content on these quality of life issues,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler thinks recreating this type of partnership elsewhere would rely on the right conditions. (Though we do know the idea of nonprofit news services brokering content deals with local papers is on the rise.) Wheeler credits Charlottesville’s relative size, its status as an education center, and the openness of The Progress for making the collaboration work.

McCance sees things similarly, if not more starkly, and says editors need to be open to the idea of content partnerships. “We all have to be realistic about the recent track record of our business,” McCance said. “I can’t imagine a managing editor in the U.S. today that expects to see their staff of editors and reporters return to the level it was five years ago or 10 years ago.”

POSTED     March 14, 2011, 10 a.m.
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