This week we had the pleasure of talking with Elliott Robinson, news editor for Charlottesville Tomorrow and former associate city editor at the Daily Progress.
Elliott talks about what it’s been like in Charlottesville in the aftermath of Unite the Right, the potential for dailies to get on the nonprofit model, how the luxury of time is liberating in reporting, his novel in progress, Kevin Bacon and more.
Can you please introduce yourself and tell us about where you work and what you do there?
I’m Elliott Robinson and I’m the news editor at Charlottesville Tomorrow, an online nonprofit news outlet. Along with serving as the editor, I currently cover transportation and the governments of Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
This is my 12th year in journalism. After graduating from Christopher Newport University, I have been at The Progress-Index in Petersburg; the Hopewell News; a centralized copy desk in Jacksonville, North Carolina; the Richmond Times-Dispatch and The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.
What has it been like since coming on board at C-Ville Tomorrow? How does the nonprofit news world differ from the daily world?
Being at CTOM has been a huge change of pace over everywhere else I’ve worked. As we aren’t constrained by hard daily or weekly deadlines — beyond what we share with our print partner, The Daily Progress — we have the opportunity to dive deeper into our stories. Some of these long-form pieces have been cooking in my head for years, but the relentless cuts in print have made tacking them nearly impossible.
Being at a nonprofit has taken away the constant fear of a third of the newsroom being cut on any given day, but there is a constant drive to search for fresh ways to present information fairly and accurately to keep readers engaged (and donating).
As someone who has been at both dailies and now at a non-profit, do you think there is potential for legacy newspapers to shift from an advertising-based model to incorporate some nonprofit aspects in their operations?
I think so. A part of the story of newspapers losing revenue starts with retailers big and small going out of business. As long as there is an understanding that funding does not influence coverage, print outlets should explore considering grants that could fund an investigative piece or seeking donors who see the value of local news and want to save jobs. I’d rather see that over corporate decisions to slash staffs to the point that the product approaches irrelevancy. Maybe this also includes returning to local ownership of newspapers.
What’s it been like to have the luxury of time for your reporting projects?
There’s always a story you get on deadline or pick up the next day and that makes you wish that another question could have been asked or there was more time to get a response to a question. That never ends, even with having more fluid deadlines, but it helps reduce those moments of kicking yourself.
We’re currently working on a story about an evolving situation, so it’s been great to respond to the twists and turns but not by having to drop everything to slam out another story.
“It’s been interesting as a journalist to see the conversations shift to acknowledging the elephant in the room and slowly turn into discussions about what to do about the elephant.”
As a reporter in Charlottesville, what are some things that have struck you (either positively or negatively) about the coverage of Charlottesville in the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally and its recent anniversary?
The 2017 rally, in a way, ripped a Band-Aid off. The discussion over the past year still included Confederate symbols but it also shifted to the area’s decades of conscious and unconscious institutional racism and how to reconcile that. National and international coverage, I think, largely missed that and why protesters this past August criticized the massive police presence. But I can see how trying to condense a year of discussion into one or two stories in the global news cycle was a challenge.
Do you think Charlottesville is “on the mend” as far as addressing these issues are concerned? Of course, there is a long way to go, but I’m interested to know if you think it’s on a better path now. As a journalist, what has it been like to watch all of this evolve over the last year plus?
I think Charlottesville — and, most recently, Albemarle County — are having some of the major discussions they need to have on systemic racism, affordable housing and policing. There still is a trust gap between residents and the institutions that created some of those issues. There is indeed a long, bumpy way to go, but I feel that we’ll be stronger in the long run. It’s been interesting as a journalist to see the conversations shift to acknowledging the elephant in the room and slowly turn into discussions about what to do about the elephant.
What are some stories you are working on now that you think will have a significant impact on Charlottesville/Albemarle County?
We’re looking at how several developments planned for northern Albemarle will affect schools, transportation and more, and we’re also looking at the overall affordable housing crisis in the area.
What are some of your interests and hobbies outside of journalism?
I love taking road trips, and I have a goal of driving to each state east of the Mississippi, including Minnesota. I’m also a voracious reader, and I’ve been working on a novel intermittently. It’s finally in the self-edit stage.
Any random facts about yourself some people might be surprised to find out?
I’ve officiated a friend’s wedding, and I’m on track to do another this year, I read road construction documents for fun and, although I haven’t been in a movie, I’m less than six degrees from Kevin Bacon in at least three ways.
Favorite book: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Favorite journalism quote: The Aspen Daily News’ slogan: If you don’t want it printed, don’t let it happen.
Advice: From Lee Wolverton, now of The Roanoke Times: “[P]eople read the newspaper not necessarily to get the news, since they’ve often already seen it, but to get the full, or fuller, story. They read not necessarily to learn what happened but to learn more about what happened.”