This week’s feature is with VPA’s first online member, and currently its only nonprofit member, Charlottesville Tomorrow. It was founded in 2005 and in 2009 joined with Charlottesville daily newspaper, The Daily Progress, in a news partnership that remains one of the few of its kind in the industry. Editor Brian Wheeler talks about the benefit of collaboration between for-profit and nonprofit news outlets, knowing your audience and some issues that are currently having a major impact on Cville Tomorrow’s coverage area. 

To get started, can you give me a little background on Charlottesville Tomorrow and how it began and, eventually, became VPA’s first online member?

Charlottesville Tomorrow formed as a mission-driven nonprofit in 2005 determined to get citizens engaged, informed, and working together.  What started as a blog and podcast of local government in Charlottesville-Albemarle has become a critical part of this community’s media landscape.

Looking in the rearview mirror, we can see now we were at the forefront of citizen journalism at the dawn of the complete disruption of the newspaper industry. Twelve years ago we didn’t even call our work journalism, we simply wanted to be a clearing house for facts, to host a calendar of government meetings, and to offer in-depth information to as many people as possible.

In 2009, The Daily Progress approached us and asked if we might consider having our local government reports published in the newspaper. Eight years in to this partnership Charlottesville Tomorrow has produced over 2,500 articles online and in the printed newspaper.  Our byline and our logo accompanies each story and the newspaper’s online version links back to the full content on our website. It is the only partnership like it in the United States and today we produce more than 50 percent of the newspaper’s local content on the topics we cover.

As a result of this collaboration, there is more news about our local government in the newspaper today than there was a decade ago. Our partnership is a win-win for both of our businesses and the community. Simply put, Charlottesville Tomorrow would not be here today were it not for the expanded reach and credibility the newspaper has given our solutions-oriented journalism.

When the partnership began, we started asking the Virginia Press Association if our stories running in The Daily Progress could be nominated as part of the annual VPA News & Advertising Contest. It was not an option at the time because the newspaper was not paying Charlottesville Tomorrow for the content. Then in 2012, the VPA created a new membership category for online publications and we were honored to be accepted as the first member of that category.

There’s been a lot of news lately about local news nonprofits being the answer to the struggling industry. It seems like Cville Tomorrow was ahead of this in a lot of different ways. Do you think, that somewhat out of necessity, we will begin to see more collaboration between newspapers and local news nonprofits, such as the one you have with The Daily Progress?

When the Charlottesville Tomorrow and The Daily Progress launched a news content sharing arrangement in 2009 we thought it might be the beginning of a movement. More than eight years leader, it seems to be a unique arrangement between a nonprofit and a for-profit newspaper. While there are certainly nonprofit newsrooms like ProPublica sharing content with daily newspapers, nowhere else is the collaboration this significant and with an almost daily output of local journalism. The editors at both of our organizations coordinate everything from assignments, to editing, to photography all with the explicit goal of gathering and publishing more news for the community.

That requires a great deal of trust and experience working together.  It helps that Charlottesville Tomorrow has a niche focus on a few topics: land use; transportation; community design; and public education.  Charlottesville Tomorrow does not try to cover courts and crime, arts and culture, social services, public safety, most happenings at the University of Virginia or breaking news. That makes it easier to decide who covers which meetings and events and we can add value where we have the greatest expertise.

I believe that focus and our nonprofit’s openness to partnerships serve us very well in our work with The Daily Progress. These arrangements often do not form in other places because the people that would launch a new nonprofit online news site used to work as reporters at the newspaper. There is a built in sense of competition from day one for stories and advertising dollars.  Rob Jiranek, publisher of The Daily Progress, describes our work as having a “shared noble purpose.” With a spirit of collaboration, both our teams seek to provide the highest quality coverage possible to our community and in a way that allows us to both have successful business models.

There should be more examples of this type of news collaboration around the country and we hope our model can be one example of how it can be done well.

Why did you, from the start, choose to have coverage that looked exclusively at land use, transportation, community design and public education? What was the rationale?

Our initial focus was on quality of life issues in Charlottesville-Albemarle that we thought deserved more attention and understanding by citizens and candidates running for local office.  We wanted to take complex and expensive decisions facing local government and explain them in a way people could make informed decisions.  We initially earned our reputation through coverage of the 50-year water supply planning process. The key decisions had to be made by four different local “boards” that included Charlottesville City Council and the Albemarle Board of Supervisors. As a result, the water supply was a major election issue and we profiled candidate positions in non-partisan voter guides produced for every local election.

During Charlottesville Tomorrow’s first 5 years, I was an elected member of the Albemarle County School Board and we did not cover local education issues. Several years after I left the school board, Charlottesville Tomorrow’s board of directors added education coverage to our mission. With two elected school boards, it was a natural extension of our election coverage. Not only are local schools a critical quality of life issue, but they are also a topic our shrinking local newsrooms were having more difficulty covering on a comprehensive basis. We added a full-time education reporter and shared that content initially with both our weekly newspapers and later The Daily Progress.

We also chose this niche set of topics because we had limited resources for reporting and we believed, as a nonprofit, that these were topics which would allow us to successfully fundraise in the community.

What are some stories your team is covering now that you see as having the potential to have a major impact on Charlottesville and Albemarle County in the next couple of years?

Two major issues that will get additional focus by Charlottesville Tomorrow’s reporters in 2018 include affordable living options and the city-county debate over the location of court facilities.

Affordable housing has been a key quality of life issue for many decades in the Charlottesville area.  Both the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County have numerous affordable housing initiatives supplemented by a number of nonprofit housing organizations. There is greater interest by the public in addressing affordable housing in the community and we will cover that as it relates to local government budgets, the redevelopment of public housing, and redevelopment of two major subsidized housing projects which have non-displacement goals as part of the creation of mixed-income and/or mixed-use neighborhoods.  Housing and race are key elements of Charlottesville’s history that demand our greater attention.

Albemarle County currently has its courts and county seat in the city of Charlottesville.  It is considering relocating its courts and possibly the county office building to gain additional capacity for a growing population and to spur economic development in a part of the county’s urban ring. The move would have major consequences for the legal community, court clients and the city’s downtown business community.  An alternative is to expand the courts in place and work co-operatively with the city of Charlottesville to address court capacity and parking needs. Charlottesville Tomorrow will cover the negotiations giving special attention to the land use and transportation impacts.

Organizationally, Charlottesville Tomorrow will launch a new website in 2018 and add some investigative reporting capacity – assuming we get receive the grants and gifts to support these new initiatives!

That last sentence leads into my next question. We hear a lot about the good of the nonprofit news model but what are some, if any, of the downsides of it? Is there ever any uncertainty that presents itself when it comes to securing enough money for projects in the next year?  

In addition to being a proud member of the Virginia Press Association, Charlottesville Tomorrow is also a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News and the Local Independent Online News (LION) publishers association.  These two membership organizations give us a lot of exposure to innovative business practices around the country. Our for-profit peers tend to be bootstrapping online start-ups run by dedicated former newspaper reporters.  Our nonprofit peers include large state capital newsrooms like the Texas Tribune and statewide sites like the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Charlottesville Tomorrow is one of a small group of online nonprofit news sites exclusively focused on a small community.

The nonprofit business model works well for us because we have a community that believes in and supports our mission – informed citizens create better communities. The Charlottesville area is a special place and people want to be informed to protect and enhance its quality of life. As the home of Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia, people also have strong opinions about the importance of journalism as a necessary ingredient for our democracy. We also have partners at The Daily Progress that share our goals of producing high-quality in-depth local news.

I would not characterize anything about our model as having a “downside,” though a nonprofit does have several key elements that set it apart: 1) there is a board of directors that hires and supervises an executive director (publisher/editor); 2) we have to be really good at traditional fundraising and relationship-building with our partners (not unlike our public radio peers); and 3) there is always some uncertainty about revenues when you are heavily dependent upon major gifts from individuals and grants from foundations as opposed to having a recurring stream of earned revenue opportunities (subscriptions, events, advertising)

Do you have any ideas for where you would like to see Cville tomorrow in the next few years? I know you mentioned adding an investigative arm. Is this indicative of the growth and direction you would like the newsroom to go toward in the future?

The team at Charlottesville Tomorrow has aspirations to cover additional topics in our community and to do so with increased capacity for in-depth solutions-oriented journalism.

One way we believe such an expansion of effort locally would be more financially sustainable is if it was done as part of a statewide nonprofit news network where some of our back-office functions were moved to a new nonprofit parent organization.  Our working name for this project is “Virginia Tomorrow” and we envision having both a capital newsroom covering the General Assembly and state politics as well as an incubator for new news sites across Virginia based upon Charlottesville Tomorrow’s model.

The obstacles to starting and sustaining a new news site are significant.  We believe we could offer a tool kit and expertise that would help a journalism entrepreneur get up and running.  They might spin off and become their own xTomorrow nonprofit or they might remain organized under the umbrella of Virginia Tomorrow.  Key elements in our success have been the strength of our website platform and our willingness to partner with other media companies like The Daily Progress.  Those are best practices we want to share with new nonprofit sites in Virginia. New xTomorrow sites could purchase services from Virginia Tomorrow (e.g. state news, website, fundraising, accounting, human resources) and they might find partnerships beneficial not only with local newspapers but also with TV or radio, particularly public media.  Informed citizens can create a better Commonwealth too. Our board would like Virginia Tomorrow to one day be a key resource and facilitator in the Commonwealth’s nonprofit media landscape.