A former editor of C-Ville Weekly will take over leadership of Charlottesville Tomorrow in June as the nonprofit organization’s second executive director.
“From a journalist's perspective, I think the beauty of non-profit journalism is that it is explicitly mission- and purpose-driven and that it prioritizes its journalism over any other aim,” said Giles Morris, who will start work on June 11.
“The goal is purely to pursue the truth in order to serve the mission,” he added. “That's so pure and beautiful.”
Morris moved to the area in 2011 to take the editor-in-chief position at C-Ville Weekly. Prior to that, he had worked as a staff writer at the Smoky Mountain News in western North Carolina.
After C-Ville Weekly, he went to work as the director of creative strategy and communications at Vibethink in Charlottesville. Then, he was hired as vice president of marketing and communications at James Madison’s Montpelier. During his time there, he oversaw a campaign for an exhibition on slavery at Montpelier called “The Mere Distinction of Colour.”
During his tenure at C-Ville, Morris was instrumental in collaborating with Charlottesville Tomorrow and WTJU Radio to create a public affairs program called Soundboard which sought to share the work of area reporters.
“Back in 2012, Giles had a great idea for serving the information needs of our community and bringing people together through conversation,” said Nathan Moore, the station’s general manager. “Giles’s editorial sensibilities have always been similar to public radio: guided by a sense of inquiry and curiosity, encouraging a sense of active, constructive participation in our community.”
Morris said the mission of Charlottesville Tomorrow will continue, but much of the reporting will be conducted with a more intentional focus.
“You can't understand things like land use, transportation, community design and public education if you don't understand the larger forces that shape them or the way they impact people,” Morris said. “For example, you can't understand the redevelopment of Friendship Court or the achievement gap in schools if you don't understand the larger context of fairness and equity issues in our city.”
One journalist who worked with Morris at C-Ville Weekly welcomed the news.
"This is really exciting news for Charlottesville and for Charlottesville Tomorrow, but also for the city as a whole," said Graeyln Brashear, who was hired by Morris in 2012 as news editor.
“Giles really taught me what it meant for a leader in a media organization to have an editorial vision,” she added. “The other obvious thing to me is that he loves Charlottesville. He cares a lot about the place and understands it deeply both as someone who lives there and as a news person. He understands the power of news outlets to make it better.”
We spoke with Morris this week shortly before the announcement.
In a letter to our readers, you mention that the "city and county connected as one place could be better and smarter." What do you mean by that?
I think that one of the hardest things for voters and taxpayers is to understand when and why they need to engage in local government. CT's mission aims to "protect and build upon the distinctive character of the Charlottesville-Albemarle area." That's acknowledging that this is one place for those of us who live here. But the way the local government is structured, it acts like two places with two distinctly different systems. It's not up to me to change the laws in Virginia, but I think we have to work hard to define this place in a way that regular people, who don't have time to follow government obsessively, can understand how to make the changes they want to see.
The name of our organization is Charlottesville Tomorrow, but Albemarle County has twice the population of the city. Drawing from your experience both at C-Ville and your experience as a resident of the community for seven years, how do the two places fit together? What is Charlottesville Tomorrow's role in facilitating the conversation?
This is one place, one city, one metropolitan area, but it has two governments and the University of Virginia that straddles them. It's hard for people, specifically in the issues that we cover that run across jurisdictional boundaries, to get their heads around how decisions in each entity affect the whole reality. I guess I could turn the question around and just say, 'What is Charlottesville?' And what is the "distinctive character of the Charlottesville-Albemarle area"? I think we can help people answer those questions for themselves and hopefully empower them to express their priorities in public conversations and processes.
You're a fifth-generation journalist. Can you speak to how media has changed over the course of your life? What is the role of the journalist in an era where citizens have access to so much information?
That's a big question. I grew up in Washington D.C. in the '80s with two parents who were working journalists. It was the family's livelihood and also our social network. As a reporter, I've lived through the era of the “incredible shrinking daily” and the digital revolution. The business model has been disrupted entirely in my lifetime and so has the notion of the journalist's career path as a professional. But there is so much that's good about the availability of information. I don't buy into nostalgia, and I think each generation faces its own challenges pursuing the truth. I think the role of the journalist and of journalism is to stick to the core values of a timeless profession and to apply them with flexibility, humility, and passion to changing times.
An early part of Charlottesville Tomorrow's mission was to cover the environmental impact of development. As we contend with issues of equity, how much of a role does the environment play in the organization's coverage going forward?
I think when CT was founded, the impact of unchecked growth was a defining motivation. There was, and remains, a real threat to the beauty and environmental health of this area. Over the past decade and a half, I think environmentalism and environmental motivations have mainstreamed a great deal, so that they are embedded in all kinds of other issues, like transportation and community design. I come back to that elusive phrase in our mission "the distinctive character" of this area. I think a part of that is the eminence of nature and the commitment of the people here to preserving and protecting the health of the environment and the public's access to it. You can't have a healthy community without healthy air, clean water, access to nature, and a sustainable plan for preserving all of that under the pressure of growth.
What do you see as the differences between non-profit and for-profit journalism?
I have been on both sides, as you know. I used to think that for-profit journalism was more democratic, because the reader and the advertiser are representative of the "the public" in some broad way that a small, nonprofit board can't be. But there's a flipside to that story. The model of local journalism has become more and more extractive over the past decade as the front offices "trade dollars for dimes." From a journalist's perspective, I think the beauty of non-profit journalism is that it is explicitly mission- and purpose-driven and that it prioritizes its journalism over any other aim. The goal is purely to pursue the truth in order to serve the mission. That's so pure and beautiful.