What would it take for you to really care about a newspaper that isn’t really about news and definitely isn’t on paper?
I get paid a good salary to try to answer that question, but it’s much easier to spin up a narrative in which Charlottesville Tomorrow is some kind of indispensable cog in the machine of democracy, important in a way that will only be noticeable after we’re gone. That’s the kind of project far-sighted, well-educated, wealthy people will support. It’s more difficult to imagine what it would take to get 100,000 people to reimagine what a community newspaper in the digital age should be.
Where would we even start that project?
Charlottesville Tomorrow’s board of directors recently voted to change the organization’s mission to the following: “Charlottesville Tomorrow delivers in-depth reporting and analysis that improves local decision-making. We seek to expand civic engagement to foster a vibrant, inclusive, and interdependent community.” Two sentences, important as much for what they say as what they don’t say.
The new language makes it clear that our work is journalism and our aim is to help our community exercise its highest values more effectively. Those are simple rules for us to follow and for you, our community of readers, to hold us, as we seek to broaden our impact and work towards a sustainable subscriber-supported revenue model.
If Charlottesville Tomorrow intends to become a new kind of local newspaper, we need to stand on our own, question all of our assumptions, and engage our community in the pursuit to do better. We can serve our readers by providing a clear coverage alternative in our areas of focus. More significantly, we can also be a workshop for the future of hyperlocal journalism.Giles Morris, Charlottesville Tomorrow Executive Director
One of the first steps we’ve taken is to end our nine-year content partnership with The Daily Progress, Charlottesville’s daily newspaper of record. These are crucial times for nonprofit newsrooms. Warren Buffett (whose company Berkshire Media owns The Daily Progress) recently declared for-profit local daily newspapers “toast.” Meanwhile, John Thornton, the investor who co-founded The Texas Tribune, and Elizabeth Green, CEO and co-founder of Chalkbeat, have raised close to $50 million in a venture philanthropy fund to support hyperlocal nonprofit journalism.
For many years, our partnership with The Daily Progress served both sets of readers, increasing the amount of local coverage in their paper while broadening our distribution. Today, Charlottesville is a place where we’re all questioning and challenging the inherited models that have reinforced harmful power dynamics.
If Charlottesville Tomorrow intends to become a new kind of local newspaper, we need to stand on our own, question all of our assumptions, and engage our community in the pursuit to do better. We can serve our readers by providing a clear coverage alternative in our areas of focus. More significantly, we can also be a workshop for the future of hyperlocal journalism.
As a journalist and the child of journalists, I believe in journalism. That’s a commitment not everyone needs to make with me, but that’s where I’m coming from. There are lots of things wrong with media, but there are so many good reporters out there waiting for a business model that will pay them a competitive salary, offer them a career path, and nurture reading communities that empower, challenge and sustain their work.
I’m not nostalgic and I don’t want to go back. As a nonprofit leader, a professional and a resident of Charlottesville, I understand newsrooms need to change if we want to earn community respect and trust. As a fifth-generation newspaper man with roots in Alabama and Tennessee, I am aware of the role community papers played in enforcing segregation and covering up for the corrosive injustice of racism in the South. As someone who moved to Charlottesville in 2011, I came here unprepared to cover race and inequality in this place, and the last two years have taught me important lessons about the responsibility the media has in covering race and inequality.
In addition to our new mission, Charlottesville Tomorrow’s board has committed to evaluating our work in relationship with three guiding values: equity, truth, and community. Elliott and I will lead a series of listening sessions in the coming months to hear directly from communities what they want from us as we work to turn those values into organizational priorities.
Charlottesville Tomorrow is committed to improving its journalism, to innovating its governance structure, to being transparent, to paying journalists the right way, and to working for equity through our news process. Together with you, our community, we have the chance to do something even more important. Let’s reimagine local news for Charlottesville.
If you would like to help us organize a community listening session with me and Elliott, please email Dan Hennicke at email@example.com.