CHARLOTTE — On the top floor of Packard Place, a 1920s-era building five blocks from the site of the Democratic convention that has been reinvented as a hub for entrepreneurs, Politico set up its Charlotte home. There were shiny lounges, a small set for video programming, and two bars, fully stocked. It was a fitting encampment for a well-capitalized media outlet covering one of our foremost political rituals.
Down one flight, the scene was different: old round tables and folding chairs, power outlets chained together, a local coffee bar, a covered table holding homemade brownies and cookies, and a motley crew of independent journalists, cause-oriented media, and nonprofit groups with media sites. This was the newsroom of the PPL (pronounced “people”), a project launched more than a year ago by young Charlotteans Matt Tyndall, Justin Ruckman, and Desiree Kane. Their goal: To create a platform and space to amplify the grassroots voices of Charlotte, not to mention those that flocked here from around the country for the Democratic convention.
The result was an interesting mix of lefty activism, establishment support, and journalists from different points along the professional spectrum. The PPL is in many ways the descendant of The Big Tent, a home for bloggers created with support from the progressive coalition Netroots Nation at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver. (Mark Washburn of The Charlotte Observer offered a good succinct history of conventions and bloggers in a June story about the PPL.) Netroots teamed up with the PPL in June, folding the Big Tent into the local operation, and plenty of left-leaning media and activist types gathered here, paying fees as low as $45 for access to the workspace, free coffee and informal happy hours, along with panels that tackled topics like government support for startups and black women’s perspectives on politics and policy.
But the project also found broad-based community support in Charlotte. Tyndall, Ruckman, and Kane—all of whom are new-media professionals and key players in CLTBlog, a Charlotte platform for citizens voices—pitched their vision to the local Chamber of Commerce last fall, using the same bridge-building philosophy that they brought to conversations with the local Occupy group. The Charlotte Arts & Science Council signed on as the fiscal agent for the PPL and helped to secure funding from the Knight Foundation to hire a project manager, who happens to be the former campaign manager for the city’s Democratic mayor. Michael Solender, an editor for a local nonprofit web magazine, was one of many in the community who offered important assistance with logistics, publicity, and outreach, and signed on as an advisory board member. It didn’t hurt that, as Solender wrote to me in an email last week, “There is a ‘cool kids’ aura about” the trio of talented organizers, “and who doesn’t want to affiliate with the cool kids?”
Starting from scratch, the plan morphed several times, but always with a focus on amplifying new media voices. It also kept a focus on the non-partisan—or perhaps multi-partisan—approach that the original organizers had emphasized, a goal reflected in the purple lighting for the PPL’s panelist stage. The result of all these different influences was an attendees page that lists left-leaning media outlets old and new; various Democratic standard-bearers and interest groups (the Senate campaign of New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, the state AFL-CIO); commercial sponsors of the webby (UStream), politically connected (Covington & Burling), and local variety; and an assortment of other small-scale, independent, and even right-leaning journalists, like the folks from the Franklin Center’s Watchdog Wire. In an interview last Saturday, Bruce Clark, the project manager, said the point was to be a platform for many voices, rather than a mouthpiece for one cause or another. “It’s almost impossible to co-opt us because we are just a platform,” he said. (CJR is on the attendees list, too; I paid the registration fee so I could have access to the workspace and also to make it easier to report this story.)