A nonprofit newsroom rescued its local newspaper. Now it wants to expand.

Photo courtesy of Charlottesville Tomorrow

Brian Wheeler ran Charlottesville Tomorrow for about four years before he considered himself a journalist.

When the nonprofit newsroom launched in 2005, Wheeler—the organization’s executive director and only full-time employee—strived for something low-tech and high-impact. He began with a blogging platform and an email list to help residents stay abreast of local elections and development and land-use issues, then added an events calendar to track local government meetings in Charlottesville, Virginia. Many of those meetings were recorded, but the recordings weren’t easily accessible. Charlottesville Tomorrow recorded the meetings it covered, and then made them available as podcasts.

“We were trying to engage the community with information,” says Wheeler. “The ‘journalism’ frame came later.” Four years in, the nonprofit had just two full-time employees—Wheeler and another writer, Sean Tubbs—publishing stories online for an average of 7,000 monthly visitors.

“Looking back on it, you’d describe us as citizen-journalists,” says Wheeler. “At the time, we weren’t considered to be professional journalists within a media organization. We were citizen-bloggers covering local government.”

From the site’s launch, Charlottesville Tomorrow had a collaborative relationship with reporters from The Daily Progress, Charlottesville’s local daily newspaper. “We’d be sitting with them at meetings,” says Wheeler. “They’d ask us questions, and we’d help them understand context and next steps—that a re-zoning might go through, or how the local water supply worked.” The Progress’s stories, says Wheeler, “ended up being better, in our judgment, because we could see little nuggets we’d shared with reporters.”

In 2009, the managing editor of The Daily Progress proposed a partnership. The Progress had eliminated four positions in its newsroom that year, and another two in its advertising department. Its parent company, Media General, had posted a nearly $632 million loss the previous year. The Progress had moved its printing operations 70 miles southeast, closed its local plant, and laid off 25 employees to cut costs. The 87-person staff possessed a fraction of its former reporting capacity; during the four years Wheeler had run Charlottesville Tomorrow, the Progress had seen its newsroom winnowed by 40 percent.

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The arrangement was simple, says Wheeler, and conceived without lawyers or input from Media General, the newspaper’s parent company. Charlottesville Tomorrow would provide news coverage and a voter guide to the Progress for publication, free of charge. For the Progress, the partnership was a way to sustain its reporting as it faced a nebulous future. For Charlottesville Tomorrow, the partnership meant “a seal of credibility,” says Wheeler.

Wheeler with Rob Jiranek, publisher of the daily paper that partners with Charlottesville Tomorrow (courtesy Charlottesville Tomorrow)

Wheeler (left) with Rob Jiranek, publisher of The Daily Progress, the paper that partners with Charlottesville Tomorrow (courtesy Charlottesville Tomorrow)

In 2012, Berkshire Hathaway purchased the Progress, along with dozens of Media General’s newspapers. By the time Berkshire Hathaway acquired the The Daily Progress, Charlottesville Tomorrow had published more than 500 stories in the paper, and its partnership with The Daily Progress yielded roughly two dozen print stories each month.

“It’s the sort of reporting we used to see with great frequency in local newspapers 20 years ago,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, who directs the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship and reads Charlottesville Tomorrow’s coverage in the Progress.  Local residents, adds Vaidhyanathn, “depend on Charlottesville Tomorrow for deep institutional knowledge that we don’t always see reflected in Daily Progress content.”

Now, Charlottesville Tomorrow no longer needs The Daily Progress to ensure its credibility. One could argue that the relationship has flipped: The Progress needs Charlottesville Tomorrow to sustain its vitality and the scope of its own reporting. Last year, Charlottesville Tomorrow published 433 stories in the Progress, an average of 36 stories per month. Wheeler’s five-person newsroom now accounts for the lion’s share of the local paper’s coverage of education, development, land use and local politics.

“Charlottesville Tomorrow makes us a better newspaper,” Progress publisher Rob Jiranek tells me. “It broadens and deepens our coverage of this community.”

When Charlottesville Tomorrow formalized its relationship with The Daily Progress, Wheeler worried that more newsroom cuts might leave his newsroom on the hook for the paper’s city and county government coverage. But, he says, “that’s not what’s happened, and it hasn’t since.”

“It allowed existing reporters to cover other things,” says Wheeler. “To write other features, to do other investigative stories. We were willing to sit through six-hour meetings, gavel to gavel.” When Berkshire Hathaway bought The Daily Progress, it got an innovative local news model disguised as a daily newspaper.

 

Charlottesville isn’t wealthy, exactly. The city’s median income lags behind the state average, and even its sainted patron Thomas Jefferson—whose Monticello plantation is a mere five miles from his University of Virginia—died with substantial debt.

Still, Charlottesville and its surrounding county have been home to a number of wealthy residents, including a few who made fortunes in news media. John Kluge, whose MetroMedia television empire sold to Rupert Murdoch for $2 billion and became the basis for Fox’s television network, lived there for years until his death in 2010. In 1996, the Charlottesville-based Worrell Newspapers sold more than two-dozen papers (including The Daily Progress) to Media General for $230 million. Ted Weschler, who now manages investments for Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (and who also gives money to CJR), previously ran his own Peninsula Capital Advisors from an office that overlooks a block of the city’s pedestrian mall.

Brian Wheeler came to the Charlottesville area in 1984 to attend the University of Virginia, where he majored in foreign affairs. To help students track the fall of the Soviet Union, Wheeler’s professors assigned newspaper articles in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor—the beginnings of Wheeler’s daily news habit. Still, he says, “local news was not important to me.”

Though Wheeler never worked in a newsroom, each job he held informed some aspect of his work for Charlottesville Tomorrow. He interned at the Center for Defense Information after college, and made regular trips to the capital to gather documents from government hearings. (“We’d literally take the subway or a bus to the capitol, get the documents, bring them back, and they’d get archived at the center.”) After years as a grants manager for a Charlottesville-based foundation, Wheeler moved on to SNL Financial, where he became chief information officer.

Wheeler and his family live in Albemarle County, just over the Charlottesville line. When his daughter was in second grade, he became concerned about growing class sizes.

“I quickly realized that this was a big budget issue and a real estate tax issue,” says Wheeler. “It involved the general assembly, the county board of supervisors, and the school board. So suddenly I was paying attention to all those things.”

The next year, Wheeler got involved with the county school’s parent council. He also launched SchoolMatters, a newsletter with links to education news and information on everything from redistricting to teacher compensation. “I had built up a network of parents concerned about the future of education,” says Wheeler. The network was “low-tech,” he says, “but highly effective.” In 2003, Wheeler ran for an at-large position on the county school board and won his seat by a margin of 101 votes.

Around the same time, two Charlottesville residents—Michael Bills, a former Goldman Sachs vice president with his own asset management firm, and Rick Middleton, founder of the Southern Environmental Law Center—were thinking about ways to increase civic engagement by providing residents with more information about land-use issues and local government decisions. In 2005, Wheeler joined Bills and Middleton as a consultant to help launch Charlottesville Tomorrow.

 

As Charlottesville Tomorrow has bolstered the daily paper, so have local residents bolstered Charlottesville Tomorrow. Wheeler, Bills and Middleton recruited an affluent board of directors with strong ties in the community. (Founding board members included a former development director for Monticello, one of the founders of the advertising agency that created Gatorade’s “Be like Mike” campaign, and Renee Grisham, a philanthropist and the wife of author John Grisham.) Charlottesville Tomorrow launched with $250,000 in funding—enough to last two years.

Last year, Charlottesville Tomorrow’s revenue totaled $423,000 (up from $409,000 in 2015). Of that revenue, 25 percent came from seven foundations. More than half came from major gifts of $1,000 or more. Smaller contributions—450 gifts under $1,000—made up 13 percent. (An overwhelming majority of those gifts come from local sources, says Wheeler.) This year, Charlottesville Tomorrow received $25,000 in matching grants through the Knight Foundation’s News Match. It also hired its fifth full-time employee: a development associate.

 

By last year, Charlottesville Tomorrow’s relationship with The Daily Progress was “a well-oiled machine,” according to Progress editor Wes Hester. His reporters meet with the nonprofit’s staffers at local meetings and divide up topics to cover—this for tomorrow, that for Sunday. “Being a pretty small paper with limited resources, it’s amazing how much this opens us up and provides us with resources we need to cover truly everything in local government and education,” says Hester. He calls the relationship between the two newsrooms “mutually beneficial.”

Jiranek, the Progress’s publisher, says the same. “There’s an anticipatory result in the way we approach our journalism that I think owes credit to Charlottesville Tomorrow” says Jiranek. “Because of their influence, we’re thinking now about new stories, deeper stories, maybe even non-traditional stories.”

The average number of monthly visitors to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s website has more than doubled since 2013, to more than 46,000. The paper’s daily circulation has declined by more than 30 percent, to 14,693, since 2012, when it was bought by Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett’s company. In April, when Berkshire Hathaway’s BH Media announced nearly 300 job cuts, CJR reported that the company “left it to the papers to implement layoffs themselves.” Hester, the Progress editor, put his news staff at 29 employees before the cuts; he tells CJR that number hasn’t changed.

While the Progress and Charlottesville Tomorrow share a commitment to their community—what Jiranek calls a “noble purpose”—they have different existential concerns. “Today, we’re actually humble and earnest, and trying to figure out what our core competencies are,” says Jiranek about the Progress. “I believe our core competencies are local.”

Wheeler, meanwhile, thinks Charlottesville Tomorrow might apply its core competencies on a greater scale. A plan to expand Charlottesville Tomorrow, which now has seven staffers, to other parts of Virginia is in a nascent stage. He says a statewide nonprofit network could benefit from economies of scale, and a capitol newsroom in Richmond could provide content to partners throughout Virginia.

“There are huge knowledge gaps at the local level because of challenges being faced by traditional newsrooms,” says Wheeler. “I think nonprofit partnerships with for-profit news entities is a good way to fill those gaps.”

Charlottesville Tomorrow’s budget is “modest,” says Morris. “But it does a lot with that money. If an organization like that can be sustainable, that’s an interesting model as we evolve away from daily newspapers.”

Vaidhyanathan says he would love to see a greater group of Virginia philanthropists “pool their resources and commit to providing in-depth, responsible, fact-based coverage of statewide issues and state government issues.”

“The durability of Charlottesville Tomorrow and the spectacular success of the Texas Tribune shows a desire for that sort of content,” says Vaidhyanathan. “And there are so many highly trained journalists who’d love to contribute to such an effort.”

The information needs of a community are always urgent, and so the evolution of local newsrooms takes on that sense of urgency. But preserving the institutional memory of local journalism requires stopgaps on the way to sustainable solutions. It’s easy to be down on local newspapers; it’s a greater challenge to nurture their best efforts into a new form.

“Nobody’s valued this, and I don’t know that anyone will,” says Jiranek of the relationship between Charlottesville Tomorrow and the Progress. “The exchange is, we’re a better newspaper. What’s that worth to us? I can’t tell you how many subscriptions have come to us because of that. I can tell you that people commend us for that frequently, and that those people that commend us are our most invested readers.”

And, for an invested reader, the value of a local news outlet should hinge on the strength of the reporting, no matter the medium. For now, Charlottesville has a nonprofit newsroom and “a local daily printed newspaper that has more local government coverage in it than before this partnership started,” says Wheeler. “No one feels like there’s turf we’re battling over.”

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Brendan Fitzgerald is an associate editor at CJR.