CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA — “When you start something, what your role ends up being is quite different than what you imagined it to be,” says Caroline Nuttall, founder of CHARLIE, a local culture magazine based in Charleston, South Carolina. Originally a publicist, Nuttall founded the website in 2009, and expanded it successfully to a niche market, profitability, and a part-time staff of about sixteen paid freelancers. Along the way, she deftly treaded the tightrope between adapting to opportunity and steely (but polite) insistence on her vision. She found her business experience a surprising asset, and her lack of publishing experience less of a hindrance than she feared. (“If you don’t know art direction, find the best art director you can and just let him do his thing,” she explains.)
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Charlie publishes short, very positive articles about local businesses, events, and artists. “I’m a big believer in the power of positivity,” says Nuttall. “The whole model is celebrating the great things we see in the city.”
A Virginian by birth, Nuttall applied to work at Charleston marketing agency Rawle Murdy, as a way to escape Los Angeles, where she worked as a publicist after college. Charleston has several local print magazines, but Nuttall noticed an unserved niche. “They were talking about the history, the culture, the architecture, but that’s what keeps you coming as a tourist, not what keeps you living here as a local. I saw an opening.”
She promotes the site as “celebrating progressive culture in Charleston,” meaning “forward thinking culture”–the future, not the past. One of the site’s writers gives an example of future-oriented culture as “high-brow dinner parties held in secret, grungy warehouses.” The site rejects any political associations of the word “progressive,” and its audience has come to understand Charlie’s definition.
Online banner ads provide 80 percent of Charlie’s revenue, but Nuttall continues to expanded the “platforms” of the site. The site’s revenue-earning ventures include a Charlie “Steal of the Week,” which provides a discount at a local business and shares the revenue (“it’s a sort of high-end Groupon,” she explains), as well as a “Charlie Calendar” of events assured to be “worth your time, money, and outfit.” There’s also a print version of the calendar, of which the site has distributed 3,000 copies. The site is currently working on a print book.
For a $300 annual membership fee, readers sign up for the “Charlie Club.” Every month there is a “Perk” and a “Party.” The perks are free things (like a bloody Mary) or deals (like 50 percent off a fancy dinner) which are only available to cardholders. The parties include bourbon tasting, a painting lesson under the influence of chardonnay, and, one month, a “private fashion event.”
Charlie employs photographers in equal measure to writers, and design has been a key part of the site’s vision. “One of the first things people say about the site is, ‘I love the look,'” Nuttall says. She credits her art director, Justin Harris, about whom she “cannot say enough wonderful things.” Charlie employs a stylist for certain photo shoots and to adjust the décor at events.
Another aspect of managing the site’s look takes place on the business side. Nuttall turns away advertisers that don’t appeal to her demographic, whether they be “lower end or more touristy.” She politely refuses to elaborate on which specific ads she turns down. “In the beginning [refusing ads] was really hard. That was scary,” she says. “But you have to be really clear about what your brand is. …For ads to be successful, you need to build credibility with your readers, and when you’re really doing what’s best for your readers, it serves your advertisers best. Loyalty is part of our model.”
For the first two years, all the designers and writers worked for free. Most work remotely, and if they do meet, it’s at Nuttall’s house. Now that Charlie pays writers, new freelancers pitch regularly, but Nuttall prefers to stick to the group she had from the beginning.
Nuttall’s original idea was for a print magazine, and she began trying to raise money from local investors. In 2008, the plummeting economy threatened print journalism especially, so at the suggestion of her friend Jeff Webster, Nuttall scrapped the idea. She instead applied for a bank loan and built a website for $6,000.
Charlie developed its readership for six months before Nuttall committed energy to advertisers. “You got to prove yourself,” she said. “It’s important to deliver.” Her position at Rawle Murdy helped introduce her to local businesses. A year and a half after Charlie’s launch, she left Rawle Murdy to develop the site full-time.
CHARLIE Magazine Data
Name: CHARLIE Magazine