CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA — Although Charlottesville Tomorrow publishes a new story almost every day and has a close partnership with the local newspaper, it wasn’t supposed to turn out that way. In early 2005, its founders simply wanted to launch a website that citizens could visit for objective, nonpartisan information on growth, development and local politics.
“We set out to just be a community organization providing information and helping people learn about who was running for office, what they stood for, but we weren’t endorsing anybody,” says Brian Wheeler, Charlottesville Tomorrow’s executive director. “We didn’t have an editorial voice per se.”
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The site incorporated as a nonprofit in June of 2005, and launched a few months thereafter. More than six years later, the site’s mission has changed very little, though its operations have evolved considerably. The website-which covers everything from elections and government to business and transportation-attracted 20,000 unique visitors a month in 2011, according to Wheeler. The site maintains sections devoted entirey to specific issues such as the U.S. Route 29 Western Bypass and local water supply developments in Charlottesville, and also hosts cvillepedia, a community wiki with in-depth content on the town that has been collected over the years. The site’s distinguishing characteristic, however, is its partnership with Charlottesville’s daily newspaper, The Daily Progress, which began in 2009.
“It’s really one of the only nonprofit-for profit partnerships of its type in the country with the level of cooperation that’s going on,” says Wheeler. “What we do is we cover our beat–which includes land use, transportation, community design and local politics–and we provide those stories both on our site and to the newspaper. We’ve put over 500 stories in the newspaper since we started this partnership. It’s a win-win for us, because it gives us access to a much broader readership. It’s giving us a lot of the eyeballs that come to their website, because that’s a hot media property in town, and we get that traffic coming back to us.”
Since partnering with the paper, Wheeler says that the website’s traffic increased by 217 percent. Although The Daily Progress does not pay for the website’s content, the paper does print the website’s voter guides every two years, which used to cost Charlottesville Tomorrow about $40,000, says Wheeler. The website also occasionally gets to utilize the services of the paper’s photographers or graphic artists.
While Charlottesville Tomorrow’s readership is growing, its staff continues to be small. Besides Wheeler, there are two other full-time staffers. Former radio journalist Sean Tubbs serves as the site’s senior reporter, and Jennifer Marley is the site’s community engagement coordinator. The site also employs two paid part-time interns.
The website freely displays pie charts that outline its finances since 2009, and over the years, Charlottesville Tomorrow’s revenue sources have diversified. 2011 was the first year that the website had a major influx of grants, which make up 48 percent of its current revenue. One of those grants came through the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge, which allows local community foundations to apply for grants that support projects related to civic media. (Charlottesville Tomorrow partnered with the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation to receive the grant, and was able to hire Marley after the check cleared.)
The pie charts also indicate that the website received over $16,000 in annual gifts (donations under $1,000) and nearly $148,000 in major gifts (donations above $1,000) last year. And Charlottesville Tomorrow received $2,400 from the website’s first annual fundraising event, which was held at a local hotel in downtown Charlottesville.
In the future, Wheeler says that the staff plans to move its website to the Armstrong open-source content management system, continue its work with community engagement, and expand to cover issues besides growth, development, and local politics. “I think for us to be sustainable and successful we need to broaden our coverage to other issues,” he says.
“We’ve got a great media partner. We’ve proven that we can get great content in the local paper, and they would take every story that we can give them. Like most newspapers and newsrooms around the country, their ability to cover local government is shrinking because of the cuts that they’ve had to make in their own operations. If we can grow our newsroom, which we’ve been doing, we can cover more issues. That will get more people to become subscribers and donors.”
Charlottesville Tomorrow Data
Name: Charlottesville Tomorrow