Charlotte Agenda has a mighty business model. How’s the journalism?

Photo of Charlotte, North Carolina, via James Willamor/Flickr.

Ted Williams likes to call it a user problem: Millennials move to Charlotte, North Carolina, every day. Where should those newcomers turn for information about places to eat and things to do? In 2015, with his co-founder Katie Levans Loveluck, Williams launched the digital media startup Charlotte Agenda to answer that question. Both Williams and Loveluck had backgrounds in marketing and app development; as director of digital strategy and new initiatives at the Charlotte Observer, Williams had just spearheaded Charlotte Five, the paper’s effort to reach millennials by delivering news via a daily newsletter, website, and social media.

Charlotte Agenda takes a similar approach. However, while the startup publishes a range of content—including breaking news—its key beats are “Food + Drink” and “Things to Do.” Last year’s top stories included lists of cheap dates and inexpensive restaurants, a ranking of the most annoying types of Charlotteans, and an article about “probably the biggest story in our city in 2017”: the opening of Topgolf, part of the national chain of entertainment venues that feature point-scoring golf games.

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Williams often argues that journalism must now follow the business model rather than lead it. “If you just sit down and talk to brands and business owners and you try to figure things out from scratch, you come up with a different result than if you go and say, ‘I’m going to do the BuzzFeed model in Charlotte,’” he told NiemanLab the year Charlotte Agenda launched. Media watchers have since touted Charlotte Agenda’s model as a possible way forward for local news. “Is this the future of the local news business?” industry analyst Ken Doctor asked in Politico in 2016. “Consider it a future at this point.” Last year, Poynter called the startup “one of the brightest lights in local journalism.”

But if Charlotte’s newcomers stick around long enough, they’re likely to hear scathing criticism of the startup’s content and questions concerning its journalistic integrity. The infrequent newsletter Charlotte Rebuttal devotes pages to criticizing the site. Twitter account @AgendaFive mocks the startup’s articles with parody headlines and lambasts the perceived cozy relationship between the site’s writers and the businesses they cover. Some of the city’s legacy-media journalists believe Charlotte Agenda’s approach fails to treat readers with intellectual respect. Others notice the page view stats that accompany every article and see the startup as part of a clickbait culture that relies on popularity to determine a story’s value.  

Much of the praise for Charlotte Agenda focuses on its business model rather than the quality of its content. If reporting capabilities and content are subordinate to—and restricted by—the business model, as Williams himself suggests, then those who follow Agenda’s lead may be condemned to replicate its bias toward informational entertainment content. In the void left by vanishing local newspapers, widespread adoption of such a model could lead to a devastating decimation of public-service investigation and watchdog reporting. Whether Charlotte Agenda can evolve into a primary source for hard news remains a largely untested hypothesis in Charlotte.

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When asked whether Charlotte Agenda should belong to a category apart from other legacy media, Williams says, ‘I think journalists think about that. I don’t think anyone else does.’

 

WILLIAMS SEEDED CHARLOTTE AGENDA with $50,000 of his own savings, betting that his user-problem solution would pay off. He was right. In 2017, the startup made more than $1 million in revenue. Williams says the company is on track to surpass that number by more than 50 percent this year. The site has amassed an enviable social media following: over 100,000 Instagram followers, almost 37,000 Twitter followers, and over 34,000 newsletter subscribers, as of this writing.

In conceiving Agenda’s business model, Williams says he specifically tried to avoid pageview incentives. Charlotte Agenda’s revenue comes largely from advertising. What sets the model apart is that it’s not dependent on display, or impression-based, ads. Instead, the company solicits sponsors for its daily newsletter and various distribution channels, and publishes sponsored content. While some campaigns are short-term, most sponsors make yearlong commitments, which Williams says improves the advertiser experience and allows readers to build a deeper connection with sponsor brands.

Jim Brady, whose Spirited Media focuses primarily on event and membership revenue, is adamant about opposing revenue models based on display advertising. Such models, Brady tells CJR, create publishing incentives that negatively impact content quality and user experience—for instance, a story might be needlessly lengthy in order to keep readers on the page longer. Charlotte Agenda managed to develop an ad-based model that deftly avoids some of those incentives, Brady says, even if all media business models are “fraught with peril.”

Veteran journalists who have launched other digital news startups in the Charlotte area are familiar with these perils. Glenn Burkins’ Q City Metro, which focuses on providing news and information to the city’s African-American residents, has worked hard to build an audience and reputation for quality coverage. David Boraks’ DavidsonNews.net, which also published watchdog journalism, ceased publication in 2015. In contrast, Charlotte Agenda’s leadership comes from a marketing background, and while Williams sees himself as a peer to other media publishers in the region, he doesn’t seem to feel constrained by traditional definitions. When asked whether Charlotte Agenda, as a city guide, should belong to a category apart from other legacy media, Williams says, “I think journalists think about that. I don’t think anyone else does.”

Williams defines Charlotte Agenda as “a media company, in which news is just one part of what we do.” In general, he says, the site has a direct, conversational tone and aims “to produce useful programming that helps people make better local decisions.” Williams doubts whether Charlotte Agenda’s model would be the best way to support a primarily investigative news organization, but he does believe that the startup’s business model is replicable and could support a wide range of beats, including local news.

Robert Picard, a senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute who specializes in the business challenges facing media, agrees. Sponsorships, he says, offer stable income, and he points out that the model could be easily adapted by newspapers, which is what Williams did with Charlotte Five. But, Picard adds, “It strikes me that what they’re trying to do is simply build a site and then they will figure out if they can add news at some other point later on.”

 

Any time you lighten up and you start going to content that is designed to provide catchy headlines or quick, easy, breezy fun, there’s a relationship between that and reputation.

 

IN 2016, JOURNALIST Jeremy Markovich, who worked in Charlotte until recently, compared Charlotte Agenda to the Charlotte Observer. He likened the latter to a grocery store, highlighting the depth and breadth of traditional newspaper coverage. Charlotte Agenda, he argued, is akin to a fro-yo shop, vending delicious content with no nutritional value.

Markovich says it’s easy to look at Charlotte Agenda stories and see what he might do differently. For example, he points out, many Agenda stories rely less on interviews than traditional newspaper stories. Along with differences in technique, Charlotte Agenda occasionally goes beyond what many legacy-media journalists might consider ethical or responsible. The startup has published articles by authors with financial interests in what they’re covering, without disclosing those interests. Charlotte Agenda regularly tweets links to sponsored content without labeling it as such in the text of the tweet itself. And because the site doesn’t employ copy editors or fact checkers, the onus for quality control is entirely on critical readers.

The blurred distinction between advertising and editorial content is not unique to Charlotte Agenda. Williams says maintaining the firewall between advertising and editorial turned out to be easier than he anticipated. “What I notice is that the perceived drama is not what happened,” he tells CJR. Williams argues that Agenda hasn’t shied away from hard-hitting coverage of its sponsors, and points to the site’s local election guides and gentrification coverage as examples of high-quality community news.

Despite these examples, Picard believes that Charlotte Agenda’s focus on food, drinks, and happenings may prevent the startup from being taken seriously.

“Any time you lighten up and you start going to content that is designed to provide catchy headlines or quick, easy, breezy fun, there’s a relationship between that and reputation,” he says. “If you don’t have the reputation, you can’t do serious news later on.”

Williams is steadfast in his belief that Charlotte Agenda’s model can work in other markets, even though his company’s own expansion effort, Raleigh Agenda, folded in 2016. He attributes the closure to a lack of the established community networks that made attracting sponsors and readers in Charlotte so successful. Despite the setback, Charlotte Agenda’s future seems assured. (Williams calls the model “future-proof.”) It’s a development that many of the city’s journalists cheer, in spite of differences in approach.

“We’re all in this thing together, and we’re all trying to figure it out,” Markovich says. “I want them to succeed. I would love it if they could figure out the way forward.”

Williams says the startup’s early success will allow for more experimentation and refinement in the coming years, and he emphasizes his team’s integrity and constant desire to improve. But he also says financial stability doesn’t necessarily mean the site will move away from its entertainment-focused beats. Reuters Institute’s Picard doesn’t see that as negative.

“From the purely hard news, community-service orientation, this is not that kind of site,” he says. But as far as “helping people live their lives, find things that entertain, do things that are going to make them happier, this is not a bad site.”

“And those,” he adds, “are social purposes being served, as well.”

There’s no doubt that Charlotte Agenda successfully addresses the problem it sought to solve, and the site offers lessons in building not only financial success, but also voice, reach, and connection to the community. But whether these aspects of Charlotte Agenda’s success can be divorced from the site’s narrow breadth of coverage is unclear. For those who propose following Charlotte Agenda’s example, Williams’s question remains: Once you figure out the business model, what kind of journalism can you do?

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Allison Braden is a journalist based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter @AllisonBraden.