Site Specific: Charlottesville Tomorrow

Va. Site Proves There's Money In Nonprofits

Charlottesville Tomorrow
, a nonprofit news site operating in the hometown of the University of Virginia, has turned its partnership with the city's daily and the generosity of its well-heeled local donors into an annual revenue of $370,000.
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To those who would equate nonprofit news sites with shoestring budgets and a life sentence in the revenue basement, consider the case of Charlottesville Tomorrow.

This humble, two-man shop covers civic growth and development issues in a Virginia college town of just over 40,000 people. A niche site, a small market, maybe a sprinkling of grants to squeak by — not a very promising recipe for revenue, right?

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Not at Charlottesville Tomorrow, which draws nearly $370,000 in annual revenue, an outlier among the much larger Texas Tribunes and MinnPosts in that rarefied nonprofit space.

So how did it get there? For Brian Wheeler, the site’s executive director since its launch in 2005, it was through the confluence of a civically focused population, a critical partnership with the city’s daily newspaper and a strong pitch to well-heeled local donors.

“You have to go out in the community and find people who care about the work that you are proposing to do,” Wheeler said, noting that Charlottesville is also ideally suited for his site’s mission.

“It’s a small enough community where people feel like they can make a difference and get involved,” he said. “And it’s a university town where people tend to be well-educated and care about community issues.”

Brand Connections

That university is the venerable University of Virginia and those engaged donors are the site’s lifeblood, as over 60% of its revenue comes from major gifts of over $1,000. Among the site’s earliest supporters were novelist John Grisham and his wife Renee, who gravitated to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s initial proposition to engage core quality of life issues. “How could we keep Charlottesville a special place so we would still want to live here?” Wheeler said.

He said the site initially intended to be an aid to local journalists, not to produce polished journalism itself. “The impetus was to fill that gap with objective, fact-based information and get the community engaged in using it,” he said.

And so it covered meetings on civic infrastructure and water policy, turning that coverage over into blog posts and meeting notes. It wasn’t until 2009, when it was approached by the city’s Daily Progress that the site changed its M.O. “Then we became journalists,” Wheeler said.

The Daily Progress’ newsroom, operating at less than half its 2005 staff, came to the site with a request for help with its coverage on growth and infrastructure topics. Charlottesville Tomorrow kicked in the content, and the Progress served up an audience. Almost immediately, the site went from reaching a 2,500 person email list to the paper’s daily readership of 21,000.

“I thought it was mutually beneficial,” said McGregor McCance, then-managing editor of the paper, who now handles public affairs for UVA. “The Daily Progress got high quality, accurate hyperlocal content, which is what our bed and butter was, and Charlottesville Tomorrow got much higher exposure for its content via publication in the newspaper and the newspaper’s website, as well as some assistance with the costs associated with the publication of its voter guide.”

Those costs typically ran to about $40,000, Wheeler noted, so it was no small contribution. Of that and the promotional support from the Progress, Wheeler said, “We get immense in-kind benefits that are worth a lot more than any per article fee that we might collect.”

And it’s a symbiotic relationship that the Progress still enthuses over. “They really help us as the newspaper of record in Charlottesville,” said Lee Wolverton, the managing editor. “They allow us to cover a lot of bases that would be very difficult for us to reach otherwise.”

Meanwhile, Charlottesville Tomorrow is also taking advantage of its digital DNA to amplify its stories to full multimedia effect. The site received national attention for its use of Google Earth and 3D architectural models of a proposed highway bypass project, funding it all through a novel Kickstarter campaign.

“We wanted to help people visualize the project so they could understand the pros and cons — where it would go and what traffic problem it is attempting to solve,” Wheeler said.

But for all of his digital forwardness on the journalism side, Wheeler also embraces some old school nonprofit fundraising campaigns such as an annual direct mail fund drive, which goes out to about 1,400 people.

“You have to tell people that community news requires the community’s support,” Wheeler said. “An annual letter is a way to update the community about what you’re doing and remind them that you need their help.”

Next up for Charlottesville Tomorrow is expansion of its coverage to include the county’s public schools. And Wheeler also aims to bring back a part-time employee to handle community engagement through social media.

But from someone who follows smart growth in a city that puts a premium on quality, don’t look for other “Tomorrow” franchise sites to start springing up.

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