In Jefferson’s Hometown, a Hyperlocal Focuses on Digital Democracy

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Brian Wheeler is executive director of Charlottesville Tomorrow, a thriving nonprofit hyperlocal in Virginia that focuses on land use and other civic issues that are key to protecting the character of the community that was the home of Thomas Jefferson. We talked to Wheeler about his unusual definition of user engagement, and how he’s working to take it to a new level.

Community engagement is often defined by how often the user returns to the site and clicks on different pages and networking features as well as ads. What is engagement for Charlottesville Tomorrow?

Engagement for Charlottesville Tomorrow means our community is taking action with the information we provide. That could mean talking to a neighbor about a news story, writing a public official, writing a letter to the editor, attending a public hearing or voting.  We hear citizens say they do these things because our information motivated them.  We also see the public and decision makers regularly engaged and using our information in public meetings. We keep track of all the usual web site metrics, but they don’t tell you whether our users took the next step—ACTION. That next step has always been our goal—helping citizens make informed choices.

You recently received a $102,000 Knight Foundation News Challenge grant in part to build on your community engagement. What will that involve?  Will Charlottesville Tomorrow be a platform for going beyond talk to community problem solving?

What was holding us back was the absence of a critical mass of professional staff to address the three major work areas: business development/fundraising, journalism and community engagement. We didn’t have the bandwidth to engage the community in the content beyond information sharing. Our local community foundation, which entered us in the Knight competition, agreed that a third staff member on our team, focused on community engagement, would complete our recipe for sustainability. Our new community engagement coordinator will champion guiding, connecting and engaging the public in community information and dialogue. She will also help us grow two major data initiatives, Cvillepedia and Cville3D, with community-generated content. Cvillepedia is a community wiki that serves primarily as a resource for in-depth information and supplemental information found in story research. It is a collaborative encyclopedia where  the public can record the people, places and events of our community. Cville3D  will develop 3D models of the community for use in Google Earth to improve planning efforts and community design.

Public officials generally don’t get involved in online community interactivity. They say they don’t have the time or they invite citizens to comment on the officials’ own sites or Facebook pages. You’re a former member and chairman of the county school board. What’s your view?

Eventually all public officials will use social media tools to engage their constituents.  Today, very few elected officials in our community have a robust online presence.  As a former elected official myself, I made heavy use of a blog and email list to share information. However, it became increasingly difficult for me to share that information in the few hours I had available each night. We have also observed an increasing effort by local officials to hold town halls and public hearings to discuss important decisions facing the community. I would argue these events are partially in response to our coverage. The officials may not be direct participants in the online debate, but they react by seeking greater traditional engagement in the face-to-face meetings with which they are most comfortable. In time, as the next generation of officials is elected, you will see them more engaged online.

Charlottesville is, by any reckoning, a “special” community— historically, environmentally, educationally, culturally. Can a local website in a community that is newer, that doesn’t have as much heritage, do what you’re doing in Charlottesville?

I think hyperlocal community news can be successful in any market where there is a civic information gap  We are entering our seventh year of operations and we have an average annual budget of about $250,000. Over that time, we have raised and invested over $1.5 million in our nonprofit community news venture. We have found that of major donors and smaller annual donors alike value community news as a key tool for making informed choices about the community’s future. It doesn’t hurt that we are the home of Thomas Jefferson either—smart consumption of in-depth information is a big part of our community ecosystem and heritage. But every community, new or old, wants information that matters to them.  Hyperlocal news sites can and should meet that need.

You have a partnership with the Daily Progress, a strong local newspaper.  How important is that to the success of Charlottesville Tomorrow? Do you recommend that other local start-ups make partnering like this a high priority?

I highly recommend to other hyperlocals what we did. I don’t think we would have survived without it, and the newspaper says they wouldn’t be the same without it either. In two years, we have published over 400 stories in the Daily Progress and Charlottesville Tomorrow is now responsible for almost 50 percent of the newspaper’s coverage of growth, development, and local politics—our specialties. Weekly visits to our site have increased 222 percent since the partnership was launched. Our credibility, profile and audience have increased significantly. Annual gifts have increased both in total number and in average dollar amount. We believe all this is largely the result of the newspaper partnership.

You’ve been at this for some while. What lessons have you learned about engaging with the community? Can you talk about successes—and any missteps that led to course corrections?

We have learned our citizens want to be engaged with fact-based information with which they can make their own informed choices about local issues. We take what we would describe as a Jeffersonian leap of faith that if you equip the public with in-depth information, they will make decisions to ensure a quality future for the community. Without our coverage of local growth, development, and local politics, the information ecosystem would be much more sparse and slanted towards the loudest special interest group. More government decisions would be made without community knowledge or input. A key lesson is recruiting a board of directors that is trusted and respected in the community. Our board plays a significant role representing our work and fundraising. Our success is also reflective more of missteps we didn’t take, or paths we didn’t venture too far down. We flirted with speaking at local public meetings, raising questions about local development projects. While we were careful not to seek specific outcomes, the act of even raising questions publicly led some people to question our approach and agenda. Our board of directors had us back off of that approach and re-focus on objective, fact-based information.

You’re a nonprofit. How do you measure your success? Can you talk about your audience reach in Charlottesville and Albemarle County as well as other metrics like pages viewed per visit and visits per month, and other indicators of success?

Some current metrics: Our community’s combined population (city/county) = 142,000 (2010). Weekly email subscribers = 2,725. Email open rate is 41.3 %. Email click throughs are 11.3%. Weekly visitors to website = 4,739. Weekly views on website are 11,731.

What do you plan to do when you’re funding runs out, if it does. Might you develop commercial revenue streams?

I believe we can be sustainable by having the right mix of revenue sources (foundations, major donors, annual givers, events, and underwriting), by expanding to cover other beats (like K-12 public education and higher ed), and by having a successful community engagement program. Going after other commercial revenue streams is only going to dilute the resources we have for producing vital community news.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.