Despite Stumble in Raleigh, Will The Agenda Be Part of ‘New Localism’?

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“Media is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Ted Williams wrote when he launched The Charlotte Agenda in April 2015. But earlier this month, Williams closed his second Agenda – in Raleigh – after just four months.

“I’m learning that the success we have in Charlotte isn’t scaleable to other distinct geographies,” Williams told me. “I’ve become convinced that the key to financial success for an organization like ours is providing a high degree of advertiser customization and customer service. As such, local media doesn’t scale, and successful local media companies will be owner-operated in their given communities.”

Williams said he’s likely to say more about the economics of his Raleigh decision “at some point” in The Charlotte Agenda. When he does, I hope he leaves the door open to creating more Agendas in other cities and their metropolitan regions. There are scores of cities across America which, like Charlotte, are using their new demographics, cultures and economies to reinvent themselves.

The Brookings Institution calls what’s happening the “New Localism.” The top 100 metropolitan regions of the U.S. – including Charlotte’s and Raleigh’s – U.S. produce three-quarters of the national domestic product.

All these metros have daily papers and many of them have digital-only news sites. But The Charlotte Agenda has an eye that sees this “New Localism” with a special kind of clarity that includes looking at the past and the future as well as the here and now.

An example is the recent article, reported and written by Williams himself, headlined, “Dilworth, so hot right now. Neighborhood goes from rich and sleepy to rich and trendy.” What’s especially noteworthy about the article is that it uses mostly photos and interactive maps – and few but well-chosen words – to make its point about Dilworth’s evolving transformation.

The Charlotte Agenda can’t discover too many “vegetarian dining options” and “craft cocktails” — but it can also be clear-eyed about crime, as it was in this recent story about pickup trucks in controlled-access garages in Charlotte’s South End being targeted for break-ins. The article also soberingly noted that violent crime in the fast-growing neighborhood is up 25%, and, according to local police, is not likely to abate.

Williams explained his local-news credo in the article he wrote to launch The Agenda in April 2015. It fits in very well — journalistically and business-wise — with the New Localism that defines Charlotte and so many other resurgent communities.

The Agenda is part of what local news entrepreneur Jim Friedlich calls a “new class” of websites. I asked Friedlich, who is a partner in one of them — Denverite, in the Mile High City — about the economics of local “pure-plays”:

“There are several ways to fund growth and expansion in local news: One can bootstrap, raise private capital, and/or align with a strategic funder.  The Charlotte Agenda is self-funded, cash-flow positive and appears to be doing a fine job under a talented leader, the challenges in Raleigh notwithstanding. The founder owns the business outright and appears patient and disciplined about his growth. There’s a lot to be said for that.

“Jim Brady’s Spirited Media has raised outside capital from Gannett and other individual investors to help fund his Billy Penn in Philadelphia and to expand to a second site in Pittsburgh. The CEO is highly-regarded and executing well.

“Strategic investments are sometimes a mixed blessing, providing smart money, but often slowing down decision making or complicating the exit.”

I asked Friedlich about his own entrepreneurial experience in digital news:

“Denverite was founded by seasoned investors and a smart young editor /product innovator. We are prepared to either continue to invest, raise private funds, or expand by acquisition. Kevin Ryan, Gordon Crovitz, and I have followed this playbook in the past with Business Insider and other mutual efforts.

“Our view is that local digital will require both local authenticity and scale to achieve full potential. Access to sufficient capital – whether one’s own funds or external — will likely make or break these start-ups in the long run. The more thing change the more they stay the same.”

I also asked Brady about expansion options of local pure-plays like his:

“If you’re looking to expand with some alacrity, you’ll likely need capital that goes beyond what you can raise yourself. If you’re goal is to create two or three successful sites, you may be able to do that without outside funding. When we plan a site, the plan is to wait 12-18 months before making any judgment whatsoever.

“Yes, you can look at trends, make adjustments, etc., but as to a judgment on viability, that’s a longer-term decision. By the time we’ve picked a city, we’ve already done enough research that we feel pretty comfortable in the choice. But, again, if you’re funding on your own, the timeframe may well need to be different.”

The New Localism, thankfully, won’t be going away any time soon. I hope Ted Williams will plant his feet in and bring his talents to its markets along with Jim Friedlich and Jim Brady.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.