Partners: Progress hooks up with growth-watchers
Like so many first dates, this one took place at a coffee shop– Caf© Cubano, to be exact. But like many a romance, this one also includes its share of fireworks–- including worries that letting a group of growth watchdogs write stories for the daily newspaper could skew coverage.
The cash-strapped Daily Progress had been eyeing Charlottesville Tomorrow's form, and admired the nonprofit's passion for covering government meetings. And Charlottesville Tomorrow, mired in the internet-only zone, couldn't help but be excited about getting read by a much larger audience.
The pair's backgrounds were so different. How would the parents of the growth watchdog feel about getting involved with a heavily in-debt, for-profit media corporation–- one whose editorial page leans conservative/pro-business? And how would the Progress deal with a news provider whose leader also makes the news?
Ultimately, the two decided to make the leap into a partnership that really had never been done before, but could serve as a roadmap to help the slimmer-staffed newspapers of the new millennium.
"This will give us a layer of coverage we wouldn't have," says McGregor McCance, Daily Progress managing editor. And it's free.
Charlottesville Tomorrow was founded in 2005 to cover land-use, growth, and transportation issues in Albemarle County and Charlottesville, and it's funded by private donors. Brian Wheeler is its executive director, and he's also Albemarle School Board chair.
Wheeler's position as an elected official was a small sticking point for McCance because the paper covers the School Board. McCance and his publisher determined that when in doubt, disclose, disclose, disclose.
"We decided on full disclosure on where the content is from," says McCance. "If we need to cover Brian, we will." And the Progress will continue to cover the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, even though its new partner also will be there.
Still, there are many county and city meetings: planning commissions, architectural review boards, and multiple water authorities. A rail advisory meeting appears in the Progress August 28, the first from its nonprofit partner.
"They cover a lot of these hearings we just do not have the resources to cover," says Progress publisher Lawrence McConnell. "Charlottesville Tomorrow has demonstrated real objectivity in these hearings."
Political strategist Paul Wright does not agree.
"I'm concerned with the linking of content with an organization that seems to favor an agenda," says Wright, who is campaign manager for Republican supervisor candidate Rodney Thomas. "People would not confuse them with anyone who favors growth."
Wright declines to cite any particular stories, among the hundreds that the group has penned over the years, that demonstrate any bias. In recent weeks, however, Wheeler has become something of an advocate for the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority's controversial plan to build a pipeline/reservoir to replace the existing Rivanna Reservoir, maintaining in radio appearances that water use is on the upswing.
Wright claims that Charlottesville Tomorrow's board members and donors are mostly Democrats who have been contributing to the re-election campaign of Board of Supervisors Chair David Slutzky, whom Thomas is challenging.
"I now have to wonder when they cover the chairman of the board," says Wright.
[Disclosure: One of the contributors to both Charlottesville Tomorrow and Slutzky is Ted Weschler, an owner of the Hook, who also contributes to Republicans, such as gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell.]
"People complain about who's behind every bit of information that's published," says Progress editor McCance.
"Their content is so straightforward," adds McCance, noting that podcasts of meetings typically accompany the reports. "You can click and listen."
Avid media-watcher and blogger (at cvillenews.com) Waldo Jaquith hails the Progress "for its willingness to collaborate with a media organization that could be competition," but he worries about the longevity of the deal because Charlottesville Tomorrow exists "because of the largesse of generous donors."
One of publisher McConnell's concerns was whether the content would hold up to journalistic standards for balanced coverage, which includes getting as many viewpoints as possible. "Their coverage is more stenographic in nature than standard newspaper coverage," observes McConnell, "but it stands up.
"They're not doing the nut graf," he says in reference to the paragraph that capsulizes each story's thesis, "and not running out to get reaction from Congressman Perriello."
Both parties describe the partnership as a work in progress, no pun intended. But now that its articles are being published in a newspaper, can readers expect saucier headlines and grabbier opening lines from Charlottesville Tomorrow?
"We'll leave that," says Wheeler, "to the Hook."
–last updated August 31 at 9:20am