LION member spotlight: Charlottesville Tomorrow

A Q&A with Charlottesville Tomorrow publisher Brian Wheeler as the nonprofit independent local news site celebrates its 10th anniversary.

April 30, 2015 by LION Publishers


A Q&A with LION member Brian Wheeler, publisher of Charlottesville Tomorrow in Virginia.

1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?

Charlottesville Tomorrow was launched in 2005 by co-founders Michael Bills and Rick Middleton, who believed a new approach was needed to protect and to build upon the distinctive character of the Charlottesville area in central Virginia.  The pair saw an opportunity for a local nonprofit organization to leverage online resources to inform the public about key quality of life issues in a way that would motivate them to take action.  Today Charlottesville Tomorrow covers land use, transportation, community design and public education issues.

2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?

I was hired as the organization’s first executive director in 2005.  At the time I was an elected member of the local school board. My previous job had been as chief information officer at SNL Financial, a leading provider of data to Wall Street. I moved to the area when I was 17 years old to attend the University of Virginia, so I had deep roots in the community, political connections and significant experience with information technology.

3. How would you describe your operation and business model?

Charlottesville Tomorrow is a mission-driven nonprofit working with the community to build a better Charlottesville. We believe informed citizens create better communities. Journalism is a vehicle for our work today, but not an end to itself. Like all nonprofits, we depend on the generosity of our local community members to enable us to provide them with clear, non-partisan information and research on key quality of life issues.

4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?

Our natural news competitor would be the daily newspaper.  However, in 2009 we formed a partnership with The Daily Progress (BH Media) and now virtually all of our news content is published in the newspaper online (links) and in print (with our byline and logo).  Over the past five years we have published more than 1,500 stories representing 62 percent of the newspaper’s content in 2014 on the topics we cover. We collaborate on a daily basis with the editors, reporters and photographers at the paper to ensure the most comprehensive coverage of local government.  In return, the newspaper prints our local election voter guides and provides us advertising opportunities online, in emails, and in print.  We also partner with our local alt-weekly and a university radio station on a weekly radio program.

5. What makes your site unique?

Our website brings together several resources, which provide a lot of power to our community of engaged citizens.  Those elements include:

– Our in-depth news organized by carefully curated topics and geotagged places in the community.
– An events calendar listing all the important local government meetings and community events.
– We aggregate third-party news on the topics we cover (from the daily newspaper and alt-weekly) and integrate that with our coverage such that the public can access all local news on a given topic in one place.
– We maintain a community wiki ( and have a tool that allows us to quickly build hyperlinks from our news stories to all matching entries in the wiki as we publish.
– Our content management system (Armstrong CMS) allows us to easily add podcasts and supporting documents to a story.  Those resources are also available in special sections of our site (Multimedia & Data Lab).
– We geotag all our content where possible which gets a map on each story and thanks to a new “Places module,” we can now show our readers all news by location.  We are also feeding our geotagged news and events to Qork, a third-party mobile app built to engage people with place-based content.
– The number one driver of people to our website?  Our email list of almost 10,000 subscribers.  We publish two topical e-newsletters each week.
– And last but not least, our search engine actually works!  Search for a person, topic or event and the most recent item will always be at the top of the results.

6. What is something you wish you had known when you were starting out or would do differently now that could perhaps serve as advice for others?

This has been our recipe for success:

– We have a very strong board of directors made up of prominent local community leaders.
– We focus in-depth and exclusively on a niche set of quality of life issues. The topics we cover benefit from having long-term embedded community-based journalists reporting on them.
– We have been open to partnering with for-profit media like The Daily Progress newspaper.
– We have been mindful to ensure we have adequate staffing for the three big work areas: journalism/information sharing; administration/business; and community engagement.
– We earn the support and trust of our community one story at a time. Charlottesville-Albemarle is a special place where people care deeply about the quality of life and they expect to have fact-based information to make informed choices.

7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?

We are celebrating our 10th anniversary!  We have a dedicated and award-winning staff supported by an all-star board of community leaders and the generosity of our community and foundation partners.

8. What do you struggle with the most?

Fundraising and customizing that wonderful website.

9. What are some of your future goals for the site?

We need to move from mobile friendly to mobile optimized!

10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?

I joined LION Publishers because every time I have met with its members (going back to the Block by Block conference in 2010) I have brought back ideas I have been able to put into practice to improve our work.  The Facebook group is an invaluable resource for sharing best practices and troubleshooting.

CLICK HERE to see other Q&As with LION member independent local news publishers.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter

Join the LION mailing list to get our weekly roundup of opportunities and resources for news entrepreneurs. View our most recent issues.