In 2018, leaders from seven Charlotte-area media organizations started kicking around ideas about the best way to deliver impactful reporting on the city’s most pressing issues, particularly the affordable housing crisis. Looking at Resolve Philly’s success in bringing attention and policy change to the issue of post-incarceration reentry, they believed pooling their resources would allow them to make the kind of impact they could not achieve as individual outlets.
A year later, seven news organizations (The Charlotte Observer, Free Press, La Noticia, QCity Metro, Q Notes, WCNC-TV and WFAE 90.7 FM) and two communication and information resources (the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte) formed the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative (CJC) with support from the Solutions Journalism Network. The following year, Carolina Public Press replaced Free Press as a partner.
The group established a revenue generation and fundraising plan around three primary objectives: subject matter (affordable housing); public good (civic investment and access to information); and delivery (arts connection and engagement).
La Noticia founder and publisher Hilda Gurdian was all in from the start. “I believe collaboration is the best way to serve our community and to expand and amplify our voices,” Gurdian said. “We want to reach as many Latinos as possible, as well as those members of the community who are interested in Latino issues or interested in issues related to Charlotte, because we are all in this together.”
When Chris Rudisill came on board as part-time collaborative director and project manager one month into the coronavirus lockdown, there was a clear consensus that the collaborative should focus on delivering reliable information about the pandemic, particularly to the city’s most vulnerable population. But the CJC didn’t just produce content; it found new ways to bring information to people.
The CJC initiated conversations with the community to find out what information people needed to better understand the COVID-19 crisis and how to respond. The collaborative published features in both English and Spanish, conducted audience research and held virtual town halls. Its efforts demonstrated its relevance and importance to the Charlotte community and created more opportunities to succeed in another essential area: fundraising.
“Because of their innovations and engagement activities, and because they were so dang effective during the pandemic, they now have this really solid reputation and a proof of concept they can point to when they’re trying to attract support,” said Michael Davis, south region manager of the Solutions Journalism Network.
Funding a media collaborative start-up
The collaborative currently operates on a $100,000 annual budget, the bulk of which comes through a two-year grant from the Solutions Journalism Network with support from the Knight Foundation.
“As a project of SJN, all of our finances are maintained through them, with decisions and budget planning done by the collaborative’s partners,” Rudisill said. “I manage that process and oversee strategic budget planning for the future.”
Rudisill’s extensive background in nonprofit fundraising and connections to the Charlotte philanthropic community are instrumental in securing the financial resources the collaborative needs. After evaluating what it would take to initiate more expansive reporting projects, fund two full-time staff positions and produce more community engagement events, the CJC set an ambitious goal of raising $1.5 million for operating expenses through 2026.
“The initial $100,000 budget was based on the funding we received from the Solutions Journalism Network and served almost as an incubator to test this and see if it will work in Charlotte,” Rudisill said. “We now have a proven model that I think is even more fundable.”
Determining the right mix of funding is a combination of art and science. After relying on one source for up to 90 percent of its funding, the CJC wants a more diverse funding stream going forward. Rudisill’s ideal would be: 10 percent from major donors, 40 percent from grants and foundations, 30 percent from corporate philanthropy and 20 percent from consulting and programming.
Be creative without straying from your mission
Rudisill said CJC, when seeking funding, never loses sight of its overall mission to impact the community and revitalize local news. The grant or foundation must share its vision, not the other way around. However, he said, thinking creatively and reimagining the plan can bring more opportunities.
The collaborative has taken on projects that allowed it to attract support from organizations that don’t typically fund journalism. For example, a partnership with local artists and BOOM Charlotte to translate published coronavirus stories into “PANDEMIC,” a graphic novel, was funded by a cultural vision grant from the Arts & Science Council of the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
“We are continuing to explore ways that we can expand collaboration beyond journalism, including with local artists and our community nonprofit partners,” Rudisill said.
Events and consulting
Perhaps the CJC’s most innovative measure to date was the Local News Impact Summit on affordable housing on May 12 and 13, 2022 to spotlight the city’s affordable housing crisis and relevant responses to it.
The free event included an evening Community Housing Information Fair and brought together community members, city and county leadership, housing advocates, and local news organizations.
Between 25 and 30 people attended on Day 1 at a branch of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. Participants included Housing & Neighborhood Services, Community Link, DreamKey Partners, Housing Justice Coalition CLT, and Home Again Foundation. WCNC Charlotte produced a “what home means” video. About 100 people attended the Day 2 hybrid event where sessions and panel discussions were moderated by reporters from CJC’s media partners.
The event allowed corporations to support the CJC through sponsorship and community programming. It brought in $19,000 from sponsors including Wells Fargo, Foundation for the Carolinas, North Carolina Local News Lab Fund, and DreamKey Partners. In addition, several panelists donated their honorariums, generating over $2,000 in additional individual support.
Post-summit survey responses showed the event was well received by participants and increased awareness of the CJC and its coverage of affordable housing. It also led to productive conversations with housing advocates and meetings with Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and the city’s leader in Housing & Neighborhood Services. Rudisill said the city is planning a future summit on affordable housing and economic mobility, and has involved the CJC as a planning partner.
CJC’s success in investigating and reporting news through a solutions lens has also opened the door to consulting as a new earned revenue stream. The group is devising a plan to offer its expertise and monetize the data research gathered for solutions journalism projects with other North Carolina news markets looking to start a collaboration.
Rudisill is also developing a plan to bring in local philanthropic support, a model that has been successful in other news collaborations across the country. But getting philanthropic support off the ground requires changing the belief that supporting journalism begins and ends with subscriptions and advertising. Davis said that can be a heavy lift.
“The idea of a community, private or family foundation supporting journalism is still fairly new,” Davis said. “So we have to explain ourselves. Your local news collaborative is all the stronger if it’s supported by local philanthropy.”
Funders also want to see concrete metrics measuring the impact of their support. While it is more difficult to draw a direct link between reporting and outcomes, Rudisill points to community engagement events that attracted more than 150 people and reporting about the right to counsel during evictions that led the county to reconsider the eviction policy. He also argues that providing financial support for a vibrant local news ecosystem is a worthwhile investment in the community.
“We all want a city that is thriving and equitable for everyone,” Rudisill said. “Local news is a very important part of that.”
As the CJC begins its third year, Gurdian says the collaborative has exceeded her already high expectations.
“We are expanding our audience and reaching people that we normally would not reach,” she said. “I think there will be more collaborations in the future because you can see the benefits. Having the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with organizations like WFAE, WCNC, QCity Metro, Q Notes and The Observer just agrees with us.”