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Q&A with Giles Morris and Sarad Davenport: How a newsroom partnership created a ripple effect

This Q&A is part of a new INN series on how nonprofit news outlets serve communities of color. You can find more Q&As here.

Who: Giles Morris, executive director of Charlottesville Tomorrow, and Sarad Davenport, content manager and digital strategist for Vinegar Hill Magazine.
News outlet: Charlottesville Tomorrow and Vinegar Hill Magazine
Size of outlet as of January 2022: Charlottesville Tomorrow is eight full-time employees; Vinegar Hill is one full-time employee
Outlet launch year: Charlottesville Tomorrow launched in 2005 with a re-start in 2018; Vinegar Hill launched in 2012

Hi Giles and Sarad! Can you talk about the partnership between Charlottesville Tomorrow and Vinegar Hill Magazine, as a preface to our conversation?

GILES: We are two of the three founding partners of the Charlottesville Inclusive Media project (CIM), which aims to create an inclusive and diverse media ecosystem in Charlottesville. We work together editorially, as business ventures and in the community to achieve those outcomes and build new audiences. Charlottesville Tomorrow is a nonprofit news organization and an INN member and Vinegar Hill Magazine is a Black-owned for-profit media and merchandising company. Our third partner is another local Black-owned media company, the In My Humble Opinion talk show.

SARAD: This partnership took several years to develop. The Vinegar Hill team needed a mutually beneficial relationship and an understanding we would operate as equals. The Charlottesville Tomorrow team, with more resources and back-office infrastructure, needed to value our agency and deep rootedness in Charlottesville’s Black community. Not only that, but we brought technical expertise and innovation that helped Charlottesville Tomorrow expand its reach and bring authenticity and culturally inclusive intentionality into its newsroom.  

Tell us a bit about your news outlet. What sort of services do you provide? What’s your outlet’s primary mission?

GILES: Charlottesville Tomorrow is a hyperlocal nonprofit news organization with a public service mission. Our primary mission is to serve the community’s critical news and information needs by exercising the values of truth, community and equity through our journalism. 

From 2005 to 2018, the organization focused its coverage on local land use policy and, after 2013, K-12 education in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. It relied heavily on a decade-long content partnership with The Daily Progress, the daily newspaper of record for a century, for distribution and visibility. Following the departure of its founding executive director and in the wake of the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville and the accompanying local reckoning with racism in our community, Charlottesville Tomorrow changed its mission in 2018, under my leadership. We began the process of becoming a public service news organization capable of serving the entire community, with a focus on equity. We ended our partnership with The Daily Progress and became a standalone digital news outlet. 

SARAD: Vinegar Hill Magazine began as a tool to offer the community a more inclusive perspective and give an asset-based lens to news from the Black community in Charlottesville. Staying true to this mission and intent has only helped Vinegar Hill since the early days. We curate stories with the Black community in mind, and amplify and launch Black entrepreneurs, artists, professionals and innovators. 

Sarad, can you say more about Vinegar Hill’s news lens?

SARAD: What I mean by asset-based is that much of how we frame the existence of people of color, and Black people in particular, is as a problem that must be solved. Deploying this framework reinforces these ways of viewing society. Often these exaggerations are intentionally sinister and, I believe, become self-fulfilling. What is more true is that life is complex across race and culture and there is no lack of innovation, but there is often a morbid lack of resources. Where there are resources and innovation, these stories don’t seem to be appealing to legacy media, so we see it as our responsibility as Black media to cover the untold greatness and continue to mine for the genius that exists. The glass is not always half-empty for Black people, it is often full and running over, but that [story] does not often serve a pathological social construction.

Tell us about yourself! When did you start working at your news outlet? What does your role look like?

GILES: I became Charlottesville Tomorrow’s second executive director in spring 2018, arriving with a mandate to “take the organization to the next level” after a period of revenue and audience stagnation. I had left the journalism industry in 2014, thinking at the time that I would not return. My reason for wanting to run Charlottesville Tomorrow was that I believed our community’s news and media organizations were going to be incapable of dealing with our community’s reckoning with racism and inequality. I felt at the time, and still feel, that the failure of local news business models contributes to the passive racism that local media adopted over a period of decades. My role was to lead the organization through this transition at all levels — staffing, revenue, journalism, mission, board makeup, distribution — and to build an organization that treated its own people and its community with the dignity, value and respect they deserve.

SARAD: I came to Vinegar Hill when it was a newsletter, primarily as a layout designer, in 2012. As an undergraduate, I had a paid internship with The New York Times Company and I was able to leverage many of the skills I learned with Vinegar Hill. A few of the things that have been developed or transformed in my tenure so far are the layout and document design, adding freelance writers and photographers, building a sales team, monetizing the publication, adding and monetizing the website, and adding a merch component to the magazine, among many other things.

The biggest support I’ve given to the magazine is likely strategy and positioning. During my tenure, we have secured the partnership with Charlottesville Tomorrow and won several grants and other awards in a very short period of time. My job continues to be to help develop Vinegar Hill into a sustainable operation.

“I felt at the time, and still feel, that the failure of local news business models contributes to the passive racism that local media adopted over a period of decades. My role was to lead the organization through this transition at all levels — staffing, revenue, journalism, mission, board makeup, distribution — and to build an organization that treated its own people and its community with the dignity, value and respect they deserve.”

Giles Morris

Who does your outlet primarily serve, and how do you know this? Is your current audience different from who your outlet intends to serve?

GILES: Charlottesville Tomorrow, as a legacy outlet in transition, has had to work very hard to shift its audience and to build the newsroom capacity to serve a larger and more diverse audience’s needs. Its historic reading audience was what might be defined as the privileged information class, the group of news-obsessed, affluent, older and largely white people who have the time and energy to consume multiple national news outlets in addition to multiple local news sources each day, because it benefits them either economically or socially. They came to Charlottesville Tomorrow for its in-depth approach to coverage at a time when for-profit news outlets were scaling back coverage and producing less original reporting.

As in many cities around the country, Charlottesville’s Black reading audience has had little to no trust in local news, having experienced a long history of being treated as targets of crime coverage or having their voices silenced, or being treated as a minority monolith where only a few people’s voices were sufficient to adequately communicate the vibrance and value of its people. At Charlottesville Tomorrow, we knew that our long-term goal of serving our whole community in all of its diversity and vibrancy had to start with winning back the trust of African American news readers.

SARAD: The Vinegar Hill publication was created to set the record straight about Black life in Charlottesville, which was often misrepresented in legacy media. We had a specific intent to tell the story of Black people in a way that recognized their fundamental humanity and wasn’t subservient to the status quo and the more nefarious social narratives about Black people. Our intent was countering the exclusive and pejorative narrative about Black people by legacy media organizations.

We knew that the stories of Black Charlottesville have been underrepresented and often misrepresented by local media for ages and it was time for a change. From the outset, we employed some of the best writers, social commentators and subject-matter experts to provide content. Quickly, we built a grassroots following with deep engagement across the socioeconomic spectrum. We worked to unearth the stories and the innovation happening in the Black community that were not on the radar of other media outlets.

Through this process not only did Vinegar Hill connect a fragmented community but also grew that community and provided a space where the tough issues of the day could be contextualized and explored. We hope the magazine grows regionally and nationally and has ripple effects, challenging media professionals broadly to expand their perspectives in ways that inform social policy and build holistically healthier communities.

The Charlottesville Inclusive Media Project (CIM) aims to create an inclusive and diverse media ecosystem in Charlottesville.

Once you knew the outlet needed to get more intentional about creating coverage for and about your Black audiences, what did you do?

GILES: We co-created the Charlottesville Inclusive Media project to partner on audience engagement, distribution and capacity. Together we work to reach Black audiences on radio, podcast, video and digital news channels and create a more inclusive local media landscape. As a result of the partnership, we have grown and diversified our audience, created new revenue opportunities and launched new initiatives and products.

We surveyed our CIM audience in partnership with Listening Post Collective and that has helped us understand who our audience is and how our Black audiences are experiencing our content. The survey’s results show that Charlottesville Tomorrow’s reading audience is 30% African American, nearly double the demographic of our reading area in the city and county. I think that is the result of a number of different strategies leveraged by and centered on the partnership. We have done a better job of moving towards Black audiences where they already are, like being on talk radio every Sunday with In My Humble Opinion. We have created new conversations, like Black Truths/White Truths, that show our deeper commitment to long-term change in our community, and we have co-produced and co-published interesting projects together, like the Determined and Still Determined series. We still have a long way to go, but the path is much clearer now than it was before.

SARAD: We started with the intent to create coverage for and by our Black audience at the outset and this was our primary mission: going beyond news and journalism as a convener of disconnected communities, highlighting the complexity of the joy and pain for Black people in Charlottesville. Partnering with Charlottesville Tomorrow and the In My Humble Opinion talk show served as a way that we could continue to grow our audience and reach a larger number of people in the community. We felt like we had a product that needed to reach more eyes, and the partnership with legacy media was going to elevate our profile.

How are you measuring the impact of that work?

GILES: It can be really hard and, I believe, unhealthy to measure the impact and return-on-investment of partnerships like this analytically. But at the same time, if we don’t measure the impact and communicate it to our community and our funders, we won’t get very far. There aren’t good enough local media ecosystem baselines to measure the more far-reaching impacts of this kind of work. At the organizational level, we can stick to the basics and try to measure accurately through time to get a sense of short- and long-term progress: revenue, audience growth and diversification, and impact on the media ecosystem.

SARAD: In order to remain relevant and sustainable, Vinegar Hill needed a larger platform to extend our reach and resources to shore up our infrastructure. This continues to be a struggle but this relationship has put us in a position to build some technological infrastructure, add sales apparatus and continue to be seen as a resource in the community. As of January, we have 6,545 contacts and 5,697 of them are subscribers, and in 2021 we had nearly 70,000 total website page views.

What advice do you have for other news organizations who are hoping to partner with ethnic or community media outlets?

GILES: People underestimate the value of partnership because they are focused on concrete goals and often find themselves understaffed facing Catch-22 situations with respect to diversifying and growing their audiences. Partnerships seem either hard and messy (they are!) or shallow and transactional — too much to take on or a waste of time. One of the most valuable parts of the CIM partnership for Charlottesville Tomorrow has been the relationship with our partners and the insight and perspective they bring to our internal and external processes. 

But even deeper than that, CIM’s progress in influencing the larger media landscape through our ally relationship has been much faster than I could have imagined and solved many problems for Charlottesville Tomorrow that we did not even realize we had. For instance, our young white reporters routinely say that our partnership and our focus on reaching Black audiences is one of their primary motivations to work for us. Also, our partnership has made us more creative and flexible in creating new products and revenue strategies, because our partners are for-profit and have ideas and perspectives that we do not have. 

Today, Black-owned media is taking off and white “allies” are knocking on the door with many motivations. To have a successful partnership experience, legacy outlets have to be clear, committed, humble and open to change. You have to believe that you need your partners more than they need you and treat them accordingly. And when you do not see eye to eye, you have to come back to basics with each other to move forward. Why are you doing this work? If you can’t answer that question every day, the partnerships will fail. 

SARAD: We were certainly skeptical at first, but we had some small and large wins early on with the Determined series that gave us more reason to trust. I encourage people to study the history of the Black press and its early intent. I would also tell legacy outlets to position yourselves in the posture of listening and not as an authority on issues particularly related to Black people and other people of color. Find innovative ways to allow their authentic voice to come through in ways that lead to action as opposed to being nuisances of the local and regional economic and political machinery. It is important to see lived experience as valuable, and as valuable as [training] in journalism. 

People should also encourage discussion — and disagreement, for that matter — to ensure that the very best and most innovative decisions come out of the ideation process. It is important to be open and transparent to a fault so there is no speculation about hidden agendas and people can speak from a place of equal standing where power is not used as leverage — ever. Black media also needs to be able to remain semi-autonomous. Most Black-led media organizations do not have the back office and infrastructure of most legacy media organizations and need to be nimble and innovative. This requires flexibility; rigid arrangements that feel like control are discouraged and are in my opinion counterproductive to the overall return-on-investment of the partnerships anyway. Control is not the answer. Authentic collaboration absent of power dynamics is critical from the ideation phase through execution. 

We have committed ourselves to intentionally exist within the tension. We know that power dynamics and old ways of being have the tendency to creep into these types of arrangements. Tackling these questions together without losing our identity and rootedness is and will always be a challenge, but in the tension we seek a higher order of being, not only in journalism but in the community and world. It’s hard work, we have to be very thoughtful and trust comes with time. Leaving space for each other and also speaking together at times is important.

“…Position yourselves in the posture of listening and not as an authority on issues particularly related to Black people and other people of color. Find innovative ways to allow their authentic voice to come through in ways that lead to action as opposed to being nuisances of the local and regional economic and political machinery. It is important to see lived experience as valuable, and as valuable as [training] in journalism.”

Sarad Davenport

What’s next? Is there a story you are looking forward to in 2022?

GILES: Sarad has been working with Charlottesville Tomorrow’s new editor-in-chief, Angilee Shah, and In My Humble Opinion’s Charles Lewis to design a new collaboration effort for the CIM project. The working name is First Person Charlottesville — a multiplatform channel and community around a year-long narrative series of first-person testimonies about life in our community. We are still looking for an anchor funder, if you are as excited about it as we are! 

SARAD: We are very much interested in the economic revolution happening in the Black community. More Black-owned restaurants than ever have opened in Charlottesville in the last two years. There is an idea that the COVID-19 pandemic can be a portal to a reality where people are tapping into their entrepreneurial instincts and becoming less dependent on employment as a sole source of income. This sense of self-determination is a real phenomenon for Black people. Our government has failed us, our schools have failed us, the criminal justice system has failed us, and it is up to us to leverage all of our capacity to save ourselves. Relatedly, we are deeply interested in virtual reality and ways that the Black community can stay informed and a part of the growth and commerce there. There is so much to cover, but I believe economic development in the Black community, closing the wealth gap and forceful resistance to it will be the story. 

Read more from the series here.

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