All the News That’s Fit to Email: Charlotte Five & Charlotte Agenda

Two online newsletters are changing Charlotte’s morning news scene with easy-to-read, highly shareable content. But are they doing enough to find a balance for the “Twinkies” they serve with breakfast each day?


Published:

NATALIE ANDREWSON

SHORTLY AFTER Ted Williams left his corporate job to start his own digital media company, he found himself at Chipotle for lunch. As he stared at the menu, trying to decide what to order, a realization hit him.

“Gulp,” Williams, a father of a newborn son, tweeted. “New personal startup budget. No longer can afford the guac at Chipotle. Damn.”

A few weeks later, shortly before 7 a.m. on April 8, he nervously pressed “Send” on the first edition of Charlotte Agenda, a newsletter intended to inform people, in an easy-to-read email, of what’s happening in the city.

It was the second newsletter he’d started in Charlotte. Months earlier, he helped The Charlotte Observer launch Charlotte Five, which has a similar purpose: deliver five stories of news and entertainment to readers every day.

“And so the fierce competition for the 7am inbox slot has [begun],” digital marketing consultant Kseniya Martin tweeted that April morning.

Still, months later, Williams and Charlotte Five editors Corey Inscoe and Katie Toussaint say there’s no rivalry between their respective media outlets.

“I think people think it’s way more awkward than it is,” Inscoe says with a laugh.

But there’s no question these two morning newsletters, delivered to subscribers’ inboxes each weekday morning before 7 a.m., compete for attention in the same ways. Both describe themselves as “handcrafted.” Each has a website with responsive design. Each aspires to inform readers quickly with stories intended to make Charlotteans “smart,” and often they even cover similar topics on the same day. 

Both even have their own Katie on staff—Charlotte Agenda’s creative director and lead writer is Katie Levans, a popular blogger and former marketing professional. (Fans of the show The Bachelor might recognize her from season 17; she left on her own in the second episode.) 

Both newsletters also signed initial sponsorship deals with OrthoCarolina, one of the largest orthopedic practices in the country. Blair Primis, OrthoCarolina’s vice president of marketing, says the company is a big believer in new media and diversifying marketing efforts. The advertiser had ads splashed on both sites and attached to the headers of both newsletters, in addition to garnering some sponsored stories. OrthoCarolina will continue to work with Agenda through 2016, but its partnership with Charlotte Five ended in August. Primis says the company is collaborating with The Charlotte Observer, which runs C5, on other products.

The main reason the two publications are similar, of course, is that they’re after the same audience—young, engaged, and moving quickly. 

Williams: “We aim for the intelligent 30-year-old that cares about their career, [lives] inside I-485, and [is] starting to think about things in terms of buying a home, starting a family, and getting involved in the community.”

Inscoe: “What we aim for is basically young people in Charlotte—young people, mid-20s to 30s, young professionals up to 30s, early 40s. People who really want to know what’s going on in their city and who want to be connected to it.”

The similarities aren’t surprising, considering that the two publications were started by the same person.

***

WHEN I MEET WILLIAMS for the first time, he waves a hand over his trucker hat bearing the Charlotte Agenda logo—a turquoise, square speech bubble. He’s wearing a T-shirt and shorts, and he tells me he doesn’t “normally look like this.” It’s a Friday afternoon in late July, and we sit down to chat over beer and chips (he drinks beer; I eat chips) at JJ’s Red Hots in Dilworth. The 31-year-old certainly doesn’t look like any media company owner or publisher I’ve met, but I hardly expect him to be donning a suit jacket and shiny dress shoes. 

After all, his habitual sign off in his newsletter introductions is the word “Anyways.”

Williams looks like someone you’d meet up with at a brewery to play cornhole. He doesn’t laugh much during our conversation, although he seems to really consider my questions. (I look for him to drop an “anyways,” but he doesn’t. Instead, the word that seems to come up most during our hourlong chat is “bullish.”) 

He says he wrote for his college newspaper at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, but never took a journalism class. He did, however, often study in the journalism school “because it was nice.”

In 2014, Williams worked at The Charlotte Observer as director of digital strategy and new initiatives. He took the lead on bringing Charlotte Five to life in late November; reaching a younger demographic was one of the goals. He calls C5 a “lightweight starter product” that works to get people “informed as quick as possible.”

“I felt like tomorrow’s media companies are being born today, and I just wanted the freedom to race.” —Ted Williams, founder of Charlotte Agenda

Charlotte Five isn’t the first online-only platform spurred by this desire to fill a perceived gap in traditional media. Some might say C5, and subsequently Agenda, grew out of the ashes of CLT Blog, which shuttered in 2014. 

Justin Ruckman co-founded CLT Blog with Matthew Tyndall. “We definitely considered the Web to be our primary distribution,” Ruckman says. “We figured that if enough bloggers rallied together, we could get people talking about things that weren’t getting enough attention, or at least things that we, the younger, tech-savvy people, wanted.”

CLT Blog, which launched in 2008, focused on sharing stories that were unique to Charlotte (such as following the Hornets 2.0 movement), using a large pool of contributors. The blog’s content was unconventional at the time for most media: high-definition videos, live streaming, expansive photo galleries, stories told in bullet points, and features that mixed commentary with reporting. The founders were also early adopters of social media—before people even started calling it that, Ruckman says.

Eventually, mainstream media caught up, and for CLT Blog to continue to stand out, Ruckman says, it would have had to “become this big, revenue-generating business” to fund the high-quality features they wanted to do. “It was better to shut [the blog] down and let it be what it was than to make it into something it wasn’t,” says Ruckman, who now lives in Atlanta.

That model Ruckman and Tyndall were unwilling to compromise on captured a devoted following. It’s also quite similar to what Williams set up at C5, and later, Agenda.

Williams left the Observer in March. “I felt like tomorrow’s media companies are being born today, and I just wanted the freedom to race, and that was really exciting to me,” he says. A month later, he launched Charlotte Agenda, accepting that he wouldn’t be making money anytime soon. “Digital local media is a pretty bad way to make money,” he says. “I’ve set my life up to be OK with that for a long period of time. 

“This is an investment mind-set,” he continues, “just like someone invested in Vox or Buzzfeed. I think money follows audience, period.”

In an interview with Street Fight, an online magazine focused on the world of hyper-local marketing and commerce, Williams says he spent less than $10,000 in start-up costs. An exclusive launch partnership with OrthoCarolina helped fund operating costs, such as paying freelance writers, and Williams is now on the hunt for more advertising partners.

Williams says he’s been heavily influenced by Yahoo News Digest and the daily email newsletter theSkimm. “I’m a big believer in newsletters; I’m a big believer in lightweight websites that are visual.”

By lightweight, Williams means uncluttered. The Agenda website, for example, is easy on the eyes, utilizing white space and parallel lines to draw attention to its stories and keep the site neat. The newsletters, on the other hand, are text-heavy but use frequent paragraph breaks to keep readers from feeling overwhelmed by the content. Story links are boldfaced to grab attention (nine original stories for Agenda, five for Charlotte Five), and there’s also a list of headlines or talking points, linking to news from other media sources.

Each newsletter from Charlotte Five and Charlotte Agenda opens with an introduction by a staff member, written in a tone that’s meant to make you feel as though you’re sitting across from him or her at a local coffee shop.

“I think the newsletter business alone can stand on its own,” Williams says.

***

COREY INSCOE, WEARING GLASSES and a button-down shirt, looks like a serious newspaper guy—he did graduate from UNC Chapel Hill’s journalism school. The 28-year-old leans in when I ask him questions, as if he’s used to being on this side of the interview. With him is Katie Toussaint, his co-editor. During our conversation this July morning at Amelie’s French Bakery, she lets Inscoe do most of the talking. When she does chime in, between sips of a latte, it’s with the air of a confident editor. 

Together, they run Charlotte Five, which, Toussaint tells me, didn’t have a full-time focus until they came on in May. (Toussaint also works part-time in the Observer’s community news sections.)

Charlotte Five is a product of the Observer, but the only place you’ll find mention of that affiliation is a short line on the website’s About page. Inscoe and Toussaint work in the newsroom. But the young editors are essentially on their own in terms of producing and editing content, manning social media, and mapping out strategy. Jen Rothacker, the newspaper’s innovations editor, helps with that strategy, but for the most part, Inscoe and Toussaint work with freelancers to produce original stories, while also repackaging stories into smaller, bite-sized features.

They also do a lot of their own reporting, which sometimes plays out in fun ways. In one story this summer, Toussaint, 25, raced on foot and beat the new Lynx Gold Line streetcar from one end of the route to the other. The story got plenty of attention locally and nationally, especially after the website The Blaze picked it up. The City of Charlotte even followed up with an e-mail to Toussaint pointing out that her decision to not follow the walk/don’t walk signs along the route was “unsafe” and “illegal.”

A straightforward news piece sometimes isn’t enough for news organizations anymore, Toussaint says. “Writing and sharing of information is always going to be important [in] some capacity,” she says, “but there’s also this intense level of needing to connect with your audience.”

Before coming to C5, Toussaint worked as managing editor at Society Charlotte, a monthly magazine that focuses on the city’s philanthropic communities, and wrote a handful of freelance stories for Agenda. She says she never saw herself working for a newspaper. “What appealed to me about Charlotte Five is that it was the first thing that got me excited about news again after journalism school [at the University of Richmond in Virginia],” she says.

Inscoe agrees. He covered community news and high school sports for the Observer before taking the job with C5. 

Charlotte’s attraction to the two newsletters makes sense; it has long been known as a city that likes and tries new things. Often, that progress has come at the expense of historical institutions. 

Ed Williams, a longtime journalist who worked as the editor of the editorial pages at The Charlotte Observer for 25 years, is an institution of his own. Although he retired from the paper in 2008, Williams (no relation to Ted) remains an avid media consumer and subscribes to both C5 and Agenda. He says they bring him new information about a city he knows very well. But he doesn’t believe they can take the place of the daily newspaper.

“I think they may be reaching people who are looking for additional sources with quick information or maybe who don’t read the newspaper at all,” he says. “The thing they have in common is that they’re quick reads.”

This Williams doesn’t turn to either for serious journalism or what he calls “matters of public importance.” He sees C5 and Agenda as purveyors of “matters of public interest.” For example, the most popular story in Charlotte Agenda’s short history, in terms of page-views, is a food-related piece: “Charlotte’s top 11 dive restaurants. The American comfort food edition.”

And that’s OK, Ed Williams says. Online operations don’t have a “moral obligation” to do more than that. It’s the reader’s responsibility to consume a range of media. Otherwise, he explains, “You’re going to be malnourished … like eating nothing but Twinkies.”

That perception is on the minds of the folks at C5 and Agenda. Inscoe talks at length about making sure C5 maintains a good mix of the lighthearted with the serious news pieces. 

“The big thing for us is, we want to keep a newsy focus,” he says. “We have a lot of entertainment-based stories, a lot of profile-type stories, very featurey stories that are great and tell people what to do and who to know and things like that. And those are great. My goal with Charlotte Five is, I want it to still have that news every morning, too.”

That attention to serious news was what helped differentiate C5 from Agenda in its early days. But things have since changed.

Agenda is getting more serious, too. In August, Ted Williams announced the addition of an editor-in-chief, Andrew Dunn, who worked at the Observer for almost four years covering, among other things, education and finance. Dunn, who in college was editor-in-chief of the Daily Tar Heel, the UNC student newspaper, is “responsible for transitioning Charlotte Agenda into the newsroom of the future,” Williams wrote in his morning newsletter that announced the hiring. Until then, Charlotte Agenda’s full-time team consisted of only Williams and Levans, who contributed to C5 before Agenda launched. 

In his first Agenda column, Dunn waxed nostalgic about old-school journalist traditions, such as reporter notebooks and pizza on election night. He said he believes “in news that makes you smarter ... that solves a problem for you or answers a question ... that forces our city to become a better place.” He also poked fun at Williams’s writing skills: “Ted desperately needs help with his spelling and grammar.” 

Critics will certainly appreciate the newfound attention to editing. Over the summer, an unnamed person created a parody Instagram account called “Charlotte Agenda Editor,” with a bio that read: “Striving to help the writers of Charlotte Agenda do better work. Hell, it’s a full time job!”

***

IT'S BEEN ONLY a few months since Charlotte Five and Charlotte Agenda started battling for readers’ attention every weekday morning. In that short time, they’ve at least shaken up the Charlotte news scene. But is this the future of journalism?

A study earlier this year by The Media Insight Project found that only 45 percent of millennials regularly follow five or more “hard news” topics. So for readers who might not care yet about who’s running for local office or what happened at Duke Energy’s annual shareholders’ meeting, many of the stories Charlotte five and Charlotte Agenda have run in their first months are useful. 

Although both publications strive to tell readers what they need to know that day, many stories could actually be read tomorrow or yesterday. Take “The 8 Worst Parking Lots in Charlotte,” for example, published by Charlotte Five last December: It’s an engaging read, but certainly not something you couldn’t live without knowing that chilly day in December.

“I think you age into local news,” Ted Williams says. “I think if you’re under 25, you’re just looking to drink beer and make out. But I think as you get older, you start to make decisions that are inherently local—finding a job, where to live, if you’re going to have children, putting down roots, wanting to get involved in the city.”

To connect with those people, the two newsletters are taking a far different approach from news organizations of the past: light features that feel useful and fun. And maybe that’s the way to connect with an audience that’s not interested in a daily newspaper or other local media.

Ed Williams, the veteran journalist and subscriber to both newsletters, is more concerned about what that approach says about the audience than he is with what it says about the people delivering it.

“Online, you can choose only those things that appeal to you, and I’m afraid that’s going to influence the people that are providing that information. That’s just not enough,” Williams says. “We may be creating a society in which more people are willfully ignorant of important things, and that’s kind of sad.”

Kimberly Lawson is a freelance writer, editor, and pen hoarder who once called Charlotte home. Before moving back to her hometown of Augusta, Georgia, she worked as the editor of Creative Loafing, Charlotte’s alternative weekly newspaper. She can be reached at kimberlyvlawson@gmail.com or on Twitter: @kimlawson22.


This article appears in the November 2015 issue of Charlotte Magazine

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