Crumbling Estate: A Look at Charlotte’s Local Media
Charlotte has no shortage of local media outlets. But they struggle with a problem common to journalism these days: shrunken staffs, scant budgets, and limited resources. What, and whose, stories are going untold?
In September 2021, when Rana Cash started as The Charlotte Observer’s executive editor, the city’s newspaper of record since 1886 lacked an office. Today, it operates out of The Launch Factory, a co-working space in an easy-to-miss brick building on Wilkinson Boulevard. On a warm April afternoon, Cash shows me around. Three reporters chat between their computer monitors in the open, mostly empty workspace. She points out a conference room where, the day before, the paper’s full-time staff of about 50 batted around ideas for expanding and marketing their coverage.
“We aren’t telling our own story enough about what we offer,” Cash says at her desk. The paper’s importance used to go without saying; now, it has to be articulated. From her modest office, Cash once could see the entire uptown skyline, where the Observer used to stand as Charlotte media’s undisputed center of gravity. But a new reality has set in, and an under-construction apartment complex blocks half the view.
Dozens move to the region every day, and Charlotteans old and new have more local news options than ever. Axios Charlotte, founded in 2015 as The Charlotte Agenda, sells itself as a “user’s guide” to the city. WFAE, an NPR-affiliated radio station, broadcasts local news throughout the day and, for 25 years, has aired the current affairs show Charlotte Talks. Queen City Nerve churns out alternative news every week via a print-and-online model that’s increasingly difficult to sustain.
Readers and viewers can access the Observer, the Charlotte Business Journal, a handful of local TV stations, The Charlotte Post, the Spanish-language La Noticia, and startups like QCity Metro and The Charlotte Ledger. It can seem like Charlotteans are spoiled for choice, and in some ways, we are. Since 2004, more than 2,500 newspapers nationwide have folded or merged with other papers. Even digital-media darlings like FiveThirtyEight and VICE are on the brink of closure.
But in a cataclysmic age for both legacy and new media, Charlotte’s gangbuster growth makes it hard for outlets across the spectrum, which have fractured and specialized, to cover it all. As the city’s skyline swells and media organizations shrink, what—and whose—stories are going untold? And what are the consequences?
“Frankly, a lot of what’s missing is perspective and experience,” says Tony Mecia, The Charlotte Ledger’s executive editor, “in the sense that with all the cutbacks in journalism over the last 10 or 15 years, a lot of those cuts came from people who knew this community pretty well.”
Mecia, a business reporter who left the McClatchy-owned Observer in 2009, founded the subscription-supported digital media company in 2019 with experience—and contacts. In newsrooms across town, deep Rolodexes, both literally and figuratively, are relics. Young reporters lack the know-how and who-to-call of long-timers. They must often build source lists from scratch and rely on tips and established voices—at least, until they decamp for better salaries in public relations.
A bevy of reporters at City Council meetings seems to signal a robust Fourth Estate, but breadth can obscure a lack of depth. In government coverage, “a lot of the approach now seems to be like, ‘Here’s what happened at the meeting,’” Mecia says. “There are things going on out there that you can only unearth through talking to people, knowing where to look, knowing what sort of public records are available, things like that.”
Mecia founded the Ledger as a corrective. The company publishes via Substack newsletters, a model that allows its three full-time reporters—Mecia himself, managing editor and Observer alumna Cristina Bolling, and Lindsey Banks—to serve readers, not advertisers. More than 2,500 subscribers pay $99 per year, which accounts for about 75% of the company’s revenue; the rest comes from sponsorships.
“We’re doing this for the smart people’s club,” Mecia says. “If you’re intelligent and informed—we have a lot of those types of readers. That doesn’t mean that we’re elitist. We try to write about things that appeal to our entire community.” Even so, any outlet’s audience demographics—Mecia concedes that the Ledger largely caters to the connected and affluent—can skew its reporting priorities. Most outlets, too, lack their predecessors’ capacity for in-depth investigations.
“If you spend six months on a big investigation and do a single story then, from the business point of view, you’re not going to recoup the money,” Mecia says. The Ledger and most other small media organizations focus instead on moving quickly. But Mecia still aspires to big-picture journalism.
One solution is joining forces with other organizations. The Ledger collaborates with WFAE, for example. (Nearly everyone I spoke to for this story said their partnerships with other news organizations are essential to maximizing their coverage.) Other times, Mecia says, it’s just a matter of knowing where to look and who to talk to.
Small day-to-day decisions keep the focus on accountability journalism, he says, instead of “just rewriting press releases and cataloguing restaurant openings.”
In fall 2021, a City Council member recommended to David Hodges, an investigative reporter for WBTV, that he get in touch with Brian Williams, an infuriated rider of Charlotte Area Transit System buses. Williams had bombarded council members with emails about the buses’ many failures to show up. So Hodges tagged along on Williams’ maddening commute and began to investigate why CATS was failing to provide reliable service. His first story aired in February 2022.
“I’m interested in what has an impact to our viewers. What can I report on that can change the situation for someone who has nowhere else to turn?” Hodges says. At 33 and with four years in the newsroom, he’s one of the most experienced reporters on staff. When he decides what to cover, “I’m really looking to see where we can speak for people who don’t have a voice and don’t have a means to make something change.”
Journalists like to talk about holding power to account—“We will always be here to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” Cash says—but it’s a vague objective that can be difficult to pin down in practice.
Afflicting the comfortable becomes a slippery business when the comfortable hold the cash. In 2022, Cox Enterprises, a $19.2 billion media conglomerate, bought Axios. McClatchy is owned by New Jersey hedge fund Chatham Asset Management. The fund valued McClatchy at more than $300 million—yet Cash stresses the importance of local philanthropy to sustain the Observer’s work. The local philanthropists with the deepest pockets are likely not keen to bankroll their own affliction.
The Observer, in the nation’s second-largest banking hub, has a nominal banking beat, but the city lacks comprehensive coverage of big business and rarely exposes corporate malfeasance. (Deon Roberts, who covered banking for the Observer from 2013 to 2019, left to run communications for Brighthouse Financial.) “There are not that many people paying attention to what our biggest companies are doing,” Mecia says, “to say nothing of what our smaller companies are doing.” Another blind spot is the multibillion-dollar business of sports, a major driver of development.
An issue that did get traction was the startling revelation that corporate investors purchased 25% of homes for sale in Charlotte in 2021. (This news was the product not of a local investigation but a Washington Post analysis.) Local media and even The New York Times picked up the story—to little effect. Investors continue to snap up homes, which contributes to a housing affordability problem that’s worsened despite consistent coverage. For short-staffed and cash-strapped outlets, it’s harder to root out causes than report on effects, and harder still to galvanize their niche audiences into action.
Comforting the afflicted is an easier sell and goes hand in hand with a widespread push to diversify newsrooms and coverage communities. The Observer—under the leadership of Cash, the paper’s first Black editor—recently created a race and equity beat. The paper also launched a “mobile newsroom”; a few reporters work out of a public library in an underserved area and make themselves available to community members. So far, the mobile newsroom has set up in Hidden Valley and the Beatties Ford corridor, and yielded stories on displaced seniors, bridging the digital divide, and a violence-interruption program.
“As much as we’re attempting to cover and serve communities of color,” echoes WFAE CEO Ju-Don Marshall, “I think there are enormous gaps in looking at the issues that are impacting us all and thinking about the additional lens of equity, economic mobility, social capital, growth, and development.”
Marshall graduated from chief content officer to the top spot in April. She replaced Joe O’Connor, who stepped down in March after eight years of ambitious growth but internal turmoil and mismanagement. (Full disclosure: I worked at WFAE from 2015 until 2017.) When she reflects on the failures of local media coverage, she moves from underserved communities to beats she’d like to see more of, including business and government, all the way down to the most basic kind of civic engagement. When WFAE conducts audience surveys, she says, many respondents express a desire to understand how the city works—the roles and responsibilities of public agencies and elected officials, for example, or how the government is spending tax revenue.
“There’s not as much of that fundamental reporting going into helping people understand the basics, outside the issues that are presenting themselves or cropping up,” she says. “Fundamentally, are we all at the same starting point in understanding how this all works?”
We’re not—and the city’s most powerful institutions, governmental or not, don’t make it easier. Armed with their preferred narratives and their own means to disseminate them—websites, blogs, and social media—they have little incentive to cooperate with traditional media. “If I’m in government and I’m up to no good or I don’t want to explain myself,” Mecia says, “there’s nobody really with the size and the power to demand that.”
In March, Hodges, in collaboration with Axios’ Danielle Chemtob, published a report about the city government’s failure to cooperate with reporters. They point out that police Chief Johnny Jennings stopped giving regular press conferences last year, the city’s press liaisons often don’t grant interviews, and records requests remain backlogged, to the public’s detriment. In 2021, for example, after a water main on Remount Road broke, the city failed to immediately issue a boil-water advisory. In Axios’ trademarked Smart Brevity style, the pair indicate “why it matters”: “When government isn’t transparent with us, the public is in the dark, too.”
On May 21, 2022, a LYNX Blue Line train derailed near South Boulevard, between the Scaleybark and Woodlawn light rail stations, thanks to a faulty axle bearing. All 44 trains in the CATS fleet have the flaw; two more trains derailed in CATS railyards last autumn. Hodges had submitted a public records request that would have revealed the initial derailment, but CATS failed to respond. The public and, more alarmingly, city leaders didn’t find out until March, just shy of a year later.
Not that City Council members were on top of matters otherwise. Last July, Hodges published a blockbuster installment in his investigation: “A private company runs CATS bus operations. Charlotte leaders didn’t know that until this story.” Council members didn’t know that a company called RATP Dev runs the bus system, under a contract the council approved in February 2019.
Hodges has investigated CATS for more than year (though he’s quick to credit colleagues at other outlets, like WFAE’s Steve Harrison), and it’s paid off: “Since October,” he says, “the CATS CEO, CFO, and COO have all left the city.” His accomplishment is increasingly rare—an unassailable instance of holding power to account. “To be very clear,” he goes on, “I do not do this as a headhunting mission or with any desire to see people lose their jobs. We do this because we want to see positive change that impacts people.”
Cities once crawled with reporters, like Hodges, who competed with each other for scoops. But journalism is still a young person’s game, the pay is still scant, and Charlotte is only getting more expensive. For those who can afford it, our small-town big city is often a stop on the way to a bigger market. But Hodges plans to stay—he recently renewed his contract with WBTV.
“In Charlotte, I have found a place that is receptive to good reporting,” he says, and he believes that despite the obstacles, he can continue to investigate issues that matter. Then he adds something that calls to mind the apartment building going up between uptown and the Observer offices.
“One of the challenges is that there are so many new people moving here,” he says. “When does it start feeling like home for those new people and they start really caring about what’s being reported at the local level?”
Allison Braden is a contributing editor.