Speaking Truth to Power

Armed with a keyboard and an audience, Mary Newsom is doing her damnedest to coax Charlotte to grow better

Mary Newsom found her niche in 1995, writing about planning and development for The Charlotte Observer just as a wave of growth was taking off here, and she's been a smart, fearless voice on the newspaper's editorial page ever since. Taking stands against the construction of I-485 as well as sprawl-inducing zoning policies, Newsom quickly raised the ire of powerful development interests, who launched a full-scale public-relations offensive. Still, she says, she never felt intimidated.

"I just always felt like, if what I wrote was accurate and true, I'd be fine," she says matter-of-factly. "What are they going to do to me?"

In fact, she seems to have earned the respect of people in high places. She recently wrote a column challenging Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers to push green energy policies here. Instead of dismissing her as a presumptuous newspaper gnat, the head of the $53 billion corporation e-mailed her, saying that he wanted to know more about what she meant. So they met for coffee.

Newsom does fear, however, that the economic forces buffeting the news industry now will threaten journalists' ability in the future to challenge those with power.

"I hope that people understand the importance of having an independent news-gathering organization -- whatever form that takes," says Newsom. "We need people who can ask questions -- whether it's about [former United Way CEO] Gloria Pace King's pay, or what the banks are doing, or local development -- with confidence."

The veteran journalist embraced the new media in 2005, when she launched a blog on growth, urban design, and related topics called The Naked City.

"As a journalist, you have to be a bit of an entrepreneur these days," she says. "I figured most people wouldn't be that interested in a blog about growth, but if I put the word 'naked' in the name they might at least click on it once."

Big Idea

Scrap the entire city zoning code and rewrite it to more directly encourage compact, urban development. "The way the zoning code is written now, the default is always to a suburban style of development, which is not appropriate for a city the size of Charlotte," says Newsom.

Categories: Feature, The Buzz