During 2003 and 2004, Michael Bills and Rick Middleton each had a vision for a new approach to protect and to build upon the distinctive character of the Charlottesville-Albemarle area.
Michael Bills, Co-Founder of Charlottesville Tomorrow
and Board Chairman 2005-2013
Michael Bills attended the University of Virginia and decided to move back to Charlottesville to raise his four children and to start an investment business based on the Downtown Mall. In doing so, Michael wished to ensure that the community he chose to live in would be even more attractive for his four children and future generations.
Rick Middleton, the founder and executive director of the Southern Environmental Law Center, had worked for decades on the environmental issues that define communities throughout the south. He could have headquartered his operations in any one of the great cities of the region, but chose Charlottesville because of its unique character.
Michael realized that the increased reliance on the internet was becoming a serious threat to local newspapers as the main source for community news and information. This realization, however, also provided the opportunity for a local organization to leverage online resources to inform the public about key quality-of-life issues in a way that would motivate them to take action.
Rick’s involvement with the myriad of issues arising from Charlottesville’s popularity and growth, made clear to him how many facts were missing from the discussion of these complex issues. He saw that his organization and many others had valuable information to contribute to these debates, but lacked a suitable local forum.
Michael and Rick started talking about how best to provide information about the key land use decisions facing Charlottesville-Albemarle. Both recognized that there were already plenty of advocates on all sides of most issues. What was missing was reliable, robust information, and an understandable way for busy people to engage in the decisions being made.
Conversations Rick and Michael had prior to the launch of Charlottesville Tomorrow involved a wide range of community leaders. Everyone recognized the need and saw how, if done well, Charlottesville Tomorrow could protect and improve our community.
However good the idea, or compelling the need, making Charlottesville Tomorrow a reality would require a talented, dedicated executive director. Rick and Michael were fortunate to find Brian Wheeler in early 2005, just as Brian was departing as Chief Information Officer at SNL Financial. Brian had long standing roots in the community and was serving his first term as a member of the Albemarle County School Board. Brian already had a history of using technology to engage school parents on education and land use issues.
These three kindred spirits met together for the first time in January 2005 and over the next eight months they planned the launch of what would become Charlottesville Tomorrow. This began as a feasibility study in February 2005, with Brian hired as a consultant and Rick generously providing office space and access to his talented team.
During February-March 2005 they developed a mission statement, decided on the name Charlottesville Tomorrow, and garnered financial support in the community. By June 2005, more than $250,000 in pledges had been secured for the first two years of operations. Equally as important, a politically diverse group of civic leaders agreed to serve as founding directors. Their reputations would be important in assuring the community that Charlottesville Tomorrow’s reporting would be robust and unbiased.
The board’s first organizational meeting took place on July 1, 2005 where Michael Bills was elected chairman and Brian Wheeler was hired as the first executive director. The distinguished group of founding directors included Renee Grisham, A.D. Hart, Steve McLean, Paula Newcomb, Terry Sieg, Mac Thompson, Cathy Train and Tony Vanderwarker.
Beyond the significant financial support provided by the founding board, another group of more than a dozen community members made significant gifts to support Charlottesville Tomorrow’s early life. This group included:
John H. Birdsall III
Terry & Courtnay Daniels
Mr. & Mrs. Charles H. Foster, Jr.
Renee & John Grisham
Jim & Kendra Hall
On September 15, 2005, at a reception at the Paramount Theater on the Charlottesville Downtown Mall, Charlottesville Tomorrow held its public launch event and formally introduced itself to the community and unveiled its website.
In remarks at the event, Brian described the new organization as follows:
Charlottesville Tomorrow is going to get the public connected personally to community issues. Public participation leads to better decisions. However, the barriers that prevent public participation are numerous. Further, these issues are so often complex and reviewed on such long time horizons that the public doesn’t always know when or how they can be most effective. Charlottesville Tomorrow is here to help.
We plan to earn a reputation as a respected voice in the community….We will be a respected voice by doing our homework. We want to help make sure all the options are on the table. We will be a respected voice by encouraging the public to draw its own conclusions as we together try and find solutions that will benefit the community as a whole.
Ten years later, everyone involved with Charlottesville Tomorrow can be very proud that we have lived up to the lofty ideals crafted by a civic minded group of community leaders and executed to great effect by a talented and dedicated team.
As we reflect on some of the notable events in our early history, we hope you see the ways Charlottesville Tomorrow has helped this community retain its distinctive character and provide for a rewarding future.
We hope it encourages, inspires, and facilitates your engagement in the important issues in our community.
Michael Bills, Rick Middleton & Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow began with a focus on quality of life issues. The community water supply, the rural countryside, quality neighborhoods and smarter transportation solutions were seen as critical issues that would benefit from an informed community consensus and action.
The initial website included an in-depth explanation of proposals related to the 50-year community water supply plan including a first-ever illustration for the public explaining both the existing drinking water supply system and proposals for the future.
Charlottesville Tomorrow was also immediately involved in sharing the positions of elected officials on these topics via a voter guide and in candidate forums.
Charlottesville Tomorrow’s first website included a local election resource center and a blog allowing for the public to comment on news stories (two-way online conversations were a new concept at the time).
During its first two months, Charlottesville Tomorrow compiled in-depth voter guides for the 2005 Albemarle Board of Supervisor elections and shared the first-ever audio podcast of a local candidate forum.
Charlottesville Tomorrow’s innovative approach to covering the water supply and local elections with blog posts and podcasts would become hallmarks of the organization’s approach. Later projects would include focus groups, public opinion polling, exhibits and the publication of research reports.
Utilizing tools of the “new media” – email newsletters, blogs and podcasts – Charlottesville Tomorrow had become one of the nation’s first nonprofit “hyperlocal” online community news platforms.
Charlottesville Tomorrow described itself as a community organization that sought to engage the public to inform their choices. Immediately after its launch, it also started engaging the local media where young journalists new to the community often used Charlottesville Tomorrow’s resources for their own stories.
The leadership at The Daily Progress newspaper was also following Charlottesville Tomorrow’s work. Mirroring national trends of shrinking revenues and editorial resources, the Daily Progress saw its news staff shrink by 40 percent between 2005 and 2009.
Managing Editor McGregor McCance approached Charlottesville Tomorrow about a potential partnership. McGregor trusted Charlottesville Tomorrow’s content, and was impressed that the coverage consistently upheld traditional journalistic values such as fairness, balance and accuracy. He also believed the content was highly credible, enhanced because Charlottesville Tomorrow did not take editorial positions on the issues it covered.
The two organizations agreed on a partnership proposal in August 2009 that would involve no money changing hands and would put Charlottesville Tomorrow’s news stories in the print newspaper on a regular basis. The in-kind benefits included access to advertising in the newspaper and a commitment to printing the voter guides Charlottesville Tomorrow produced every two years.
The news sharing partnership, the first of its kind in the nation where a nonprofit took on significant beat reporting responsibilities for a daily newspaper, elevated Charlottesville Tomorrow’s profile in the community as its information began reaching a much larger audience.
The innovative partnership also raised the Charlottesville Tomorrow’s national profile, as journalism and nonprofit trade publications began featuring the unique partnership, providing national exposure.
In 2012, Charlottesville Tomorrow became the first online member of the Virginia Press Association and an inaugural member of the Local Independent Online News (LION) publishers association. In 2014, it joined the Institute for Nonprofit News (formerly the Investigative News Network).
By the end of 2014, Charlottesville Tomorrow had published more than 1,400 stories and was responsible for more than 60 percent of the content in the newspaper on the topics it covered. The community was getting more civic media, content Charlottesville Tomorrow viewed as essential to making informed choices for a better community.
McGregor left the newspaper in 2012 for a position at the University of Virginia and he joined Charlottesville Tomorrow’s board of directors. Fortunately for both the newspaper and Charlottesville Tomorrow, the partnership has continued to thrive and benefit each.
Charlottesville Tomorrow board chair Carol Hurt with co-founders Rick Middleton (left) and Michael Bills (right)
10th anniversary celebration - May 21, 2015
Celebrating our first 10 years
Charlottesville Tomorrow has been successful because of the dedicated leadership and support provided by co-founders Michael Bills and Rick Middleton. They ensured that the board of directors and staff remained true to the vision and mission of the organization. Michael served as board chairman from 2005 to 2013 and Rick Middleton served on the board from 2005 to 2012 and both continue to support the organization financially.
Carol Hurt succeeded Michael as chair of the board in 2013 and that same year the organization added to its portfolio the coverage of public education. Charlottesville Tomorrow’s board recognized that education was another issue that affects the quality of life of a community and was suffering from poor local news coverage.
Other board members who devoted their time, energy and financial support to ensure Charlottesville Tomorrow’s success during its first decade include:
Leigh B. Middleditch, Jr.
In 2007, the staff was expanded to add Sean Tubbs as a new reporter and the second full-time employee. In 2011, Jennifer Marley was hired as the first community engagement coordinator and third full-time employee. She was succeeded by Dan Hennicke who joined the team as our community engagement and marketing specialist in 2013. Also that year, Tim Shea was hired as the first education reporter and fourth full-time employee. An internship program has provided opportunities to almost 30 college students over the first decade.
Since joining the Virginia Press Association in 2012, Charlottesville Tomorrow has been recognized with 44 awards for its journalism. In 2014, it won the news sweepstakes award for best online publication, two Best in Show awards and earned top honors for having the best website in the online division.
A timeline of Charlottesville Tomorrow's work since 2005