Emblems of Change in a Southern City
A quarter of the largest metro areas in the country are now majority-minority cities, with a greater percentage of ethnic and minority populations than non-Hispanic white residents. Charlotte, with 873,000 residents, is the largest city in North Carolina and one of the largest in the South. It is also a majority-minority city, home to the state’s largest population of African Americans and Latinos. While the number of white Charlotte residents fell to 42 percent from 65 percent over the past three decades, the Hispanic population has jumped from 1 percent in 1990 to 14 percent today. African Americans make up about a third of the population, up slightly during the same period. These demographic changes present new challenges and opportunities for Charlotte’s ethnic media – eight newspapers and two digital outlets – that speak for and to communities often underserved, overlooked or left behind by traditional media. UNC Research Assistant Jeremiah Murphy explores how three publishers approach their mission and their role in shaping discussion of the important issues affecting their community.
The Charlotte Post
Charlotte Post publisher Gerald Johnson was initially reluctant to get involved with the newspaper his father, Bill, bought in 1974. But in 1986, Bill Johnson was fighting acute leukemia and asked Gerald, who already had a career developing software, to take over the business. Not fully understanding the severity of his father’s condition, Gerald initially resisted. But Bill insisted, and today Gerald runs the weekly newspaper with his brother Robert, working to sustain a publication that was a prime news source for African Americans in Charlotte in the era of segregation, civil rights and the school busing controversy in the city that made national headlines in the 1970s.
Thirty-four years later, the Post is still providing local news for Charlotte and the five-county surrounding area. Its readers are older, median age 47, and with an average household income of $94,000 a year. Half have a college degree or higher. Gerald Johnson says the Post’s print circulation of 15,000 today is at about half what it was at its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The online edition has slightly more than 7,000 subscribers, who pay $20 a year for access. Where once the Post employed 38 people in the newsroom, it’s now half that size at 19, Johnson says. But that’s not surprising. By comparison, The Charlotte Observer, the largest newspaper in the state, had more than 250 in its newsroom at its peak in the 1990s, but is now down to fewer than 50.
The Charlotte Post has been a mainstay in the Black community since the latter part of the 19th century and is dealing with the same problems facing other newspapers – changing reader habits and the loss of print advertising. A survey years ago showed that African Americans considered the Post as “the most trusted and reliable source” for them in the market, Johnson says. “But now I can’t say that,” because it’s harder to find African American readers. “We knew the zip codes that they were in,” he says. “Today that’s impossible to do, because African Americans are everywhere in the city now, so it’s just more difficult to locate them.” And younger readers aren’t wedded to the print edition. The Post’s website has about 45,000 unique visitors a month, and many of the paper’s articles appear first online before they appear in the print newspaper, which is distributed every Thursday. “It got us a lot more eyeballs than we could ever reach with print,” Johnson says.
But the trend toward digital presents the same problem for The Charlotte Post as for other newspapers. Ninety percent of revenue still comes from print and just 10 percent from digital and other sources, he says. Circulation also fell after the 2008 recession, causing advertisers to pull back across the board, especially automobile, tobacco and alcohol advertisers. “Automotive is beginning to come back,” he says, but his current advertising is primarily from the financial and health care industries. Health care ads are now 20 percent of the Post’s total ad revenue, and automotive represents 12 percent.
While most revenue still comes from print, production of the print paper is also the biggest expense. To boost revenue, the Post has increased prices, raising the single-copy price by 50 percent, to $1.50, and the subscription price by a similar amount, to $65 a year, including the e-edition. “It’s doing well, doing a lot better than I thought it would,” Johnson says. The Post is also experimenting with the ways to earn revenue with its digital edition, social media, podcasts and articles sold through Apple News. As for print, the Post will continue it for now, but “ultimately, it will disappear,” Johnson says. “If we plan on being here any longer, we’re going to have to change.”
Glenn Burkins was a deputy managing editor at The Charlotte Observer in 2008 when he began noticing a number of sites springing up around the country offering hyperlocal news pitched toward specific neighborhoods and populations. “But I didn’t see any serving the African American community,” he says. “I was concerned the African American community would be left behind in this trend.”
Curious whether Charlotte could sustain a hyperlocal news site aimed at a Black audience, Burkins, at age 47, left his job at the Observer and, using personal savings, started Qcitymetro. (The Q stands for Queen, because Charlotte considers itself the Queen City.) “Call it a midlife crisis if you will,” he says of his decision. Twelve years later, the web-only outlet features daily stories, social media content and “Morning Brew,” a daily e-mail.
Burkins brings 34 years in the newspaper industry to the job, including work at The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He is a former international and White House correspondent for Knight Ridder newspapers and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and was at The Charlotte Observer for 14 years. While The Charlotte Post pays attention to hard news and appeals more to an older audience, “we are more event-oriented,” Burkins says. “We aim for a younger audience than the Post.” Qcitymetro has about 75,000 unique visitors a month, Burkins says, with half of Qcitymetro’s audience under 40 years of age. Slightly more than a third have college degrees and make more than $80,000 annually.
Qcitymetro doesn’t require a subscription to access the content on the website. Instead, Burkins asks people to buy memberships, which range from $5 a month to $80 for two years. Members receive priority tickets for events, such as an author lecture, or entry into a drawing for a traveling Broadway show. “We don’t do the T-shirts and mug things. We’re much more into offering them experiences,” he says.
Burkins says that Qcitymetro’s direct engagement with the community is crucial to maintaining readership. “We’re not just some organization inside a computer. We show up at community events. We’re there,” he says. Qcitymetro has received a $125,000 grant from the Knight Foundation as part of an effort to expand media coverage in Charlotte’s West End neighborhood, which was formerly a mostly African American community that is gentrifying. While this project has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Burkins says it might spur him to add a neighborhood print publication.
Other income comes from display ads, sponsored content and job postings. Qcitymetro’s two main expenses are technology and staff — two full-time employees and roughly 10 freelancers. Burkins says “about 70 percent of our readers come from mobile devices. Whether it’s Candy Crush or Solitaire or CNN or Facebook or Charlotte Observer, we’re competing for screen time.”
Burkins would like to add more hard news to his pages, “but hard news reporters cost money.“ Nevertheless, he believes “Black media is moving in the right direction,” as more hyperlocal news sites serving African Americans are being established throughout the country.
“There are always unforeseen expenses. We’re making money; we’re paying our bills,” he says, “We’re better off from where we were 10 years ago, but we’re still not where we want to be.” But he adds, “No one has figured out this business model — Black, white or otherwise.”
Hilda Gurdian started La Noticia in 1997, shortly after moving to Charlotte from Venezuela. The city was in the middle of a construction boom, which had attracted a growing population of Latino residents looking for work. She decided these new arrivals needed a news source geared to them.
Today, La Noticia has four city publications, with 73,000 print copies distributed free on Wednesdays in Raleigh, Asheville, and Greensboro, as well as Charlotte. It is also available free online. More than half of the readers of the print paper have attended or graduated from college, are 35 to 54 years old, and have annual incomes of $25,000 to $75,000, according to the newspaper’s media kit.
Readers come from several different countries with different customs and language variations. La Noticia tries to bring these cultures together by using a standard form of Spanish and avoiding idioms peculiar to one country. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, you have the same issues,” she says. “If you are low income and you cannot pay your rent, it doesn’t matter if you are from Puerto Rico or Mexico or Colombia.”
La Noticia’s focus is hyperlocal, aimed at giving people information they don’t get anywhere else. The audience includes people who have been in the country for years, as well as new arrivals. “We constantly have new immigrants coming to Charlotte,” Gurdian says. “They’re new in the community [and] have no idea how things work here. So we continue to write [about] how to adapt to the new system, the new way of life, so they can be successful.”
Like other newspaper publishers across the country, Gurdian feels pressure, mainly from the internet and the squeeze it has put on ad revenue. It used to be easier to sell advertising, Gurdian says, “just going into the businesses and talking about our readers, explaining how many people read the paper, their ages. Nowadays, it's difficult because our two main competitors, Google and Facebook, are doing many things for free. Also, our readers have more options now.”
The print newspaper still accounts for about 80 percent of revenue. Print advertising is still La Noticia’s largest source of revenue. “Eighty-five percent of our advertisers are the same people; they keep coming again year after year,” Gurdian says. “Typically, they are grocery stores or professionals, such as dentists and immigration, personal injury and family lawyers.” La Noticia also earns revenue by sponsoring events, such as LatinaCon, a conference of Latina women in politics and community service.
But Gurdian says that advertisers are increasingly interested in online ads, so she is expanding her web offerings, which have 300,000 page views a month. La Noticia is also developing a newsletter, focused on entertainment and local events, aimed at younger readers. In 2019, Google News Initiative's North America Innovation Challenge awarded La Noticia funding to develop an open-source platform for readers to submit family notices such as weddings, graduations and other celebrations. “We need to be alert and be constantly thinking about new sources of revenue to keep our operations going,” Gurdian says.
Like Burkins and Johnson, Gurdian’s main concern is how to make a profit and to keep serving her community. “If we go away, who is going to keep our audiences informed?” she says. “If they don’t have the news and information they need to make important decisions, our democracy is going to be in trouble.”