A peek inside the Ledger’s command center(s)
We're a nimble and fast-moving operation that makes many snap judgments on what information to share.
On Thursdays in March, The Ledger is marking its 4th birthday by taking readers behind the scenes of our operation. Today, we are examining how we decide what news to pursue and to put into our newsletters.
Everything old is new again: Yes, the way we deliver local news may be changing, but we believe our readers crave old-school journalistic principles. Here’s how we do it.
THE NEW MEDIA ‘NEWSROOM’: The Ledger’s three full-timers, Tony Mecia, Cristina Bolling and Lindsey Banks, work out of our respective home ‘bureaus’ in Cotswold, Ballantyne and NoDa.
by Cristina Bolling
The email came over at 1:39 p.m. on Monday, and it got right to the point: “Someone texted me, Parks Helms died over the weekend?”
The tipster was veteran Charlotte journalist and frequent Ledger contributor Ken Garfield, who has tentacles all over the city. He was alerting us to the death of a longtime Democratic Charlotte politician Parks Helms.
Tony Mecia, my colleague and the executive editor of The Ledger, saw the email first, and from his living room in Cotswold texted me in my basement office in Ballantyne: “Parks Helms dead. HBN? … 16 years as a commissioner. 10 in NC House.”
We hopped on a quick phone call and decided that our readers, many of whom are longtime Charlotteans and are familiar with Helms, would want to know. And then the scramble began.
“HBN” is our internal Ledger shorthand for “Hot Breaking News” — email blasts we send to our subscriber list when there’s big news we think our readers will want to know right away. We didn’t have the news confirmed, but in our experience, tips like these are rarely inaccurate — but we needed to be sure.
Tony started calling Democratic leaders and county officials to confirm that Helms, one of Charlotte’s most recognizable politicians from the 1970s through the early 2000s, had indeed died. They hadn’t heard anything.
Meanwhile, I called another Ledger freelancer, former Charlotte Observer political reporter Jim Morrill, to ask if he’d want to write the story for us. When Jim didn’t answer, I texted him and then started quickly typing up what journalists refer to as “B-matter” — background on Helms I pulled online from old news stories and credible websites.
Before long, Jim called back. He would do the story. “Send me what you’ve got,” he instructed. I sent him my B-matter.
In less than an hour, he’d confirmed the death with Helms’ daughter, melded his paragraphs into mine and emailed me the new version. At 4:10, I hit “send,” and it was sailing into the inboxes of our 17,000-plus readers.
Jim later told me that he’d learned through Google that Parks Helms’ real name was Harold Helms. He looked up the voter registration information for Helms and his wife, Eleanor, which listed an address at a Matthews retirement community. He called the community, and they connected Jim to the Helms’ residence, where he spoke to their daughter.
“Just like old times at the O!” Jim said over email.
I write all this not to toot our horns on how we cover breaking news — media organizations do this all day, every day, and Tony, Jim, Ken and I have probably written hundreds of breaking news stories in our careers. There was nothing particularly groundbreaking about the way that we shared the news of Helms’ death.
We have designated this month, though, as “Charlotte Ledger Month,” in which we’re providing readers with an inside look at some of the hows and whys of the Ledger’s operation. We believe in transparency, and we think readers might like to learn how we decide what information and stories we bring to you.
“Differentiated content” — why we rarely show up at press conferences: There’s a snoozy phrase in the news business for what we do at The Ledger: Differentiated content. It’s one of our hallmarks, and a better way to say it is this — we won’t waste our time, or yours, reporting and writing articles just like ones you’ll read elsewhere. For a subscription publication, it would be unwise for us to offer our readers the same information they can access elsewhere for free. And we’re not big on following the pack anyway: We’re curious people who are interested in sharing original news and insights.
Our team of three full-time journalists and our stock of talented freelancers are on the constant lookout for trends, people and ways of telling stories that no other media outlets can. We’ve found that if you have your ear to the ground, the original stories simply surface.
In our Monday morning weekly planning Zoom call, Tony, reporter Lindsey Banks and I ask each other: What are people talking about this week? If it’s a story that’s in the news cycle, the next question is: How can we do it differently, and better, for our readers?
Often, our articles wind up being picked up (and copied) by other media. Sometimes they acknowledge that they gleaned the information from The Ledger, and sometimes they don’t — in effect using us as a tip sheet to go re-report stories they learned about from us. (We find that annoying and impolite, but that’s the way it goes.) The Ledger, on the other hand, doesn’t do that — we’ll just link to credible information sources rather than developing yet another version of the same story. We prefer to deploy our resources toward fresh, original information.
Ledger staffers meet virtually on Monday mornings to discuss the plan for the week — which is often adjusted on the fly as news happens.
Like other media in town, we get invited to a lot of press conferences. We get gobs of press releases every day, but if we go, or write them up, it’ll usually be to get access to someone we need to talk to for an original story, or to pursue an angle others won’t.
One example: When the airport hosted a media gathering recently to show off its restaurant offerings, we let other news outlets take pretty food photos and write up lists of new eateries, while we used the event as a chance to chat up restauranteurs and airport executives for a story about the strategy behind airport restaurants.
The “WHOA” test: In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, readers tell us they find our delivery method refreshing. Our newsletters come in on a predictable schedule, with a beginning, middle and end that tells them what they need to know and lets them move on with their day.
But sometimes, big news happens, and we need to decide whether to send a special email, or what we call “Hot Breaking News.” We’re cautious about this, because we find it annoying when other media assault our inboxes with “news alerts” about new restaurant openings or events that happened days ago. Rather than send out five “breaking news” blasts a day, we send out more like two a month.
So how do we decide when to send out breaking news? Sometimes the call is easy, like when a jury renders a verdict in a high-profile court case we’re covering, or a well-known community leader dies. But sometimes, Tony and I have to talk it through to decide.
One indicator we rely on: Does it make one of us say “WHOA”? If so, we’ll probably scrap whatever we’re working on at the moment and the news will be on its way to you shortly. When we’re on the fence, we’ll often use Tony’s catchphrase: “When in doubt, blast it out.”
“Brief it”: We end each Ledger newsletter with an “In brief” section, which is a collection of summarized stories and links to other media that keep you abreast of the big news of the day.
It’s one of the keys that allows us to write the unique stories that are our trademark — we don’t have to spend time covering the main topic of the city council meeting, or send a reporter to the stadium to write about a change in Panthers leadership. We know other media will do a capable job of that.
We know you want to read about those things, though, so when we know others will cover a story, we typically say, “Let’s brief it.”
“What hat are you wearing?” Anyone who’s ever worked in a small operation knows that you wear many hats. On any given day at The Ledger, our hats change all day long.
Lindsey, our newest staffer and a recent college grad, is often a reporter in the morning and a podcast producer in the afternoon, with a quick break in between to design a logo.
Tony juggles journalism and a million publisher duties, and we’re both constantly transforming between being writers, editors, event planners, marketers, customer service representatives and strategists.
We’re lucky to have a talented group of folks around us who also wear many hats and support our operation, from our on-the-ball administrative team to our stable of experienced freelancers — many of whom we worked alongside in our former roles at the Charlotte Observer.
Being a new media company is thrilling, creative, often tiring work. We’re bolstered by our relationships with you, our readers, and are grateful to those who pay to read us, which is how we stay in business and keep growing.
We see our role as carrying on the traditions of Jim Morrill’s “old-times” gumshoe reporting and editorial sensibility to Charlotte’s local media scene. So in the interest of transparency, how are we doing? And what do you want to see out of The Ledger? We invite you to let us know.
Cristina Bolling is managing editor of The Ledger. She worked at the Associated Press and the Charlotte Observer before joining The Ledger. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to help support The Ledger in its mission of delivering smart and essential news to Charlotte? Here are some ideas.
Related Ledger articles:
“Local news: after turmoil, rays of hope” (March 16)
“Unfrozen caveman journalist: How The Charlotte Ledger evolved from an idea into a legit and growing small business” (March 9)
“Why I started The Ledger” (by Tony, March 10, 2020)
“Why I joined The Ledger” (by Cristina, April 19, 2020)
“The future of Charlotte media is digital and niche” (Nov. 15, 2019)
🎧 Ledger origin story podcast: Listen to Tony and Cristina discuss building The Charlotte Ledger in a recent episode of The Charlotte Ledger Podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other major podcast platforms.