Mary Newsom retiring as Director of Urban Policy Initiatives

When Mary Newsom retired as the institute’s Director of Urban Policy Initiatives on October 1, not only did the institute lose a trusted and respected colleague of seven years, but the Charlotte region lost one of its most important journalistic voices for quality planning, urban design and the value of public engagement to inform public policy.

Mary joined the institute in 2011 after a distinguished career in journalism, familiar to many in the region for her decades as both a writer and editor for The Charlotte Observer.  It was a pioneering move on Mary’s part – as were so many things she did throughout her career – leaving the comfortable environs of the newsroom for an experiment in bridging academic research with journalism as a means to enhance the public’s understanding of local policy issues. 

At the time Mary came to UNC Charlotte, the institute had recently invested in transforming its website from a more traditional “electronic brochure” about its work, to a more dynamic and journalistic platform, with regular content about regional issues such as land use, demographic change, economic policy and the protection of the region’s natural and cultural heritage.  The “art of translation” had always been part of the institute’s mission – making data and academic research more accessible to the residents of the Charlotte region – and with the internet and social media dramatically altering how the public receives information, the institute’s website was a natural place to expand its dissemination role. 

Mary Newsom, on the left, circa 2006 with the Charlotte Observer editorial board.
Mary Newsom, on the left, circa 2006 with the Charlotte Observer editorial board. Photo: The Charlotte Observer

The institute’s revamped website was launched in August of 2010, but from the beginning it felt as if we had built a sleek, new vessel without a skilled captain to lead us through the uncharted waters of what our friend Ferrel Guillory, Director of the Program in Public Life at UNC’s School of Media and Journalism, recently called the “convergence of journalism and think-tanking.”  Guillory used that term in reference to the highly-regarded work of EducationNC in Raleigh, but he could just as easily have been talking about the institute’s experiment with web-based journalism in 2010.

Fortunately for us, at the same time we were conceptualizing the redesign of our website, Mary was thinking seriously about the future of journalism herself during a year sabbatical from the Observer as a Nieman Fellow at the prestigious Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.  Mary was interested in the challenges faced by local newspapers to sustain their in-depth coverage of niche issues such as land use and urban design – issues that she herself had championed for many years as an editorial writer, op-ed columnist and blogger – in the face of a declining business model overly dependent on advertising. 

Mary was intrigued by the potential role that non-profit think tanks and university policy centers might play to fill that void.  With their commitment to objective research, many of these centers and institutes were frequently called upon by journalists for their insights on important policy issues.  As an associate editor at the Observer, Mary had even partnered with the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute to bring a nationally-respected team of policy experts led by urban writer Neal Peirce to Charlotte in 1995 (and again in 2008) to report on growth and leadership challenges facing the Charlotte region at the dawn of the 21st century. 

After Mary joined the institute in 2011, she quickly set about establishing new journalistic standards, elevating the quality of our online content to match that of our research.  She introduced the AP Stylebook to a team of researchers who knew little about the craft of article writing. If they knew anything at all, it came from Strunk & White in 9th grade English class, or in graduate school.

But Mary didn’t come to the institute just to be an editor.  She understood that universities serve as centers for the exchange of ideas, and her job as Director of Urban Policy Initiatives was to seek out those ideas, and then convince the people behind them to bring their research and insights out of the ivory tower and share them with the public in more accessible forms.  She created a companion website to the institute’s main website (PlanCharlotte.org) to fill the journalistic void she felt existed around urban policy issues.

Mary was also comfortable doing the uncomfortable – pushing the rest of us at the institute to go beyond the comfort zones we had built around our respected disciplines and fields of expertise.  A good example was the Keeping Watch initiative, a partnership with the university’s College of Arts + Architecture, which brought the institute’s researchers together with artists to raise awareness about regional environmental issues using research, art and storytelling.

Throughout her career, first as a journalist and then as an academic, Mary’s primary focus was always on the people and communities who were impacted by the policy decisions that the Observer’s articles, and the Institute’s research, were intended to inform. 

It’s fitting that one of her most enduring legacies here at the institute are the popular City Walks tours, where every spring people explore Charlotte’s neighborhoods by foot or bike, learning more about those neighborhoods’ unique histories and characteristics.  Inspired by the writings and activism of one of Mary’s heroes, the 20th century urbanist Jane Jacobs, the City Walks tours embody so much of what Mary’s own career was about:  the power of storytelling, information-sharing and creativity to inspire better communities.