Celebrating five years in the digital world

Charlotte skyline top, Catawba County rural below. Catawba photo Nancy Pierce

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Consider it a victory for the digital natives.

When the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute was first considering creating a public policy journal focusing on the Charlotte region, our thinking was old school: Recruit talent from across the institute, university and region, and provide a quarterly print journal for them to share expertise and insights with policy makers and citizens throughout the region.  There is a great tradition of university-based policy journals across the U.S., and we saw no reason why the Charlotte region shouldn’t have the benefit of one.  And what better entity to provide such a service than the institute, UNC Charlotte’s oldest and most established research center?

But as we strategized, some of our younger staff members were shaking their heads. Why on earth would anyone consider a print journal when the web had emerged as a mature medium for sharing information, and traditional print media were already in the throes of an identity crisis?

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Total number of articles in 5 years: 803 

Total number of photo galleries in 5 years: 41 

Total number of maps in 5 years: 108 

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Even more prescient, though, was the growing awareness among these recent graduates and graduate assistants of the potential for social media to permit targeted sharing of content among readers.  After all, this was back in 2008—Facebook was only four years old, Twitter two—and if any of us was even aware of these new online networks, we likely dismissed them as little more than sophisticated chat rooms for young adults.

Fortunately, the institute has always fostered a culture of innovation and of valuing the ideas of junior staff.  The more we listened, the more they convinced us that not only should a public policy journal be delivered online, it should also be designed to take advantage of the sharing potential of emerging social media platforms.

That last suggestion was important to our early success.  Even after we agreed to go online with our content, the most familiar format for those of us used to print was that of a virtual magazine—one that looked and functioned like the real thing, only you turned the pages with the click of a mouse instead of the flip of a hand.  No isolating and sharing content, such as a favorite article, as we do today on social media.

So in August 2010 we launched a redesigned website for the institute that functioned less like an online source for our contact information and more like the public policy journal we had originally envisioned a few years before.  And while it seems commonplace today, our design was innovative at the time for its use of social media tools to encourage sharing among like-minded readers.  The result was that the reach of our articles and content exceeded our expectations—sometimes even being picked up by national online outlets.

Our content has been varied and always timely for people who care about the Charlotte region.  We offer analysis and commentary on the big issues facing the region, always grounded in research, as befits a university-based journal, but written in a less technical and more accessible manner for the public we serve.   We’ve used new technologies to enhance our content with interactive maps and photo galleries, and have interspersed the technical stuff with histories and reflections on the region’s cultural and natural heritage as a way to foster a greater appreciation of the people and places that our policy decisions are intended to serve.

In the five years since the launch of the institute’s new website, we’ve added a package of interactive data visualizations, the Regional Indicators Project, launched in summer 2011. And we also added a nationally renowned journalist to the team to help us elevate the quality of our content and expand our offerings.  Long-time Charlotte Observer associate editor Mary Newsom had been spending considerable time thinking about the potential an online journal might play in informing policy issues.  After a year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Mary returned to Charlotte with some innovative ideas about how nonprofit and university-based journals could fill a void being left by traditional print media in informing the public about critical public policy issues.

Since her arrival in 2011, Mary has enhanced the institute’s content and added an additional web portal, PlanCharlotte.org, to address in a more targeted fashion issues related to urban growth, land use planning and the environment.  Mary and her team understand that written analysis and commentary alone, important as they are, are only gateways to the public’s grasp of critical policy issues. They have worked hard to make sure our online communications are more than a collection of articles each week.  By developing well-attended programs on urban design and the environment, and through civic engagement initiatives such as the annual Jane’s Walks and the three-year Keeping Watch initiative (a collaboration with the university’s College of Arts + Architecture), she has used our website as a platform to stimulate and engage the public in real-world dialog around key issues.

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2011: Charlotte Regional Indicators Project launches

2012: PlanCharlotte.org launches

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As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of our experiment in delivering a quality, university-based, online journal, we’re already exploring new ways to present the data and stories that give meaning and understanding to issues that shape our quality of life.  And as we roll out some of those new features in the months and years ahead, you can be certain that many of them originated with our younger staff. While our mission of service and outreach remains remarkably consistent with that of our founding in 1969, and we continue to be blessed with a team of veteran researchers and writers, a culture of innovation continues to inform how the institute disseminates that work.

Thanks to all our contributors, readers, and, yes, those digital natives who have kept our mission alive and relevant in this era of online communications. 


Jeff Michael is director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.

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