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Charlotte Viewpoint: A History

by Michael J. Solender

Charlotte Viewpoint: A History

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Picture by Chris Cureton

August 30, 2012

An embodiment of free speech, Speakers Corner in London’s Hyde Park draws citizens ready to exchange ideas on issues shaping the community and the world. There is something special about coming together to participate in civic discourse that is communicated with flair. Engaging in such dialogue helps individuals better formulate their own opinions and appreciate those of their neighbors.

Few things in metropolitan life are as satisfying as sharing perspectives in ways that inform and entertain. Charlotte Viewpoint does all that and more as the Speaker’s Corner for this region. The 9-year-old online publication that began as a neighborhood newsletter now is run by a committed team of editors that has emerged as a respected voice within the community. CV has become a unique sounding board for community leaders and artists, featuring thoughtful commentary and original works of poetry, fiction, photography, art and video.

A platform to drive innovation

Founder and publisher Mark Peres has described his vision for Charlotte Viewpoint as “CBS Sunday Morning meets The New Yorker about Charlotte on the web.” The idea from the start was to raise the game of intellectual discourse and creative expression in the city so Charlotte might further emerge as a vital and significant place to live.

“The writing and editorial focus is consistently smart and progressive,” said Tom Gabbard, CEO of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. “CV has been willing to probe hard civic issues, but in a way that is thoughtful and constructive. I loved the thought of creating an outlet for views that were different from what we could expect from commercial media,” he said.

“There is nothing else like it in Charlotte,” business consultant Mike Clement, a former Bank Of America executive, said of Charlotte Viewpoint. He spoke recently to the importance of Viewpoint to the successful growth and development of the region: “I believe that creating a forum of expression for the developing creative class in Charlotte is hugely important to the future of our city and region,” Clement said. “We have for too long been led by buttoned down Presbyterian bankers like me...and we need a stronger creative class to drive innovation. This is not just an intellectual exercise. It’s vital to the growth and economic prosperity of our city.”

Joining the mix

Peres set forth the vision and calling of Charlotte Viewpoint in his first column in the inaugural issue of CV published in November of 2003:

“Many believe that Charlotte is run by an exclusive club of bankers, corporate titans, politicians and entrepreneurs who call the shots about the city’s future. The club runs in tight circles. Members see each other in government meetings, business offices, social events and golf courses. They are nurtured by associations and leadership groups that forge ties. And they are not about to share the ball. The truth is that Charlotte is remarkably open to anyone with the energy and passion to step forward – which may be the city’s greatest attribute. We’re blessed to have our core leaders and we’re better for them. Some of these activists are extraordinary – moving the civic agenda forward toward a progressive, vibrant city –one that the majority is proud to call home. Yet there is plenty of room for those on the outside looking in to join in on the mix.

“We are an independent opinion magazine that seeks to enter the debate of what is best for the city and region. We are not beholden to any group, organization or power elite. We are a spontaneous, democratic initiative with a point of view….We aim to help Charlotte live its best life.”

A careful reader will note CV’s intent to live outside the gates of top-down power in Charlotte. “A clear aspiration from the start,” Peres noted, “was to broaden the base of influence in Charlotte. We wanted to capture the ideas of smart and caring people who did not otherwise have office or title. We wanted to call things as we saw them with courage in a positive way.”

The end result was a publication that attracted the voices of the powerful and citizens publishing their opinion and art for the first time.

“I’m particularly proud,“ Peres said, “that we created a platform that the most respected and influential leaders in the region have leveraged to shape the agenda of the city and that everyday citizens have leveraged to shape the agenda in return and make the city a richer place to live.”

CV has published the work of notable contributors, from public office-holders, university presidents, business icons, arts leaders, famous architects and artists, and community leaders. These civic and cultural lights have given CV remarkable cache. However, the names that have really mattered to CV have been those of gifted everyday citizens that readers may not have immediately recognized but came to know for their artistic excellence and point of view.

These everyday contributors are our neighbors, subject matter experts, community activists, parents and artists, each passionate about their community and anxious to join the discussion. More than 1,200 articles by over 300 authors and artists have been printed since Charlotte Viewpoint’s launch.

“The story of CV is the story of the exceptional talent and good will of the writers and artists who published in our pages,” Peres said. “I know how daunting it is to go on the record and craft one’s best work. It’s the power of yes that makes all the difference. Our contributors said yes, and I’m incredibly grateful.”

CV’s most important decision and luckiest break

Peres and his wife and daughter had settled into Uptown in 2001 after relocating a couple of years earlier from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. “I had fallen in love with Charlotte and wanted to contribute to its success,” Peres said. “I had been introduced to a number of younger-generation leaders who served on a group called the City Committee. The people on the committee were dreaming up the Whitewater Park, the May 20th Society, and advocating for light rail and a new uptown arena. I saw a need to address something more intangible: the conversation in the region. I thought I might move the needle in Charlotte by introducing the liberal arts into the heart of the city.”

Peres produced the first issue of CV using a Microsoft template on a small desk in a narrow hallway in his First Ward home. The 4-page PDF sported photography of the Uptown landscape, a guest column by then-WFAE reporter Jaime Bedrin, Op-Eds by friends in the neighborhood, and haiku poetry. “It was a pretty modest start,” Peres said, “but our heart was in the right place.” He emailed the issue to 20 of his neighbors.

Peres said his most important decision was publishing a second issue. “Publishing a second issue made it a magazine. We then had a schedule and expectations to fulfill,” he said. “We got the attention of a few community leaders who thought CV was quirky and good for the city. We quickly had something to build upon.”

One of luckiest breaks that happened to CV was when Peres met Carolie Bartol. “Carolie was a graphic designer and copywriter who lived in Third Ward who took an interest in CV,” Peres noted. “Beginning in January 2004, she became our glue and secret sauce and jack-of-all-trades. She shaped and massaged and manipulated each issue – whatever verb one can think of – for seven-plus years. She spent countless hours solving problems and caring about the details, much of it while living in Japan.  We got work done while living 14 hours apart.  Her DNA is infused in our brand. CV owes its existence to her.”

On its one-year anniversary, in November 2004, CV re-launched a professionally designed PDF format with beautiful cityscape photography from Paul Cotter, Piper Warlick, Jon Cain and Russell Shuler (and later from Jonathan Webber and others) that established the distinctive visual iconography of Charlotte Viewpoint. CV celebrated with over 200 friends and readers packing the top floor of Ri Ra’s Irish Pub, beginning its tradition of high-energy parties and events.

Current editor-in-chief Christina Ritchie Rogers began writing for Charlotte Viewpoint as a regular columnist in 2005. “I remember many conversations with Mark at that time, about what CV was and what he wanted it to be,” she said. “To see how many of his goals have been achieved or exceeded is exciting, inspiring, and begs the questions: where to next? What is possible?”

Rogers moved away in 2006, but returned to Charlotte four years later, and in 2011 took over as EIC, replacing Lila Allen.

“Charlotte Viewpoint holds a special place in my heart, as it is the first platform on which my work was published,” Rogers said. “It gave me the chance to find my narrative voice and to feel that first rush that comes from seeing your byline in print. My experience working with CV played a big role in my decision to pursue writing as a career, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to give back, and to uphold and uplift it as editor in chief.”

On the business side, CV built a lean, virtual-office model relying on part-time talent that avoided advertising and instead relied upon grants, sponsorships and personal donations. Looking for the best way to ensure its future, the organization established itself as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2006. Peres settled on the nonprofit route as being most consistent with CV’s social mission of enriching the intellectual and artistic capital of the region.

“We wanted to build something that was in partnership with the community we were in. We wanted to provide our writers the editorial freedom to publish work that fulfilled their personal muse and get paid for it – even if modestly. If we resonated with sponsors and philanthropic supporters in town, we would succeed. If not, we wouldn’t,” Peres said.

“We’ve been fortunate to have sponsors who see value in our work. CV offers unique content that helps the cause of our partners and an influential audience of civic decision-makers and cultural consumers. We’re grateful to them and to all our friends who support us.

“We’ve also had an incredible cast of board members who lent their reputation to our efforts and gave their money so we might carry on. Rev. Dr. Smokey Oats, founding headmaster of Trinity Episcopal School, served as our board chair for five years. He’s made a difference in so many lives and he made a difference in mine,” Peres said. “Board members asked questions and hung in and we hung in.  Eric Davis, our current chair, is a great friend and has brought a terrific touch to leadership.”

Emotion of place

In an early CV Op-Ed written by architect David Wagner entitled, “Five Memos for the Next Wave,” Wagner wrote, “As a composition a city is a record of learning or knowledge, past, and present. A city is a combination of experiences which tie the emotion of the moment to the memory of the place….What does this mean for Charlotte? I think it means romance, falling in love with our city.”

“Wagner’s notion became our charge. We wanted CV to draws its readers romantically to the city,” Peres said. No wonder Peres chose Wagner’s essay as one for inclusion in CV’s 238-page hard-cover coffee table book, Charlotte Viewpoint: Perspectives, published in 2006 and distributed by John F. Blair Press. The coffee-table book offered a contemporary take on Charlotte, with stunning photography by Paul Cotter and Russell Shuler.

“As our work evolved,” Peres said, “we saw ourselves as creators of place. We wanted to evoke a sentiment of place-making. Tone and intention became more and more important.”

Arts and culture debuts

A natural direction for CV was embracing arts and culture. Jeff Jackson, freelance writer and director of the NoDa Film Festival, joined CV as an editor and took on the task of developing a stable of writers, creating a framework from which to operate, and establishing a tone of editorial arts coverage consistent with CV’s brand in civic discourse.

"In developing the arts and culture section for Charlotte Viewpoint, one of my goals was to cover events and artists who weren't being written about elsewhere,” Jackson said. “We haven't shied away from large events either, but we haven't assumed that a significant budget automatically signifies quality. Charlotte Viewpoint has published insightful pieces about grassroots film series, local authors and choreographers, and up-and-coming bands who have largely flown under the radar as well as perceptive criticism of major art shows at the Mint and performances by Opera Carolina. We also showcase unique and eloquent voices - including current columnists Bryan Reed and John Love and regular contributor Phillip Larrimore - and give them the space and latitude to explore important cultural issues for our region."

CV’s monthly “Featured Artist” galleries have showcased the work of such local talent as Barbara Schreiber, Kit Kube, Nate Rogers, Betsy Birkner and Karen Banker – artists whose work are in many collections throughout the nation.

“My feeling is that it has always succeeded in being at least a little more thoughtful and sometimes much more thoughtful than the other periodicals covering the area, and that this has been helpful – perhaps, in some cases, instrumental – in making the general level of discourse more thoughtful as well,” frequent arts contributor Phillip Larrimore said. “It would be impossible to measure how Charlotte Viewpoint has aided in the general improvement of the local culture, except to say that there has been an improvement, and it has been the most thoughtful advocate of this process. The inclusion of poetry, of artists' portfolios, of videos has made the arts community more aware of themselves and the larger community more aware of the arts. I don't think any other local periodical has had Charlotte Viewpoint's range or depth; as a model it would be unusually ecumenical even in a national context.”

In 2010, CV teamed up with Novello Festival Press, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s publishing arm, to publish Topograph: New Writing From The Carolinas and the Landscape Beyond. Edited by Jeff Jackson, the book showcases literary talent in and around the Carolinas. Established writers share their work alongside emerging stars.

“Here’s this neat trick we’ve pulled off,” Peres added. “Our editors have established CV as a publication of distinction for fiction and poetry, video-story telling, and the visual arts. Our reviews of art, music and literature are contextual and compellingly-written. The work we do covering the arts is amazingly good.”

Editorial magic and a timely grant

A defining moment for CV occurred in 2009 when Peres decided to focus his energies on the business side of CV. That meant building an editorial team. He handed the editorial reigns to Emily Williams, a columnist for CV who had covered theatre and dance. "Emily took on a big task," Peres said.  "She stepped up and made a difference."  Casey Brewton joined CV to help with social media and marketing. A Davidson College graduate, Brewton referred classmate Lila Allen, who in turn recruited classmate Elise Anderson. Soon Davidson graduates Suzie Eckl and Alex Gregor joined CV. The talent was in place for a remarkable run.

In March 2010, Allen became editor-in-chief. “Lila ushered in a year of energy and imagination,” Peres said. “She is a first-rate editor and writer. She scaled from big ideas to the smallest detail, always getting it, and was absolutely committed to the tasks at hand. She led the production of Type/Face: A Live Magazine, an event we co-produced with Charlotte magazine at the Visulite Theater. She organized Brainy Picnic, an open-air literary picnic at Independence Park, co-presented with Furious Season magazine. And the re-branding and re-invention of CV happened under her watch, as CV changed from a once-a-month PDF based magazine to an entirely new on-line platform. She put her stamp on CV.”

“I think being a native Charlottean was to my advantage at that time,” Allen said. “I loved the idea of a really dynamic online-only platform for local conversation. Other magazines were doing great stuff in print, but there was potential to be tapped in the digital sphere. I think CV capitalized on that. The magazine consistently connects with interesting and engaged people who really give a damn about Charlotte, which I appreciate.”

In the fall of 2010, CV received a timely grant. The Arts & Science Council awarded CV a Cultural Innovation Grant with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The support paid for the re-launch of the CV brand and its new online platform. “The grant changed our trajectory,” Peres noted.

In June 2011, Allen took on new responsibilities at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, and Christina Ritchie Rogers became the new editor-in-chief of CV. Rogers is a graduate of Davidson College with a master’s degree in multimedia journalism from Virginia Commonwealth University. She leads an exceptional editorial team that includes Chris Cureton, image editor, Nichole Gause, editor of fiction and poetry, and Donald Devet, director of video.

“Christina is a professional journalist with a deep passion for the value of our work,” Peres said. “She wrote for us in our earliest days and knows our history intimately. As our editor, she has brought insight and deft discipline to a demanding schedule of publishing six original works per week for the past 17 months. CV is in great hands.”

To put the CV production schedule in perspective, the work is equivalent to several full length feature articles per month. Even the stoutest national monthly magazines do not feature more than five or six feature stories per month and to accomplish this on a shoestring budget merits notice.

Moving on and the days ahead

The CV story took another turn this summer when Peres announced his pending resignation as executive director and president of CV. His resignation takes effect November 2012, nine years from the date of him emailing the first issue of Charlotte Viewpoint to his neighbors.

“It’s time to create space for something new,” Peres said. “I’ve been determined to avoid ‘founder’s syndrome’ and build an organization that continues without me. My task has been to fulfill a vision and operate the very best we could with what we had. This is a moment to continue to build by letting go.

“Stewarding CV has been incredibly rewarding from the very start to today. We stayed true to our intentions and executed.  The evidence is our body of work.  That’s something to feel great about and a testament to the people who shaped CV throughout the years.”

Charlotte Viewpoint continues its work providing a Speaker’s Corner for informed discourse about ideas that change our lives and the times we're in.

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