Just before the holidays, Eric had the opportunity to sit down with Cristina Bolling, managing editor of the Charlotte Ledger and former 20-year reporter for the Charlotte Observer. Check out their conversation about a career in Charlotte media!
Tell us about yourself… what brought you to Charlotte?
“I grew up in the D.C. area and attended James Madison University in Virginia. Then I went to graduate school at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University where I got a masters in Newspaper Journalism. From there, I got my first job at the Associated Press in Albany, New York. it was really a great first job for someone in their early to mid-20’s. The AP is a great training ground… they let you loose, learning the essentials of editing, writing, covering the statehouse (George Pataki was governor, Elliot Spitzer was the Attorney General, Hillary Clinton was running for Senate… so I got to have pieces of that). I stayed there for a couple of years then decided, ‘I’m a Virginia girl… it’s too cold!’ I couldn’t take it anymore! So I went looking for journalism jobs nationally, and the Charlotte Observer at that time was really well known for its writing. They would bring in writing coaches from around the country, they would send you to writing conferences… stuff like that. So I came here not knowing anybody. I just thought this would be a good place to stay for a couple years, learn how to write, figure out where else I’d want to go… and that was 20 years ago!“
You had quite the run with the Charlotte Observer over two decades. How did that experience impact your career?
“Everything had I hoped would happen at the observer happened. I received really good coaching. I really feel like I learned to write from some of the top editors in the country. I stayed there for 20 years and I wore a variety of hats. I covered everything from county govt to immigration (I speak Spanish so that was really useful), real estate fashion the arts… so pretty much anything I wanted to write about, I found a way to do it.“
Are there some stories from your time with the Observer that really stand out?
“There are certainly some exciting ones. I covered a few hurricanes out in the Outer Banks, and even rode over the OBX in a Black Hawk helicopter. I really love some of the stories I wrote on the immigration beat. I did a story one time about this choir of Liberian orphan boys who came to sing in Charlotte and wound up all being adopted by families in Union County. Oprah even picked up that story that the Observer had first! I’ve always been a believer that everyone has a story to tell. You just have to ask the right questions and listen. I did cover stories about celebrities or fixtures in the news… but sometimes, its everyday people who have the stories that blow you away.“
How did the opportunity come about to join the Charlotte Ledger? Did that represent a pretty big change career wise?
“This past year (2019), an old Observer colleague – who I started with in the Gastonia bureau 20 year ago – was starting up this newsletter – the Charlotte Ledger. We had stayed in touch, so back in the spring, he invited me to come on as his managing editor. I thought ‘this will be kind of a fun new challenge after doing the same thing for 20 years… this will be fun to try something totally different and help start up a media company.’ It’s been a pretty fun ride since then.“
“When I started at the Observer, it was sort of the heyday of newspapers. We had huge staffs with a lot of local expertise in the room, and it gave me a lot of appreciation for that institutional knowledge. Charlotte is a such a fast-growing city with a lot of newcomers, but it has (like any city) a very deep and interesting history. So spending 20 years on all these different beats, and knowing what stories are being covered and aren’t being covered made me interested to try out a new way of writing about Charlotte without any walls. Tony (Mecia) and I don’t necessarily have any “beats” between the two of us. We consider the whole city to be our fertile stomping grounds to write about whatever we think is interesting. Having built that institutional knowledge working at the Observer, we also know who else has that knowledge. It made it an exciting thing to try at the Ledger.“
How would you describe the Charlotte Ledger’s value proposition? What makes it stand out?
“People frankly don’t have a lot of time to read long stories. They’re choosy on how they consume media. So we try to really prioritize what we write about, and some stories don’t need to be long. Some stories you can tell succinctly… just tell people what they need to know and get out of it. Part of what we bring is a curation, a “not wasting your time” approach to news… satisfying your curiosity, sharing some institutional knowledge that we have, and then letting you move on with your day. And a newsletter format is nice for that. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. You get to the end and you feel like you know what you need to know for that day… and you move on.“
What projects are you currently working on that get you excited?
“I actually have a side hustle right now for Charlotte Magazine called You Are Here. Every month, I throw a dart at a map of Mecklenburg County, and wherever the dart lands, I go to that place and I do a story. It’s so fun for me because it confirms what I’ve always known – literally anywhere has a story. It started in January 2020, and I’ve done maybe 14 of them so far. That feature has taken me to an old, abandoned airstrip out in east Charlotte where I interviewed a man who used to run planes there. It’s taken me to little neighborhoods where kids are growing up together like Hidden Valley where people have seen that neighborhood completely transform. I love hard news, breaking news, gritty news… but I also love going to a place and learning everything I can about the people who live there or the history of that location. I just think everyone has a story to tell. I’m just an insanely curious person!“
You’re Almost a year in now at the Charlotte Ledger… how has that sense of curiosity manifested itself differently now as a manager of a newsletter vs a reporter at a newspaper?
“Charlotte is a growing city and its media landscape has changed a lot. Newsrooms aren’t as big as they used to be and just can’t get to everything like they once did. We try to figure out what some of the big stories are and tell them in a way that they aren’t being told right now. We ask ourselves what are we curious about when it comes to a story, then we set out to answer that question.“
How to you collaborate with other writers?
“We do rely heavily on former Observer writers who we’ve worked with in the past. Back in the Observer’s heyday, there were so many good beat writers who specialized in religion and food and restaurants, politics, business… stuff like that. So we do lean on them as freelancers because we know that they know so much. Who better to tell that type of story than someone who made that their career? We also have relationships with some people in the PR industry who are just good writers and know how to tell a story. We’re definitely growing our freelance platform. Tony and I still write most of the stories for the Ledger, but it is fun to work with people you know who do good work and have interesting things to say.“
How has COVID effected your day to day/the Ledger?
“It’s interesting… we talk often about what we think we would be writing about right now if it wasn’t for COVID. I guess what I miss most is going out on stories… you get a lot more out of meeting with someone. Noticing what’s on the wall of someone’s office or going into their home. You can’t replicate that, but you make the best with what you have. COVID has really presented a challenge in focusing, there’s just so many different directions you could go. It’s almost been more of an issue of trying to whittle down and put your horse blinders on to focus on what story we need to tell or what has the biggest impact.”
What’s on the horizon for the Charlotte Ledger?
“We’re always planning for the future, but it’s hard to imagine past the end of our noses sometimes! We’re a subscription-based publication… we don’t do a lot of advertising. Our growth has surpassed what we had planned for 2020 for sure. We really rely on subscribers to help spread the word about us, and the future looks really good. We would like to become one of those news outlets that when you talk about Charlotte media, [the Charlotte Ledger] rolls of your tongue. I think we’re on our way to being that. We are relatively new, but if you’re looking for honest, reliable, and essential news… we hope you’ll come to us.”
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