How Charlotte suddenly became home to 2 millennial-targeted digital start-ups

Charlotte's reputation has long been as a banking and finance center, so it may seem an unlikely venue for not one, but two new sites launched in the last year aimed at millennials.

Charlotte Five and Charlotte Agenda, each with a news diet heavy on where to go and what to do, arrive in quick format screen and newsletter versions promptly at 7 a.m. every weekday. Each boasts of "handcrafted" curation, each has the same single sponsor -- a large orthopedics practice. Both, it should go without saying, display well on a smart phone.

The seeing double phenomenon is easily explained. As director of digital strategy initiatives at The Charlotte Observer, Ted Williams incubated the Charlotte Five concept and got a green light to launch in November. Then in April, Williams decided he wanted to strike out on his own and cloned his baby as Charlotte Agenda.

To my jaundiced legacy eyes, this would seem to set the stage for a good old newspaper war, only with pixels in place of print. But conversations with all the principals convinced me that's not so.

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The growing North Carolina city is big enough for both, Charlotte Observer editor Rick Thames told me last week in a phone interview.

"It would be great for the Charlotte media scene and the city if we do well and Ted does, too."

For his part, Williams said he left the Observer with no ill feelings. Rather than a lumbering bureaucracy, he said, the paper, publisher Ann Caulkins in particular, "is very entrepreneurial. The gestation period was very short -- 40 to 60 days, though they were a long 40 to 60 days."

It is early still to say whether either or both will succeed as businesses. Both plan to ramp up advertising efforts in 2016 while still limiting availability -- figuring that the desired demographic and an element of exclusivity will generate more dollars with less sales effort.

Each has well over 4,000 e-mail subscribers. The sites also offer a real time tally of daily views.  Most recent afternoons I've sampled, Agenda leads by a 50 percent margin. Agenda now claims 185,000 monthly uniques: Five has 90,000

In recent weeks, Williams has redesigned his site, expanded past just five stories a day and added former Observer reporter Andrew Dunn as editor (his own background is in advertising), but he sticks to the once-a-day publishing cycle.

"In real time, we would get smoked. It's an easy way to stay organized."

Williams is 31, technically still qualifying as a millennial, but not fully fitting the stereotypes. He is married and had his first child about the time of the Charlotte Five launch. He is not especially interested in music and is an avid golfer.

But cooking up a batch of stories on the local scene and writing frequent personal essays is very much his thing.

"I just love it. (The content) is human, useful, all local....I don't think about the competition too much. I think about our relationship to our audience."

And he is learning as he goes, "Our audience is a lot nerdier than we gave them credit for," Williams said. "The historical and serious stories do well." Still, he regrets, but is realistic, "that we don't have the luxury of putting a lot of time into a single story" and hopes to be able to take on more ambitious topics in time.

Agenda led Friday's edition with "The 83 most dangerous intersections in Charlotte," but also found room for "The Charlotte Creative with 19,000 Instagram followers. Great guy. Remarkable photographer."

Corey Inscoe, Williams' counterpart at Charlotte Five, has a parallel view of editorial mission. The publication like the city, he said "is still evolving, figuring out what it wants to be. We care about the city and want to shape it."

So what's opening and what's closing are highly relevant topics. Friday's Five included a feature on parody Twitter accounts and another on rare bourbons.

As for the presentation, Inscoe said, "we want it to be a quick read, something you can skim through drinking coffee or rolling over in bed." (Thames said that he is particularly happy when a reader tells him Charlotte Five "is the first thing I look at in the morning.")

For both sites, the afterburner is that stories get passed along on social media through the day. There is not much linking out, but comments and other engagement tactics draw readers in as content producers. Transparency on growth statistics, Williams said, makes readers think of Charlotte Agenda as their own.

Williams told me that by intention he has "run incredibly lean. I didn't want to go out and raise money, (partly because) I didn't want investors asking 'when are you going to be going to Raleigh, too?'"

Not that the concept isn't exportable, Williams said, to Raleigh or an assortment of other mid-sized cities. "You can't be too big, but it would work in places like Jacksonville or Indianapolis. The opportunity is huge."

Thames agreed. The Charlotte Five template has not yet been replicated in Raleigh or other similar sized McClatchy markets, but it could easily be in the future if the current growth path continues.

But Thames also provided an answer to my original question -- why Charlotte? Thames has been editor for 11 years, and this is his second tour of duty in the city. My notion that Charlotte has typically been the inverse of a hopping place isn't all wrong, just dated, he said.

"The city has changed dramatically in the last five to seven years. We've attracted the creative class and that's on top of being a hot destination for jobs...The city is alive all hours now, and newcomers feel welcome here. It's a sort of melting pot."

The city has a healthy cohort of prospering millennials, many curious about their new home, what to do there and how to bend development to their interests and ideals. So Charlotte probably does make sense after all for a website focused on all that, twice over as it turns out.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Corey Inscoe's name.

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