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Innovator Profile: Sean Tubbs

The Charlottesville area is home to many actively engaged civic innovators, one of these is Sean Tubbs. Sean has been bringing crucial information to the community for years. He agreed to answer a few questions for us to shed light on his current work and philosophy of civic innovation.

1) You’ve long been using technology as you work on civic projects locally, through Cvillepedia and your current Charlottesville Community Engagement project among others. What drives your work on these civic projects?

I am a first-generation American and became a journalist a long time ago out of a curiosity about how things work. That’s still what drives me because I am always learning the mechanisms that operate our society. Behind every big concept that people want lies a series of ways in which that concept can be implemented.

For instance, affordable housing is one of the most pressing issues in our community. But how many people understand what inflates the cost of housing in our community? I view my role as helping people who want to dig into the details, but may not know where to start.

Solutions to our problems are in front of us, and it takes getting into the details to sort it all out. I have been practicing a kind of civic journalism for many years, out of a love for this community and a sincere desire to help it improve.

2) Based on your work and engagement locally, We consider you to be a great example of someone committed to civic innovation in the Charlottesville area. What does civic innovation mean to you?

There are tools available to all of us as citizens and residents that were not there before. The work I’ve done both with the Charlottesville Podcasting Network, Charlottesville Tomorrow, and now my fledgling information outlet have all been intended to get information to citizens in new ways. In the mid-2000s, we recorded meetings and campaign forums and began to set the expectation that these events be made available to those who could not attend them in public.

We now have all of our local government meetings happening remotely, and I am using this opportunity to try to write accounts of what’s happening. Ideally, I’d like others to help capture this information on Cvillepedia. The path of journalism is open to everyone. We all have these tools at our disposal. Why not use them to help make this third decade of the 21st Century better than we might currently expect it to be?

3) How do you adapt your work as technologies transform to make the most of new opportunities?

Right now the crucial difference for me between 2005 and 2020 is that the ability to monetize my work is so much easier. In 2005, the idea of crowd-funding wasn’t a concept. It simply didn’t exist. In 2020, when I was feeling an entrepreneurial itch I had Patreon and Substack to do initial experiments on.

And I had content. The rapid adoption of Zoom and other video-conferencing tools makes a radio journalist and archivist like me salivate that I get to capture the public record from so many meetings without leaving my house!

For me, this means I’m still using the basic radio-writing skills I learned in 1995 when I was an intern at WVTF Public Radio. I create a daily newscast that isn’t very different from what you would hear on that station now, but the same production cycle creates a written product. All of us receive information in different ways, and my hope is to keep thinking of new ways to get people to the primary sources enabled by this new-fangled World Wide Web.

I know I need to be open to what comes next. That’s where innovation culture comes in, and why I’m hoping to find new partners to help me think through how to present what I know in new ways that allow more people to participate in local and state government.

4) From the outside, it appears that the pandemic hasn’t slowed down your work. How have you adapted to the “new normal” to bring critical information to the local community?

On Sunday, March 15th, I happened to be in the right place at the right time. We were all concerned about the lockdown that was happening, and I happened to see that Governor Northam was giving a press conference on Virginia’s response. I cobbled together old recording equipment and took notes. Mayor Nikuyah Walker gave a Facebook Live speech imploring people to take things seriously. Delegate Sally Hudson also had a similar socially-distanced event. We didn’t call it that.

I recorded it all, and a journalistic calling made me write and produce my first long-form podcast in a decade. I put it out there, got the blessing to do so from my long-term employer, and spent the next two months writing and producing the show.

I was a lot more scared then about what was going to happen, and for me when I am scared about something I like to research as much as I can and share it with people. Even though the audience might have been small, I felt like I was doing something important.

Over the summer, I decided to take a leap of faith and launch a new business to make a

living off of the work I want to do. The pandemic is still with us, and every day I report on what’s happening with the numbers. I feel I provide a service to help us navigate this new normal, and also that I’m documenting this time for posterity.

5) Tell us about your current projects and anything in the works that you’d like us to keep an eye out for going forward.

Right now I am trying to harness all of the material I’m producing and trying to figure out the balance between paid content and free content. The way I see it, the entire community is paying me to do my research and reporting. But, how does local journalism get funded? I have ideas that I am putting into practice now and welcome conversations.

Every weekday I produce an audio newscast and written newsletter that tries to give a glimpse into a few things happening around the area. There is a lot! I am driven by a conviction that what is happening locally is crucially important and I both want to report and amplify the work of what fellow civic journalists are doing.

6) Can you share all the best links to find you and your current projects as well as your Patreon?

But of course! After all, I have to make a living! Right now I am making my main pitch at a new site I’m developing called Information Charlottesville.

I will say I know that times are tough for everyone. But I have made a commitment to keeping my daily content free for anyone who wants to access it. Most of my paid supporters know they are helping to pay for information about civic life for everyone. I don’t want anything I write about to be exclusive. We get through these times by having good information about our options. And that’s what I’m here for.

Civic innovation is using whatever tools are at our disposal to help make things better. I’m excited about the work that the Center for Civic Innovation is doing and I look forward to helping to tell the stories. Thank you for this opportunity to introduce myself!

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