What comes next for supporting NC local news to fuel democracy

This post is featured in the NC Local newsletter for June 9, which also includes links to a handout and video recording of last week’s Census coverage prep session, and information on a campaign finance tool and training via the NC Open Government Coalition and the Open Raleigh Brigade of Code for America. Sign up to get NC Local delivered to your inbox every Wednesday.

Melanie Sill

The newsletter called NC Local launched three years ago with a simple aim: I wanted others to hear about the experiments, successes, and amazingly committed people I was encountering all over North Carolina as a journalism adviser for a foundation called Democracy Fund.

I figured I’d wind the newsletter down if there weren’t enough readers or when I ran out of things to write about. Neither happened: NC Local keeps adding subscribers and has blossomed as Ryan Tuck took it over in 2019 and Eric Frederick came on as its editor in 2020. 

My role shifted, too, and in June 2020 I came on as the interim leader of a new entity called the NC Local News Workshop, housed at the Elon University School of Communications, which took a major step forward last week when Shannan Bowen arrived as executive director. Our state is lucky to have her in this job: More on Shannan in a minute, but first I want to tell a little more of that story of local news transformation in North Carolina, and why it both excites me and leaves me worried.

North Carolina is home to groundbreaking research on the local news crisis (really a civic crisis), and we’ve drawn national notice for the collaboration, scholarship, new voices, and new approaches taking root here. As a NC Local reader, you’re in on this storyline and read about the players, their problems and successes each week.

Yet you also read here about the big challenges for local news everywhere as a sustainable enterprise: How to find and reach readers and viewers (who have so many choices); how to represent and serve people and communities (Black, Latino, blue collar) who have been poorly served by news in the past; what funding model is right, and how to find revenue in any model; how to deal with anti-press hostility and support journalists; how to counter misinformation and disinformation; how to earn credibility in a cynical media environment.

These are wicked problems, and I’ve been encouraged when people and organizations come together to take them on, in partnerships or more broadly. That’s part of the Workshop’s mission: To bring people together, and to provide resources that serve more than one entity.

“The Power of Many” and the promise of more

The Workshop’s first NC Local News Summit in January drew 150 people, most of whom stayed on a Zoom meeting for three to four hours, and that’s a fraction of this diverse community. We called the Summit, “The Power of Many.”

I’m encouraged that the “many” include outlets run by and for people of color and LGBTQ journalists, or addressing specific topic areas and communities with deeper or more focused coverage. Also good news: Some of our startups are now in their second decade, and getting real traction on financial sustainability; national and state-based philanthropy is starting to support service that commercial news doesn’t cover; and we’ve seen significant impact from news organizations that have recognized the advantages of teaming up on important public affairs projects.

The Local News Workshop also connects to the mission of its core funder, the NC Local News Lab Fund at the NC Community Foundation. The NC fund grew out of Democracy Fund’s initial efforts and has issued nearly $2 million in local news and information grants in North Carolina.

Elon Communications Dean Rochelle Ford welcomed the Workshop, helped shape it, and has been a champion of its mission, which is not to serve any one industry but instead to support  high-quality, accessible local and state news as part of civic life and democracy in North Carolina.

The danger I worry most about is that journalism misses too many opportunities for establishing new relevance and service. Service is about ideals and mission, of course; but a service also is something people use and find valuable enough to pay for, like electricity or Netflix.

I mentioned worries about local news, especially public affairs journalism that aims to help people know what’s happening and look out for their own interests. I see the gaps left by the losses of hundreds of local journalists in North Carolina, individually and collectively.

But the danger I worry most about is that journalism misses too many opportunities for establishing new relevance and service. Service is about ideals and mission, of course; but a service also is something people use and find valuable enough to pay for, like electricity or Netflix.

In North Carolina, we see the losses but also some promising efforts to make local news a service beyond publishing stories. With the brainpower in our state, and its long traditions of strong local journalism, we can be a proving ground for transformative ideas.

The good news: Shannan Bowen, the new Workshop executive director, brings experience and knowledge to her new role that equip her to jump in right away on these and other questions, and also to boost the organization’s impact.

She has been interested since her first reporting days (at the StarNews in Wilmington) in how people use local news and what they need, and has explored those questions in working for national media companies on strategy for audience growth, new products, and innovation. 

You’ll hear from Shannan next week in this space. Meantime, I’ll stay involved as an adviser for the NC Local News Workshop and return to independent work.

I could say so much more, but instead I’ll offer thanks for those who’ve helped get the Workshop established and thriving: To Dean Rochelle Ford and the faculty and staff at Elon Communications; the amazing Workshop Advisory Board; Lizzy Hazeltine at the NC Local News Fund; NC Local Editor Eric Frederick; and the dozens of organizations and hundreds of individuals around the state who’ve been allies, partners, panelists, advisers, participants, and inspirations over the year, and whose service gives me hope for what comes next.