Local reporters dig into data and deliver results in promising NC collaboration

By Ryan Thornburg

Ryan Thornburg
Thornburg

In journalism we sometimes find ourselves getting wrapped up in chasing the competition on a story, or — driven by our fierce sense of independence — re-reporting the work of another news outlet. But with fewer reporting resources, collaboration has become a growing part of the journalistic culture. And for the last two months a handful of reporters across North Carolina have been building on a national open-source journalism project and an academic partnership to report on local public health department spending by sharing data resources.

Last month the NC Local News Workshop hosted a hands-on session that showed reporters how to use spreadsheets to interview data about public health spending that had been acquired by reporters at Kaiser Health News and students at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. And to make sure the lessons of the data reporting class didn’t get lost in the daily deadline pressure, several reporters who joined the training have continued to participate in a Slack discussion where they traded ideas with each other, shared the data they collected and received coaching from me.

(The collaboration started even earlier, as the NC Press Association hosted an overview session (find the recording here) during its winter convention featuring the UNC student reporting project. The story was published in collaboration with The News & Observer/ Herald-Sun, and the overview session was done in partnership with the NC Local News Workshop.)

Giving something, getting something

It’s a trend we’re seeing more often in journalism — a learn-and-do approach to collaboration. Reporters get professional development in high-demand skills, and they contribute to a shared data set. Everyone gives something. Everyone gives something.

Read moreLocal reporters dig into data and deliver results in promising NC collaboration

New slate of Workshop events address AAPI coverage and NC media, source diversity, and Census coverage prep

We’ve added three programs to the NC Local News Workshop events and training calendar. All will be offered via Zoom and are free for participants, but registration is required. Check out the events pages (linked from event titles) and click the registration button to reserve your spot.

 

NC Local for April 14: Newsrooms’ biggest challenge — and ways to tackle it (hint: Rethink, not just return)

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from April 14, including how to get support to attend the Collaborative Journalism Summit, shoutouts for WSOC’s housing series, a new local news website for Davidson County, a new website to guide news organizations on unpublishing content, and lots more about North Carolina’s vibrant local news ecosystem. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox weekly.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

After more than a year of some of the worst gut punches ever to journalists, Jane Elizabeth says it’s “time to tackle the biggest challenge so far: rebuilding and reconceptualizing the local newsroom.”

Jane Elizabeth
Jane Elizabeth

Elizabeth was managing editor of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun for 28 months of multiple crises — layoffs, a pandemic, new workflows, social upheaval, disinformation, attacks on the media, political turmoil, McClatchy’s bankruptcy — until she left last November. She’s now a media consultant working with a former employer, the American Press Institute, to identify the most important parts of that “biggest challenge” and jumpstart some solutions we can share … and she needs your help.

Read moreNC Local for April 14: Newsrooms’ biggest challenge — and ways to tackle it (hint: Rethink, not just return)

NC Local for April 7: ‘You don’t have to have a product title to be a product thinker’

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from April 7, with a deeper look at the NC Press Association’s support for more transparency in public employee personnel records, and the story behind Andrew Carter’s Roy Williams piece for The News & Observer. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox weekly.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

Product thinkers are essential to building sustainable journalism. They bridge all of the working parts of a news organization — linking reader needs with the means to their fulfillment; connecting the ethics of good journalism with audience strategy, tech tools and smart business models.

Shannan Bowen
Bowen

Hundreds of the best product thinkers have founded a global community to share support, ideas and practice among the folks working to build a sustainable future for news. Shannan Bowen of Wilmington, who has been a reporter, editor and instructor and is one of the smartest strategists I know, is the director of product engagement and strategy at McClatchy. She was on the steering committee that founded the community, and I asked her to tell us more:

“You don’t have to have a product title to be a product thinker.” That’s the slogan a group of industry colleagues and I used for the past two years as we brainstormed, planned and created a professional association for people working in roles that shape our journalism products. The association, which launched with its inaugural summit last week, is called the News Product Alliance.

Read moreNC Local for April 7: ‘You don’t have to have a product title to be a product thinker’

NC Local for March 31: Full-court press in Asheville, and the public wins

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from March 31, including Carolina Public Press joining a national project on trust in news, McClatchy layoffs, and a long list of links to free help and funding opportunities. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox weekly.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

When the Asheville City Council decided it would close the doors today for the first day of a two-day gathering, in a session to “strengthen alignment, teamwork and trust,” it didn’t reckon on another kind of alignment and teamwork — and a legal covenant of trust.

Local media reported on the plan to violate the state’s open meetings law, including Mountain Xpress Managing Editor Virginia Daffron, who wrote that “we take our watchdog role seriously” and that previous team-building exercises had illuminated “personal histories and philosophies that Council members and senior city staffers brought to their work.” Kate Martin of Carolina Public Press, Matt Bush of Blue Ridge Public Radio and Joel Burgess of the Asheville Citizen Times also reported on the issue.

Amanda Martin, general counsel to the NC Press Association, and Frayda Bluestein, professor in the UNC School of Government, advised that the gathering — at a public facility, with two facilitators paid with public money — was a meeting, subject to the law.

Read moreNC Local for March 31: Full-court press in Asheville, and the public wins

NC Local for March 24: One AAJA leader ‘on living and breathing this’

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from March 24, including details about the new, foundation-funded Border Belt Reporting Center in Whiteville, a few new media job postings, and links to the upcoming Collaborative Journalism Summit hosted by the Center for Cooperative Media. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox weekly.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

Waliya Lari AAJA
Waliya Lari

‘We all have our blind spots. There are a lot of things that we don’t even know we don’t know. And I would hope that everyone is open to critiquing their own assumptions and biases, and working on them. And I think if we all do that together, and if newsrooms really make good on their DEI initiatives, we’re going to be in a much better place in five to 10 years.’

That’s Waliya Lari of Raleigh, director of programs and partnerships for the Asian American Journalists Association. She came to North Carolina in 2013 and spent four and a half years as a news executive producer for WRAL after working years in journalism in Texas, her home state, and in Oklahoma. She joined the AAJA staff this year. 

After the tragedy in Atlanta eight days ago, which raised many issues about bias in coverage of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, I got to chat with Lari. She talked about the challenges that face AAPI journalists, and what AAPI communities need from the media. Some of her insights, edited for length:

Read moreNC Local for March 24: One AAJA leader ‘on living and breathing this’

NC Local for March 17: Project Oasis and local news startup success

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from March 17, including links to coverage of online abuse of women in journalism (and resourcesfor combating such hostility), good work from WSOC-TV’s Joe Bruno, The N&O’s Andrew Carter, and The Daily Tar Heel, and some optimism about local news sustainability)

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

Project Oasis, which was launched a year ago, is live — and it’s a wellspring of help, information and insight for the local news business.

Oasis is a collaborative initiative to build a database of the more than 700 digital-dominant, independent local news outlets in the United States and Canada, to share insight about how they are working to be sustainable, and to share research on best practices. Partners are the Center for Innovation and Sustainability of Local Media at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media; LION Publishers; the Google News Initiative; and Douglas K. Smith.

First, there’s a database that includes a map and list of all 710 publications, compiled in the middle of 2020 from a survey and research at UNC. You can sort the map and list by things such as location (there are 24 outlets in North Carolina), platforms, revenue stream, tax status (LLC, nonprofiit, sole proprietor, etc.), years in operation and editorial strategy. Each publication also has a profile.

The project also produced the GNI Startups Playbook for news entrepreneurs, with valuable guidance on building a product, finding and expanding an audience, identifying initial sources of funding and revenue, and setting up operations, including templates and a large list of resources. It was written by Ben DeJarnette of LION, with contributors Anika Anand (a LION deputy director and a UNC grad who grew up in Kinston); Conor Crowley of GNI; Phillip Smith of Journalism Growth Lab; and Smith.

And there’s a report that tracks trends in digital-native local news, written by Chloe Kizer, a Durham operations and growth consultant working with the UNC Hussman School. Among its key findings:

Read moreNC Local for March 17: Project Oasis and local news startup success

NC Local deep dive: Kyle Villemain on his new digital magazine The Assembly and ‘power journalism’ for NC

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from March 10, including a preview of the NC Open Government Coalition’s 2021 Sunshine Day program, leadership transitions at The Daily Tar Heel and Scalawag, job opportunities and some recent standout local journalism

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

Pacing his apartment as the pandemic got real last spring, Kyle Villemain recalls, he thought a lot about something he’d long considered — that local media needed “to go deep on North Carolina.” As long days of rumination passed, he decided he’d have a go at it himself.

Kyle Villemain headshot
Kyle Villemain

Nine months of intense conversation with media and thought leaders led to The Assembly, launched last month as a statewide digital magazine and billed as a place “for stories that aren’t being told — and for those that deserve a deeper look” and one “focused on deep long-form reporting and smart ideas writing.”

After growing up in Carrboro and graduating from UNC in 2015, Villemain, 28, was deputy finance director for a congressional campaign in New Hampshire and then worked as a speechwriter for UNC chancellor Carol Folt and UNC system president Margaret Spellings. After Spellings left UNC in early 2019, Villemain wrote speeches as a freelancer while contemplating what he saw lacking in the state’s news and information landscape.

What he saw, he told me, was a lot of good work but also “how much is going on underneath the surface and how much, if you’re not in the room, you’re not quite privy to what’s happening — and we need more journalism that tries to put people into the room.”

The goal, he says in his introductory piece on the Assembly site, is to redirect some of North Carolinians’ attention to a serious dialogue about the state’s politics, education, media, environment, business and arts. He says he’s emphasizing diversity — in political voices and in the backgrounds of the freelance writers and creatives who will do the work. The name, he says, is “a reference to the act of assembling a state through its disparate parts: people, ideas, and institutions.”

 Villemain told me he plans to roll out five to seven long-form stories per month and several more short-form pieces — what he calls “smart ideas writing.” Long-form topics so far include the motivations of state Senate leader Phil Berger, Cecil Staton’s ill-fated tenure as ECU chancellor, and the “historical erasure” of the Black experience in Tarboro and Edgecombe County. There’s also a twice-weekly newsletter.

The Assembly is a C corporation, supported for now by subscribers (as little as $3 a month) and investors. Non-subscribers can read one free story per month. Advertising will play a small role, Villemain told me.

The Assembly is featured in today’s NC Local newsletter. Here’s more of our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Read moreNC Local deep dive: Kyle Villemain on his new digital magazine The Assembly and ‘power journalism’ for NC

NC Local for Feb. 24: News that ‘sets up camp’ in our minds

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

[Also in the Feb. 24 edition: A new WUNC podcast on poet, lawyer and justice warrior Pauli Murray; free hands-on data training; the legislative fight over public notices; a long list of jobs and learning opportunities; and the latest on media habits from Pew Research. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox each week]

I want to start this week with the good work because, although this isn’t unusual, there has been a whole lot of it lately: Reporting that holds power to account. Stories that tie the past to the present, and future. Unfinished business that needs our attention. Solutions to consider. Innovation. Challenges to our moral complacency. And many reminders of our shared humanity. It’s all there. 

First up: For most of the past year, several blocks just north of Uptown Charlotte were occupied by a tent city of people who had nowhere else to live — until the camp was cleared late last week by order of the Mecklenburg County health director because of a rodent infestation. Many residents were moved temporarily to a shelter motel.

The story brought out a wealth of useful, enlightening and heart-tugging work from the Charlotte-area journalism community. There has been much more than I can possibly mention here, but among the pieces I saw that stood out:

Read moreNC Local for Feb. 24: News that ‘sets up camp’ in our minds

Training opportunity: Report on public health, learn data skills and land a story

Local journalists can build on a recent UNC data journalism project showing a decline in North Carolina public health funding — and report a local story while learning data skills — through a workshop during the NC Press Association conference this Friday and followup hands-on training March 15 for selected participants.

The training draws on work by the Carolina Data Desk and students of UNC Hussman Associate Prof. Ryan Thornburg, who analyzed information from 45 counties in North Carolina for a story that showed that public health funding in the state had dropped in recent years even as population and needs increased.

That story by Rachel Crumpler, published Jan. 19 by The News & Observer, explored North Carolina funding statewide as a followup to national reporting by Kaiser Health News. Now, Thornburg is partnering with the NC Press Association and  the NC Local News Workshop to help local reporters across the state dig into funding at the county level.

The project promises lots of wins: Training for reporters who take part, a deeper look at some counties and new data from others, and strong stories for local publications.

To see if your county was included in the UNC student analysis, check out one-page summaries offering a snapshot and starting points for local reporting.

If your county is missing, that means the next step would be getting and analyzing your local health department’s data. Sign up for one or both:

  • Feb. 26, 2 p.m. via Zoom: How to use data to report about public health spending (Open at no cost to all interested participants, courtesy of NCPA. Sign up.
  • March 15, 3 p.m.-5 p.m.: Data Reporting workshop — Hands on training while reporting a local story. Apply.
    • Five reporters will be selected for a free 2-hour hands-on workshop, led by Thornburg and Melanie Sill of the NC Local News Workshop, that walks reporters step-by-step through the skills they need to use data to find and tell stories about local public health departments. Deadline for applying: Monday, March 8.