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.

 

NC Local for Feb. 17: Why source diversity is essential

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

[Also in the Feb. 17 edition: Two new wins for public records access, McClatchy sets new minimum salary for journalists, a new editor for the Sanford Herald, and shoutouts to the Chatham News + Record, NC Health News, Carolina Public Press and others. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox each week]

You can’t cover a community unless you understand it — and that means listening to its people, and to the people who represent it. And that means diversifying your sources.

Melba NewsomeMelba Newsomean independent journalist in Charlotte,has focused for the past year on helping us do that, in her work as a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow. In this Nieman Reports piece, she talks about the barriers we must overcome. They include media distrust among many Black people — and a reluctance by experts of color to be “used” as token representatives in reporting, or to hand over the fruits of a lifetime of hard work when its “moment” arrives. One academic told her:

‘We’ve been toiling in this vineyard for decades trying to get somebody to pay attention to social justice and these systemic racism issues, but no one cared. Now that it’s a hot topic, you want to come in, pick my brain, and get the benefit of all my hard work for free. No, thanks.’

There’s also, of course, news outlets’ lack of real engagement with communities of color — including the tendency to parachute into a crisis, do a deadline story about a single day in the life of a community … and walk away.

Newsome talks in the piece about four ways to start breaking down those barriers: Redefine who is an expert … lay the groundwork before it’s needed … explain the reporting process … and practice cultural competence. Read more of her advice

As part of her fellowship, Newsome led a survey of journalists about diversity sourcing to help her understand what they’re doing and what they need, and she’s building a training program to help them address the challenge. She’ll go over that curriculum with her media partners — WFAE, The Charlotte Observer and North Carolina Health News — train their newsrooms in it, and then make it available to anyone.

It was my pleasure to chat with Newsome the other day about all of this. Some highlights:

How did this become a passion for you?

I grew increasingly frustrated with the narrowness of the coverage. Every story about Black people shouldn’t be about crime, and every story about Latinos shouldn’t be about immigration. That fails to cover the full spectrum of who we are. 

 People of color are mostly covered when in crisis. …. But we remodel our houses, have book clubs, are sports fans, put our kids in Kumon, and love to cook, too. Also, unless the story is about issues specific to people of color, expert voices are overwhelmingly white. And sometimes even when the story is about Black people, the experts quoted are also white! There are Black epidemiologists, etc., but they are only quoted when the story is about Black people and COVID. Hell, one of the chief vaccine researchers who’s been at Fauci’s side is a young Black North Carolina woman [Kizzmekia Corbett, a Hurdle Mills native who grew up in Hillsborough and earned a doctorate at UNC-Chapel Hill].

Read moreNC Local for Feb. 17: Why source diversity is essential

NC Local deep dive: Pushing for tools and equity in ‘unpublishing’ news content

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

Deborah Dwyer is a former reporter and communications Deborah Dwyerprofessional in her home state, Tennessee, who’s now a Ph.D candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her newlywed husband is in Durham, but she’s temporarily living in Columbia, MO, as a 2020-2021 Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow, studying the “ethics and practicalities of unpublishing” — the focus of her research at UNC.

Her mission and passion are to create tools and collect best practices to make unpublishing — removing old factual content, by request, to restore the subject’s reputation — more manageable and fair.

In the digital age, crime reporting means that some people who make minor mistakes, or have their charges dropped or reduced, or who redeem themselves, or who might be found innocent, can still be forever “guilty by Google,” as Dwyer puts it.

But there are many arguments against unpublishing: Factual reporting is an accurate reflection of history. Information that was true when it was reported should not be removed or altered. Doing so can erode trust with the audiience, and arbitrarily alter our only record of past events. And there are alternatives, such as addendums that update and/or clarify; writing and linking to a follow-up story that updates the reporting; or removing the story from a search engine’s cache but preserving it. 

I talked with Dwyer to find out more about the challenges and possible solutions. Her key points are distilled in my NC Local newsletter of Feb. 10, 2021; a fuller account of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length, is below.

Read moreNC Local deep dive: Pushing for tools and equity in ‘unpublishing’ news content

NC Local for Feb. 3: The crabgrass, and the palm trees, in our back yard

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

[Also in the Feb. 3 edition: NCPA conference agenda, remembering editor and mentor Mike Yopp, journalism shoutouts, jobs and opportunities; DTH prevails in UNC suit and reveals misleading communication in Silent Sam legal settlement. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox each week]

In the local news landscape in North Carolina, speaking metaphorically:

There are some “weeds growing up in the empty lots,” as Sarabeth Berman of the American Journalism Project says about the creep of disinformation. And there are partisan pitches masquerading as news. But here and there, an oasis is growing in a news desert — with some help from our community of purpose.

My final takeaways from speakers at the NC Local News Summit / The Power of Many

GETTING IN THE WEEDS

Philip Napoli, professor of public policy at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, and Asa Royal, research associate at the center:

Napoli, who will become director of the DeWitt Wallace Center in July, for years has been researching the health and quality of local news beyond the metrics, in a qualitative way: Is this reporting really local? Is it original? Does it address community needs? Recently he and Royal have been digging into the rise of hyperpartisan sites in the guise of local news. You can read some of the findings in this Nieman Lab piece.

Royal and Napoli report that in North Carolina, an organization called Metric Media has 49 digital outlets, deployed all at once in 2018, with home pages that are nearly identical and with content that’s often dated, much of which links to a single source called Old North News.

Read moreNC Local for Feb. 3: The crabgrass, and the palm trees, in our back yard

Announcing the NC Media Equity Project: 6 partners join NC Local News Workshop

(Originally posted Jan. 25 on Elon University’s Today at Elon website)

Six leading North Carolina media organizations have joined the NC Local News Workshop at Elon University in a pilot project aiming to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in news and public affairs information for the state’s residents.

The NC Media Equity Project will include: ABC11/WTVD-TV in the Raleigh-Durham area; statewide education policy and news outlet EducationNC; North Carolina’s two largest newspapers (McClatchy’s Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer/Herald-Sun); statewide public television network PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV); and WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR News Station.

The project focuses on joining the participating media organizations as a learning cohort and support network for their efforts to better represent, include and serve North Carolina residents who are Black, Native American, Latino, or LGBTQ, and other stakeholders who have lacked representation or agency in media.

It grew out of national and local conversations in the summer of 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement and a series of other events brought new scrutiny to inequity and representation gaps within media organizations as well as in their content and coverage.

Read moreAnnouncing the NC Media Equity Project: 6 partners join NC Local News Workshop

NC Local for Jan. 27: Survive and advance

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

[Also in the Jan. 20 edition: Postal service worries for community newspapers, six NC media orgs join the NC Media Equity Project, a new director for Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center, and a raft of job and grant) opportunities. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox each week]

One theme of the conversation at the NC Local News Summit on Jan. 13 was Brothers Gibb basic: Stayin’ alive. Fran Scarlett of INN summed it up: Journalism is the mission, but “you have to be sustainable to get to do the journalism.”

The good news: Resources are out there to help. Below are my takeaways from two more of the speakers at the summit (the full event video is here):

DIVERSITY IN EVERYTHING (INCLUDING FUNDING)

Fran Scarlett, chief knowledge officer and business strategy coach at the Institute for Nonprofit News:

Scarlett’s mission from her base in Wilmington is to move us away from thinking only about the journalism and to get us to think about survival as well. She sees news nonprofits diversifying their sustenance with “earned revenue” — sponsorships, advertising and events — and becoming less dependent on foundations. She sees collaborations growing not just in news but in fundraising. And she sees newsrooms moving beyond the idea that hiring is the only place to think about diversity.

Read moreNC Local for Jan. 27: Survive and advance

NC Local for Jan. 20: Are we covering the right power?

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

[Also in the Jan. 20 edition: A new collaborative analysis available to NC local media shows (literally) a network view of 2020 NC campaign giving; how media can help local arts communities through the pandemic; jobs, opportunities, and COVID reporting help) . Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox each week]

Change, paradoxically, is our constant. (There’s a big one happening in DC, right about now.)

People and institutions — especially institutions — often forget that fact. They get comfortable. But every day, if we’re paying attention, we learn something. We get new perspectives, we understand things we didn’t; and if we’re smart, we apply that knowledge. Think about January 2020. How different our approaches and philosophies were, just 12 months ago.

If the news and information community is to continue to empower our quest for a healthy society, we must adapt — every day.

Aside from being my philosophy of life, that was one of my key takeaways from the first NC Local News Summit last week, “The Power of Many,” hosted by the NC Local News Workshop at Elon University with support from the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at UNC. The name itself suggests a change that has happened over the past decade — the realization that we can do more by leveraging the talents of each of us, rather than being rigidly and relentlessly competitive.

If you’re not one of the 150 or so people who attended the Zoom summit, I recommend the video of the speakers’ presentations. Each speaker talked about some species of transformation.

Today and in weeks to come, I’ll highlight some of their key insights:

Read moreNC Local for Jan. 20: Are we covering the right power?

NC Local for Jan. 13: Covering the current crisis: Local journalism’s role, + resources

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

[Also in the Jan. 13 edition: A campaign to save the historic Wilmington Journal, and shoutouts for a dozen recent examples of strong NC journalism. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox each week]

The insurrection a week ago at the Capitol was yet another call to duty for North Carolina’s local news and information providers. Obviously, stories just don’t get much more important than this one — and it has hundreds of local tendrils.

People are anxious. They need reliable information on what’s happening. And there’s a very good chance that there’s more unrest to come — and closer to home.

I consulted a lot of smart folks over the past few days and pulled together a few tips, plus some good work and some things to think about:

Ways to build trust

‘While we don’t know what the next few days and weeks will entail, we know this is far from over. And as journalists, it’s an important moment for us to convey credibility.’

Mollie Muchna, for Trusting News, offers several useful guidelines for keeping faith with readers while covering civil unrest. The key points:

Read moreNC Local for Jan. 13: Covering the current crisis: Local journalism’s role, + resources