John Drescher on Hussman and Hannah-Jones, and on objectivity: ‘Eventually I stopped using the word’

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

John Drescher
Drescher

John Drescher stoked a lot of conversations among journalists and educators nationwide last week when he broke the story for The Assembly that Walter Hussman, the top donor and namesake of the school of journalism and media at UNC-Chapel Hill, had expressed his concerns to university administrators and at least one trustee about the school’s potential hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Drescher has had a long and distinguished career in journalism in these parts, including stints as a reporter at The News & Observer, a reporter and editor at The Charlotte Observer and managing editor of The State in Columbia. Starting in 2002, he served for five years as the managing editor and a decade as executive editor of The N&O. (I seem to remember that he was also the interim publisher there for a minute.)

He recently spent two years as an editor on the politics, investigations and enterprise team at The Washington Post. Back home now, he’s helping The Assembly, the statewide digital magazine that launched this year, as a contributing editor.

Drescher was my direct boss for more than a decade at The News & Observer. I caught up with him Tuesday to talk about the Hussman story, the state of play at UNC now, what “objectivity” in journalism really means, his new work and the future of local journalism in North Carolina.

What can you tell us about how you got the story?

You know, I just got a tip. I had not heard anything about Walter Hussman’s involvement with the Nikole Hannah-Jones matter, and I just got a tip that said he indeed had been involved. And here’s the challenge … everybody these days is kind of not saying much, you know — it’s become perhaps the culture wars story of the moment. You can find people with strong opinions, but the people who actually are on the inside weren’t saying much.

Read moreJohn Drescher on Hussman and Hannah-Jones, and on objectivity: ‘Eventually I stopped using the word’

NC Local for April 28: Carolina Public Press at 10, ‘You just have to get bigger and better’

CPP's Angie Newsome
Carolina Public Press founder Angie Newsome, right, speaks at a forum on sexual assault prosecution following a CPP series, “Seeking Conviction,” which brought scrutiny and legislative action.

 

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from April 28, including WFAE’s “transformational grant” from the American Journalism Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones returns to North Carolina and UNC, new grants for NC orgs from the Facebook Accelerator Project and Report for America hires, much more. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox weekly.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

Carolina Public Press, which began as Executive Director Angie Newsome’s dream for an independent, investigative, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization, is now celebrating 10 years in operation.

Newsome, a longtime journalist, launched CPP in 2011, covering Western North Carolina as a fiscally sponsored project of The Institute for Southern Studies. It officially became a donor-supported 501(c)(3) in April 2014, and has grown to a statewide news organization with a staff of nine, supplemented by regular contributors. 

In the past two years, CPP has won 25 N.C. Press Association awards, including two first-place honors for general excellence among online-only publications; top awards in public service, investigative and enterprise reporting; and the Henry L. Weathers Freedom of Information Award. 

CPP just launched a speakers’ bureau, making staffers available for virtual and in-person speaking engagements on topics of expertise. And at noon next Wednesday, May 5, it will hold the first of a virtual conversation series called Ten for NC, with Penny Abernathy as guest, discussing news deserts, what she sees happening in the state, and the role of nonprofit news in filling gaps. It’s free, but you need to register to attend.

I got to chat with Newsome this week about the journey. Here are the highlights of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

Read moreNC Local for April 28: Carolina Public Press at 10, ‘You just have to get bigger and better’

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 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. 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