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Putting together The Assembly

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.

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 Ann McLane Kuster’s successful 2016 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 in early 2019, Villemain wrote speeches as a freelancer while contemplating the state’s news and information landscape.
What he saw, he told me the other day, 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.

A longer version of our conversation is in this post on the NC Local News Workshop site, but here are a few highlights:
◼️ Villemain says his experiences working for UNC "gave me a bit of a lens into how statewide institutions work, and don't work. ... Almost across the board, their choices were undercovered and underexamined."

◼️ He says the state's writers and creatives are "an underleveraged asset" and need "a place to focus their energy on North Carolina."

◼️ "We're betting big that subscriptions will sustain us," he said, but he's also raising money from investors "in $5,000 and $10,000 checks mainly." Events will also be in the mix.

◼️ He says he's still listening, a lot, to "a stable of folks who are helping advise and think things through, and I don't like to pretend that this is all my idea — because it's not."

◼️ He didn't want to set up as a nonprofit, he says, because there's "limited foundation funding" for a number of nonprofits in the state that are "doing great work."

◼️ "We want to be super collaborative," he says. If The Assembly's work "can be useful to others, we see that as a win."

◼️ If others want to try this: His advice? Get advice. "Throw a really wide net; talk far and wide."
➡️ Click here to read more of my conversation with Kyle Villemain. 
Open for (the people's) business

Time’s getting short to register for Sunshine Week 2021, presented by the NC Open Government Coalition. Events next week will bring news professionals, lawyers, and others together (virtually) to celebrate transparent state government during National Sunshine Week

☀️ On Monday at 1:30 pm ET, reporters Laura Lee, Tyler Dukes and Nick Ochsner will discuss the annual Sunshine Week reporting project — the NC Watchdog Reporting Network’s dig into accountability in law enforcement. Panelists will present and take questions about public records and accountability reporting, and “peel back the curtain a little bit on what it is like to be a collaborative network of watchdog reporters,” Coalition director Brooks Fuller told me.

☀️ On Wednesday (March 17) at 1:30 pm, panelists will discuss improving underserved communities' access to public information and meetings. 

☀️ On Thursday (March 18) at 1:30 pm, Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, will lead a discussion of transparency in higher education. LoMonte is "a font of information about freedom of information when it comes to Title IX, FERPA ... a really helpful resource to anybody who's covering public universities," Fuller said.

[Learn more, see the full schedule and register.]

In the fight for equity

EdNC (where I am a part-time editor) has produced a video to promote the NC Media Equity Project, a pilot effort to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in news and public affairs information. Project partners are EdNC, ABC11/WTVD-TV in the Triangle, WFAE in Charlotte, The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer/Herald-Sun and PBS North Carolina — joined by the NC Local News Workshop, home of this newsletter.

The partners work as a learning and support network to better represent, include and serve Black, Native American, Latino, LGBTQ and other underrepresented groups. Scan the QR code or click here to see job opportunities with project members. [Watch the video.]  [Learn more about the project.]
The Vision25 collaboration

Vision25 is a project organized by the Online News Association, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and OpenNews to dismantle systemic racism in journalism. Leaders will begin in April to report on months of conversations to understand the issues and to advance that goal, but for now, they're sharing five ways to participate in Vision25 this month

And this...

"A podcast about workplace racism causing its own reckoning with workplace racism may have been a bit meta, but it was not an outlier incident in the journalism world." Jon Allsop on the ongoing fight against racism in newsrooms, in CJR.

News about the news

🗞️ After a little more than three years as general manager of The Daily Tar Heel, Erica Perel will become director of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at UNC on April 12. It's difficult leaving the DTH, Perel told me this week, but at CISLM "there's a lot of opportunity to jump in and try to figure out the role the center can play in creating a more sustainable and equitable future for local news." 

CISLM helps local news organizations be more sustainable and innovative through research, solutions and new tools, and it runs the UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes program. Perel said she also would like to integrate the center more with the UNC Hussman School, "because when you think about all these great ideas that are being taught and discussed during the Table Stakes program ... we want to make sure that our future journalists are getting exposed to a lot of these best practices, and how journalism is changing."

Perel succeeds Susan Leath, who is now COO of The Groundtruth Project. If you know someone who'd like to be GM of the DTH, here's the application link.

    ➵ Perel and Chrissy Beck, GM of The Chronicle at Duke, wrote for Poynter about their newsrooms’ Rivalry Challenge fundraiser (a replicable idea).

🗞️ Cierra Hinton, executive director-publisher at Scalawag, is leaving her position as co-director of Press On this month. Hinton told me this week that as she nears the end of her second year as a full-time journalist, she is “incredibly grateful for all of the opportunities that have supported me in clarifying my purpose ... my ‘why.'

“My work at Press On affirmed my commitment to championing and supporting BlPOC leadership and BlPOC-led organizations,” she said, adding that she would be “doubling down on that commitment” by continuing her work at Scalawag and by doing even more coaching and consulting. “Six out of the eight organizations I’m coaching are BIPOC-led,” she said, and “I look forward to adding more to that list soon!”

    ➵ Hinton and Robyn Tomlin, president and editor of The News & Observer/Herald-Sun and McClatchy’s Southeast regional editor, are among the nine women who will be featured in a series of Q&As with Madeline Vassallo and Kyra Miller, talking about the successes and struggles of women who are redefining journalism. The series is running this month in Lenfest Institute's Solution Set newsletter. [Learn more and subscribe.]

🗞️ Tom Boney Jr., publisher of the Alamance News, will receive the National Newspaper Association’s First Amendment Award during Sunshine Week on March 18. Boney was removed from a courtroom in Graham in December and briefly handcuffed after arguing for media access to a hearing on charges related to an August protest. He quickly joined others in a legal fight to keep the court’s sessions open. 

🗞️ It’s the third day in the trial of Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri. Follow Register courts reporter William Morris on Twitter for live updates.

Well done

👏 “We’ve been called out on complaints for sewer running out into the field, for sewers not connected, people having homes where they’re using the restroom out in the woods." That's Shane Dotson, director of building inspections for Rutherford County. But there's nothing he can do to help, Korie Dean and Taylor Buck report for Carolina Public Press, because he's in one of 73 North Carolina counties with no minimum housing code.

👏 “(We) were shocked to see the amount of cash that they have accumulated.” Managing editor Nick Stevens of HighSchoolOT reports that legislators are examining the public financial support and administrative role of the private, non-profit N.C. High School Athletic Association in managing public schools’ athletic competition.

👏 “It’s a reminder that hate groups are closer at hand than we think.”  Billy Ball of Cardinal & Pine wrote for The Washington Post about a small-town North Carolina church bought by a white supremacist group.

👏 Blue Ridge Public Radio and Foxfire Mountain Heritage Museum are joining to collect oral histories about the pandemic in Appalachia. Lilly Knoepp of BPR is the lead producer of the project. [Listen to the first installment.]

A little more of that Gateway drug

Charlotte Observer columnist Scott Fowler got the backstory on that celebrated SNL “Weekend Update” sketch skewering the Queen City (“Regional banking capital of the world! Gateway to Gastonia!”) from its co-writer, UNC grad Bryan Tucker — and Fowler includes a pretty funny joke that was cut from Kenan Thompson’s final script. An entertaining piece of reporting, and with 💥bonus content ...

(Disclosure: I grew up in Gastonia ... and that's what we
always called Charlotte.)

On the other side of the North Carolina pop culture wars, Brooke Cain of The News & Observer talked to another UNC grad working in a studio, Bill Martin, to explain how the CBS sitcom “The Unicorn” — shot in LA but set in Raleigh — gets that City of Oaks vibe. Besides the cultural references, Cain explains, the show’s visual cues include an iconic ITB* house; Connells t-shirts (where did you go, Peele Wimberley); and some brewed product placement from Lonerider and Trophy, including the latter’s Cloud Surfer IPA (a refreshing, lightly hazy, herbal New England style with a crisp mouthfeel that makes you wish summer would get here already, IMHO).

* Inside the Beltline.
Bulletin board
Job postings
📌 General manager, The Daily Tar Heel.
📌 Breaking news reporter, The Charlotte Observer.
📌 K-12 education/general assignment reporter, The Daily Dispatch, Henderson.
📌 Reporter, Davidson Local, Lexington.

📌 Trusting News is starting a listening project to find out more about conservatives' views on local news, and to build more trust between local journalists and people who lean right politically. Find out how to participate here.

📌 Nonprofit newsrooms and others that serve underrepresented communities can apply for a Sustainable Publishing Solutions grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Twenty-six publishers will get a one-time grant of $20,000 to adopt or manage a content management system. [Apply by March 31.]

Free help
📌 Engagement and trust, chapters 1-2: Trusting News is presenting a series of reports on how to engage your communities better as part of the work you’re already doing. It saves time, and pays off. [ Part 1 | Part 2 ].

📌 Engagement and trust, chapter 3: Hearken‘s Election SOS project, supported by Trusting News, API and The Democracy Fund, is working with its participants to help journalists find ways to get colleagues and newsroom leaders to buy into journalism that builds trust through engagement. Sign up here to get early access next month to its report, including lessons learned from last year's elections. 

📌 If you're interested in doing solutions journalism, sign up for this one-hour 101 course Thursday at 2pm ET from the Solutions Journalism Network. 
   ➵ The network has more resources at its learning hub.

For your consideration
📌 The essential workers (an oral history project documenting the community in community journalism in middle America). Kristen Hare, Poynter.

📌 Pooled Journalism Funds Could Help Save Local Newspapers. Julie Sandorf, The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
   ➵ BTW: The Local Media Association is expanding its focus on enhancing philanthropy-funded journalism.

'Wanting to be there...'

"I was also absolutely exhausted. I was staying up all hours of the night trying to make sense of what was happening at the university ... I had college students coming to me and asking ‘What do I do? I think I might have COVID,’ or ‘My roommates were out partying last night.’”

Sara Pequeño graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in August 2019 and went to work as a reporter for INDY Week, where she now covers Orange County and Chapel Hill. She’s one of seven journalists who spoke with Julia Craven of Slate about the toll taken by a year of covering traumatic events.

"I’m trying to report the truth ... But at the same time, I’m also a 23-year-old girl. I don’t like rejecting people or making people think that I don’t care about them. So that’s a really complicated feeling of wanting to be there for these college students and also understanding that’s not something I can necessarily do.”

If you're in this space, serving the people of North Carolina with essential information — well, that's being there. So thanks, Sara, and thanks to all of you.
   And I'll leave you with this: On being part of the story. Lauren Harris, CJR. 
That's all for now. I'll see you next week. Take care. 

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