The Assembly, a year-old outlet focused on deeply reported state-level journalism, announces a plan to scale: a community-raised philanthropic start-up fund.
By Kyle Villemain
When The Assembly launched a year ago, we were scrappy to the point of falling apart.
We had a few weeks of cash on hand, an untested idea about how to make more money, and were banking it all on a grand vision for longform reporting about power.
A year later, we’re in a very different place. Every week, we publish a deeply reported longform story. It’s driving subscriber growth. It’s turning heads and shifting institutions. It’s nuanced, complicated journalism for a nuanced, complicated state.
We’re still under-resourced, at least in comparison to a tech startup or a legacy media outlet. But we’re bullish about the path forward and are proud to take a big step towards what’s next.
Today, we’re announcing a new partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, a national nonprofit whose board includes an array of great journalism leaders with ties to North Carolina, including Orage Quarles, Sharif Durhams, Anders Gyllenhaal, and Jim Goodmon. JFP’s mission is to increase the depth, diversity, and sustainability of local journalism by building and stewarding connections between funders and local news organizations.
With JFP as our fiscal sponsor, we’re setting a goal to raise $3 million from individual donors and foundations over the next two years—money that will fund 22 new full-time reporter positions at The Assembly. That funding will sustain the positions for two years; afterwards, The Assembly will assume the costs of maintaining the jobs.
It’s a solution to a dilemma for us: Our data show that great reporting drives subscriptions. We believe we can grow our subscribers quickly enough to support a group of full-time journalists dedicated to big stories in North Carolina. But it will still take time.
So how do we bridge the gap between what we can fund now, and what we believe we’ll be able to fund in two to three years?
Finding “growth capital” isn’t a problem unique to journalism start-ups. But in some ways, it’s far more acute for the journalism world.
There’s no shortage of venture capitalists who will invest in a high-risk, high-reward tech startup—like the next big biotech or software company—and provide millions of dollars for the company to grow. But unless you’re Ben and Justin Smith, investors aren’t eager to do the same for a similarly high-risk journalism start-up. Especially one focused on a single state.
Nor should new media outlets turn to traditional business loans. If we’ve learned anything from the rise and fall of the biggest media chains, it’s that taking on high levels of debt makes it virtually impossible to find a successful business model. Top of mind in North Carolina is McClatchy’s 2006 acquisition of Knight Ridder.
So The Assembly is turning to a third option: a philanthropic start-up fund. We’re raising money from North Carolinians, using that money to fund new positions, and then committing to assuming the costs of those positions once the philanthropic money runs out.
But we’re also taking it one step further: Over the years to come, we’ll also be giving the amount of money we raised back to the larger journalism and philanthropic community.
Starting in 2023, The Assembly will give five percent of everything we earn to someone else.
That means partnerships, grants, and sponsorships. It means support for emerging news outlets, entrepreneurial journalists looking to start on their own, and back-end support like legal fees or data software for freelancers.
Because even when The Assembly succeeds at our core mission of deep reporting on big questions about power, there will still be plenty of other journalistic needs out there. And we want our success to help others succeed as well.
We’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do. The types of journalism that can make (some) money should help fund the types of journalism that can’t - or who need runway to prove they can.
But it’s also strategic. The future of news is in partnerships. But partnerships without skin in the game are a waste. This is The Assembly’s commitment to a higher form of journalistic collaboration: the kind that comes with subsidies for great journalism.
Here’s the fine print: We’ll be ramping up our giving and plan to fully meet this “revenue share” pledge by the end of 2023. We’ll provide JFP with detailed quarterly reports of where the money went and how it is being used. We'll publicly post a detailed, annual report of where the money went and how it is being used. We’ll list publicly all who give to The Assembly.
And we’re grateful for the help and guidance of the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund at the North Carolina Community Foundation, and its leader Lizzy Hazeltine, as we structure how these funds will flow to other organizations.
While this is a new approach, Journalism Funding Partners is not an untested entity. It’s a 501c3 organization (making donors’ gifts to them tax-deductible) which stewards raised funds and works with outlets like ours to fund great journalism that contributes to local and regional social good.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, JFP has coordinated the funding of nearly 50 positions at 35 news organizations, covering areas such as education, economic mobility, inclusivity, the environment, and the arts. For example, in 2021, JFP worked with funders to grow the number of journalists covering climate and the environment in the Carolinas from one to five.
That’s crucial to sustaining the hard work of daily beat journalism that can always use more funding to thrive.
But with our approach, we’re excited to open a new front in what JFP’s model can do. Because The Assembly’s partnership with JFP is going beyond sustaining an outlet.
Together, we’re going to build a new one. And to tackle today’s news crisis, we’ll need both approaches: Keeping what’s out there strong, while building new models to fill the voids.
All this is a financial path to our founding mission: reimagined state-level journalism.
The funds raised in partnership with JFP will fund seven full-time “lead reporters” across the state, embedded in communities and tasked with leading local partnerships, developing source networks, editing Assembly stories about their area, and doing some reporting of their own.
It will also fund more than a dozen full-time beat reporters across the state, focused on everything from state government to education, banking and start-ups to the environment. Their differentiator will be their mandate: write a big monthly story on power in your beat.
It will allow us to become something new: a digital magazine producing a big daily cover story for North Carolina. All while keeping our focus on slower, more methodical news full of narrative, context, and scoops.
Just like a year ago when The Assembly launched, risks and challenges remain. We don’t have this money in-hand, just the plan and infrastructure to raise it. What’s next for The Assembly will only work if North Carolinians believe in the vision and support it through JFP.
But strengthening state-level news, and doing so in a fundamentally different way than currently exists, remains our best bet at strengthening the ties that bind us.
There are a lot of ways to use your philanthropic dollars. This one seems like a pretty darn good one.
Kyle Villemain is The Assembly’s editor-in-chief. For more information on how to financially support this partnership with a tax-deductible gift, visit: www.theassemblync.com/fundraise