A Harebrained Idea
A look at The Assembly’s game plan to create an ambitious read for a growing state // Art by The Assembly
The Assembly started as an idea nine months ago.
It was the doldrums of the pandemic. Masks had mostly become a thing already, but we still believed in hourly handwashing. I was pacing in a studio apartment and rambling into a phone about gaps in our state’s journalism scene. A handful of writer friends served as a skeptical but friendly audience, who kindly reminded me that, though well-intentioned, I was clearly insane. But the idea wouldn’t go away, and so I kept it inching forward.
My first serious pitch was to an absolute giant of this state. He’s the kind of guy who has told presidents that their ideas are bad. When he didn’t laugh me off the phone, I chose to take it as a victory.
My second pitch was to a newspaper publisher, who later told me he’d thought I was kidding when I first told him my idea. But he didn’t say that at the time—so again, onward I went.
Sometime in the months ahead, things shifted from idea to reality. Maybe that happened sometime between commissioning our first long-form piece and commissioning our twentieth. Or maybe it wasn’t until the first drafts arrived, or until a few bipartisan and generous souls invested early to fund our launch. Or maybe it wasn’t until today, when we clicked Publish on our first seven pieces.
But here we are: Feb. 16, 2021. And I’m proud to welcome you to The Assembly.
The Assembly is a digital magazine about North Carolina. We hire great writers, illustrators, and photographers, and deliver nuanced reporting about this state. We go deep on big stories, and we ask interesting people to make interesting arguments.
We’re a twice-weekly newsletter—appearing in your inbox Wednesdays and Sundays—without clutter or clickbait.
But most of all we’re a belief: that if we paid half as much attention to NC as we do to DC, we’d not only strengthen our state, but we’d also find renewed faith and agency in what’s around us. Place matters—and attention to place matters. It’s time to recalibrate and direct some of our energy toward this complicated entity we call home.
We’re not comfort food. We’ll publish things you disagree with, and we’ll go out of our way to avoid the easy, righteous outrage that drives too much of the news industry right now. Our articles won’t try to confirm your prior beliefs, but they will make arguments in good faith and present tough, well-reported counterpoints.
We won’t be offering lifestyle journalism—no vacation tips, recipes, or best-of lists. There are people who do that very well already, and we’re not trying to compete with them. Our approach is different.
Our launch stories are heavy on politics, and you’ll see more political stories moving forward. But you’ll also see big pieces on education and higher education, the environment, the media, the arts, business, and a lot more.
This doesn’t come free. Everyone gets one article a month, but our goal is to build a community that pays a reasonable price for good journalism. It’s a model that will allow us to pay our writers fairly and give them the time and space to do good work. I think North Carolina is a big enough, prosperous enough state to sustain this kind of journalism. I hope I’m right.
Our first pieces jump from Tarboro to Asheboro, Graham to Raleigh. In the weeks ahead, we’ll be in Rocky Mount and Greenville, Wilkesboro and Asheville, Wilmington and Lumberton, Charlotte and Chapel Hill. We’ll be up and down the Cape Fear and the Haw, in museum archives and gilded halls, affordable housing and blaring recording studios. This state is big and fascinating, and we’re going to cover it all, one story at a time.
Our writers and creatives will be people who share the experiences and backgrounds of the people of this state. That means we’ll be intentional in elevating diverse talent. You can’t effectively report on North Carolina as a whole if your writers are all white men from Chapel Hill.
Nor can you fully capture a state if your team all thinks the same about policy and ideology. So we’re building a kitchen cabinet of the state’s smartest policy wonks—left, right, and center—and listening to what they think should be debated and examined.
If there is a single guiding ideology behind The Assembly, it’s equality of access. This state suffers from information inequality, where a small circle of well-connected and well-heeled folks have a seat at the table and everyone else just gets to hear about the results. We want to change that.
We can’t continue to be a backroom state, a place where business titans and good ol’ boys hash out big decisions in small meetings. That’s a bad way of doing things—and this is true across party lines. No matter who you are or what you believe, if you’re not in the room, you’re in the dark.
I’ve been in some of those rooms, back when I worked for former UNC President Margaret Spellings and former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt. As a speechwriter does, I spent most of my time at the back of the room on a folding chair. But what I saw were powerful institutions that both chose to, and were forced to, deal with their most powerful opponents and supporters behind closed doors.
That sort of under-the-radar obscurity—which certainly isn’t unique to the university system—leads to apathy and cynicism among the 10 million North Carolinians who are not in that room. It’s bad for our politics, and it’s bad for our state. Good reporting can change that.
Over the last nine months, I’ve talked to dozens of editors, writers, leaders, creatives, and thinkers. There’s a groundswell for this kind of deep reporting, and there’s plenty of talent ready to do it. What’s missing is a media outlet specifically designed to carry it out.
The name of The Assembly is partly a nod to the General Assembly. But it’s really a reference to the act of assembling a state through its disparate parts: people, ideas, and institutions. Who has power, how did they get it, and what are they doing with it? It’s questions like these that we seek to answer.
We believe a state doesn’t just exist. It’s built. And it’s time we built ours.
So what can you do to help?
Subscribe. $3 a month gets you everything. You can also pay more to get exclusive content, regular updates on the magazine, and an evolving set of thank-you gifts. At the end of the day, this is a bet on subscriber journalism. We think North Carolina can support an institution the same way Texas does the Texas Monthly. But we need you to subscribe to make that happen.
Pitch us. We hire freelance writers to write big stories. We pay well, and we pair you with a collaborative editor, outside fact-checking, meticulous copyediting, and a top-tier creative team. We also work with contributors who may never have written under their own name, but who have an interesting argument that matters for this state. Work with us, and we’ll help you hone your thoughts and sharpen your thesis.
Are you an editor, publisher, substacker, podcaster, or any other type of media mogul? Reach out, and let’s talk and see if there’s space to collaborate. There usually is.
Spread the word. This thing will only work if we grow, so tell your friends. Tell your colleagues. Forward our newsletter. Share our stories.
Really love this? Invest in us. We’re halfway through our initial seed round. If you’re intrigued by the idea, reach out and we’ll pitch you the full business case. Not interested in investing, but eager to hear about the economics of media start-ups? We’d love to talk with you.