Q&A with Mary Miller of the N.C. Newsroom Cooperative

The N.C. Newsroom Cooperative is part of The Frontier, a co-working space in Research Triangle Park.
The N.C. Newsroom Cooperative is part of The Frontier, a co-working space in Research Triangle Park.

Mary Miller is president and co-founder of the N.C. Newsroom Cooperative, a co-working space in Research Triangle Park. She previously worked as a reporter and columnist at The News & Observer and as special assistant to the provost at Clemson University. In this interview, conducted by email, Miller discusses the objectives of the cooperative, her role there and the outlook for journalism in North Carolina.

Q. What is the North Carolina Newsroom Cooperative? What is its purpose?

A. Our mission is to support and promote the work of independent journalists and nonfiction storytellers, and the way that we are doing that is by creating a nonprofit business cooperative with a newsroom co-working space.

The idea of co-working spaces and business incubators is popular these days. We see this as a new twist on what makes a newsroom such a fun and vital place: a space and support system to serve all the kinds of people with the differing skills required to produce and publish a fact-based story. The reality is that a lot of journalists these days don’t work out of a newsroom anymore, or if they do, the newsroom is a much emptier place than it used to be.

So the co-working component provides camaraderie and mentorship that we miss so much when we work in isolation. It’s a place to work and improve your work, to bounce ideas, acquire on-the-job training, collaborate and given the ever-interesting cast of characters, learn to navigate the rest of the world.

We see that people who are not employed by traditional media outlets are actually producing high-quality and essential journalism that deserves wider reach. Together we’re attempting to define and nurture this evolving media and communications ecosystem, to widen the tent and promote collaboration while preserving integrity, transparency and accountability.

That’s why we’ve organized in the cooperative model: because every member must adhere to the SPJ code of ethics and must be willing to give of their time and talents. How do we improve the quality and reach of nonfiction storytelling? That question is our North Star.

We’re a diverse group of professionals coming from the realms of media, academia, tech, nonprofit and corporate who value the necessity of a vibrant free press and ethically produced fact-based storytelling. Our group took a look at North Carolina and the Triangle in particular and realized that we have not only a large and diverse class of professional storytellers, but we’re so lucky to have the kinds of people in the tech industry and in academia who are forging these new frontiers in the gathering, telling and dissemination of information.

We had an opportunity to move forward with the idea thanks to the generous support of The Research Triangle Foundation (disclosure: I am married to CEO and President Bob Geolas), which grants us space and basic furnishings at The Frontier, a co-working space in RTP, in exchange for programming.

The programming we’re working on will help people be better journalists, more facile at technology that allows them to cross platforms to further their work, as well as programming that helps them to be better business entrepreneurs. We are looking at ways to offer bundled tech support to drive down the cost of digital publishing and most importantly, to free up their time to do the actual work of gathering and telling stories. And we’ll offer ways to market and promote their work on our website, as well as partner with strategic partners seeking quality content.

One striking difference from a traditional newsroom is that we host events to bring the public to The Frontier to raise the level of civic conversation. For instance, we had presidential historian William Leuchtenburg, William Rand Kenan Jr. professor emeritus of history at UNC-Chapel Hill, out on Super Tuesday to talk about the press’s relationship with American presidents this century. We are also working on screening some documentaries about important North Carolina stories this fall.

Q. Describe your role at the cooperative as co-founder and president.

A. Fancy titles, but as anyone with startup experience knows, the job description is “do what needs to be done.” This is a large group effort.

I am main point of contact. Our co-founders are veteran journalist Seth Effron, a digital pioneer who has recently taken a new position with Capitol Broadcasting Company, leading the web-based opinion section on WRAL.com, and media lawyer Hugh Stevens.

Our board includes Brett Chambers, who teaches journalism at N.C. Central University and is president of the Triangle chapter of National Association of Black Journalists; Teri Saylor who owns Open Water Communications; News & Observer columnist J. Peder Zane; Fiona Morgan, a former Indy Week staff writer who’s now journalism program director at the nonprofit Free Press; Joe Dew, a former political reporter for The News & Observer who also has experience in nonprofit management; and Ryan Stancil, one of the founders of the digital magazine Bit & Grain.

Beyond that, we have a core group of about a dozen more colleagues who have put in some money and time to get this off the ground. They are photographers, information designers, documentarians, established publishers of niche news websites like The Carolina Mercury and North Carolina Health News, startups like and Broken Toilets, which covers global and local development issues. Our members include freelance reporters, editors, photographers, copy editors, publishers of online magazines, documentarians, documentary filmmakers, information design specialists, and social media managers.

Q. How can someone get involved with cooperative?

A. We are in the process of defining membership and benefits, and officially kick off our membership drive in October. Don’t wait to make contact! Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter at @CoopNewsroomNC. Check out www.ncnewsroom.org.

But by all means, come visit. We’re at The Frontier, 800 Park Offices Drive, Durham. To do that, email maryemiller@ncnewsroom.com, or call me on my cell at 919-607-4069.

While we are always looking for people who identify as journalists and communicators, we are also in need of the talents of design and data visualization specialists, researchers, app developers, even social media managers. Diversity of skills will make us stronger.

Q. What’s your sense of where journalism is going, in North Carolina and beyond?

A. Storytelling has always been the most powerful means of communication. The question is whether it will ever become the most financially valuable. That I doubt.

Technology has democratized the telling of stories in ways that most people could barely imagine even six or seven years ago. Look at how Facebook livestream has changed news just this summer.

Having a smartphone and rolling video doesn’t really make you a journalist. Content isn’t context. And instant information, as we so often see, can be misleading.

Audiences are more sophisticated. So are businesses. They understand that they are best served by factual information because it’s getting easier to fact-check claims. People expect transparency.

Newspapers and other forms of media may falter, and some will die. Nonfiction storytelling won’t. I am amazed and heartened at the number of young professionals who, out of passion for story and community are launching projects and gathering stories, becoming multimedia publishers with a cellphone and technology that can fit in a knapsack. Their flexibility to absorb information and post in varying platforms is impressive, but even more so is their innate understanding of what makes a story and what might be the best form of telling.

Our youngest child, Josephine, is 8. She makes a movie trailer almost every time she gets her hands on my iPhone. She knows more about structure and plot than I did going into college. That tells me we are on the right course.