New fellowship program creates early career opportunities, strengthens local publications and fills news void in the Triangle

By Caitlyn Yaede

Low pay, grunt work and scant benefits are hallmarks of many early-career opportunities in journalism. So when the leaders of INDY Week, Scalawag Magazine and The Assembly decided to create a year-long fellowship, they knew it had to be different.

The collaborative fellowship they created pays a living wage, builds in editing and mentoring with established editors and includes access to best practices in community engagement and opportunities for deep enterprise reporting. The intended result: better Durham news coverage and an enriched journalism pipeline.

“Durham, NC” by James Willamor is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

INDY Week, an alt-weekly that just celebrated its 40th anniversary, is partnering with digital magazines The Assembly and Scalawag Magazine to employ two fellows starting this fall. Scalawag was part of the UNC Knight Table Stakes program in 2017, and the Assembly was in the program in 2022.

The business operations of the INDY Week are currently being managed by The Assembly, which was founded in February 2021 by Kyle Villemain with the goal of producing long-form news in North Carolina.

The fellowship partnership will help build a pipeline for early career journalists while filling news gaps in the Triangle with INDY’s strengthened reporting power, Villemain said. Meanwhile, Cierra Hinton, executive director and publisher of Scalawag Magazine, said the magazine’s leadership wanted to do what they could to help INDY Week endure.

Jane Porter, editor-in-chief of INDY Week, said the increased resources and talent will allow the news organization to deepen coverage. The alt-weekly has traditionally covered Orange, Wake and Durham counties, something it has struggled to do well in recent years, Porter said. The two additional reporters will allow them to better cover Durham.

“I’m a big believer that local journalism matters and that we need our best talent staying local and reporting on what’s around them,” Villemain said. “And this is an attempt to be a little bit of that solution.”

Each publication, Hinton said, brings its own strengths to the program: The Assembly has provided editorial and financial support to INDY Week. The INDY editors are well-positioned to provide hands-on, intentional editing and management of the fellows. Scalawag will bring a community-first mindset and engagement training to the fellows.

This, Hinton says, was integral to their decision to launch.

The fellows will work in the INDY Week’s combined offices with the Assembly, Porter said. One will report to Porter covering Durham while an arts and culture fellow will be supervised by INDY Week’s Arts and Culture Editor Sarah Edwards.

The Assembly began having conversations in the fall with Scalawag Magazine, Villemain said. He said the magazine’s presence in Durham was a driving factor for their partnership.

“We started to understand the needs that INDY Week has and how those needs align with things that we’re doing and thinking about doing at Scalawag,” Hinton said. Scalawag has made a two-year commitment to the fellowship program.

Scalawag is a digital abolitionist media organization that covers marginalized folks in the South. The fellowship is a way to support emerging writers from the South who hold marginalized identities, Hinton said.

“We have an opportunity to make space in a way that feels important,” she said.

The collaborators worked intentionally to design a fellowship that is accessible and innovative.

Fellows will be paid a $60,000 salary, with benefits, for the year-long program. “If journalism jobs do not pay enough, then that really restricts who can pursue them,” Villemain said.

The fellowship is all about equipping young journalists with the skills they need to work in a newsroom and pursue the next steps in their careers, Hinton said. For example, fellows will be given space to pursue in-depth stories rather than be expected to produce daily content, Villemain said.

“We want to make sure that they have time to do the kind of quality of work that will both set them up for applying for other jobs, but also just help train them as great journalists,” Villemain said.

Meanwhile, Villemain said community and audience events are a major part of Scalawag’s programming, and they hope to teach fellows to connect with people, build relationships and be responsive to the communities they report on.

Hinton says the program is a test – but one that Scalawag Magazine believes in.

“If other partners, especially if funders, are interested in supporting the work, there is ample opportunity to do so and we invite that collaboration,” she said. “We are excited to share the learnings of the program and enhance or shift existing fellowship models to make them more equitable or inspire other fellowship opportunities.”