Photo courtesy of Baxter Miller

How Bit + Grain covers North Carolina’s culture

April 14, 2015
Photo courtesy of Baxter Miller

To look at its reader engagement on social media — particularly on image-sharing app Instagram — you wouldn’t know that Bit + Grain, a magazine focused on stories about North Carolina, launched just four weeks ago. It has engagement that would make more established local outlets salivate. Posts related to the publication’s inaugural story about the state’s infamous college basketball rivalries generated dozens of enthusiastic comments, and several “how to” series related to recent stories have hundreds of “likes.”

Many journalists groan at having to track these kind of metrics, but the founders of Bit + Grain are cut from a different cloth: Sandra Davidson is a writer and folklorist, Baxter Miller is a photographer, Ryan Stancil is a non-profit executive with a background in business, and they all graduated in 2011 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The team believes that their varied experiences — and deep connection to the history and culture of North Carolina — have put them in a unique position to fill what they describe as a gap in the local media landscape where a growing creative community is clamoring for a more nuanced and vibrant chronicle of their state.

“I think North Carolina is a perfect example of a state with both urban and rural cultures, and there’s a lot of change happening in this state,” says Davidson. “We saw a space for people to take a different approach to documenting those changes through those different threads of both the urban and the rural, in a way that isn’t being done here.”

To that end, Bit + Grain, named for an entry in North Carolina native and Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Green’s Wordbook: An Alphabet of Reminiscence, is defined as “an inclusive statement of every item, every consideration, or point of view.” And the digital-only publication seeks to live up to its name by publishing weekly multimedia features with a sense of place, told through word, image, audio, video, and illustration.

The inaugural piece, “The People of Tobacco Road,” featured 12 short audio interviews and two written personal narratives with hardcore fans of North Carolina’s biggest college basketball teams just in time for the beginning of March Madness. The following week’s piece described a visit — in words, photos, illustrations, and audio — to a little-known Mardi Gras tradition in Carteret County. Another told the story of a Vietnamese chef and a professor at North Carolina State University who met when the professor was in Vietnam. Their friendship eventually brought the chef on Hillsborough Street, NC, where he built a life and a restaurant.

Davidson says that while so far the stories have focused on culture, Bit + Grain will take on harder stories, tackling the political and social issues affecting a “purple state” like North Carolina through stories about people and places, rather than specific incidents or scandals.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The aesthetic of the pieces published so far is clean and modern. The stories engaging, and they come at a time when longform journalism is making a comeback thanks to thoughtful design and attention to audience engagement. But Davidson, Stancil, and Miller have sunk a lot of their own money into this project and are at present unable to pay contributors, who volunteered their work for the first batch of stories. The founders have plans that they hope will make the publication to self-sustaining, however.

The first bunch of stories were sponsored with a unique model that borrows from native advertising and public media-style “commercials” without truly fitting into either classification. At the top of each story is a short note about its sponsor, all of which have thus far been local businesses. The story about the Vietnamese chef and NCSU professor was sponsored by Farmer’s Daughter Pickles and Preserves, with a link to the company’s website and a short profile of Farmer’s Daughter featured at the top of the story page. Future plans include adding a retail component to the site where visitors could buy goods produced in North Carolina. The team plans to launch the Old North Purveyor, “a collection of curated goods,” this summer.

But it’s the final prong of Bit + Grain’s funding strategy that may be of most interest to the traditional media crowd: Once the Web product really gets going, its founders hope to branch out into print. Other digital startups, like Capital New York and Pitchfork, have found additional revenue bases doing this in recent years.

“Part of what we want to do is document the history of North Carolina, so we are toying with how to put that into a print publication that you wouldn’t simply toss away at the end of the month; something that would stick on your shelf for years to come,” Stancil says. One iteration of this might be a coffee table book with the magazine’s “best of” from the previous year that would showcase both the imagery and written stories that resonated the most with online viewers, says Davidson.

The initial audience for Bit + Grain may not seem like the coffee table book type; they’re largely millennials, college students through 20-somethings with a close relationship with their Instagram accounts. Social media is, in fact, a big part of how the founders built up their initial audience. I discovered the magazine through an Instagram account that follows the life of a different Raleigh-area resident each day. But Stancil says they’re already seeing a “spider-web effect” to other generations.

“There’s something intrinsic about people who live in North Carolina that they love the state, they are vested in the direction of our state, and interested in the culture that we have. That certainly works to our benefit.”

Kaitlin Ugolik is a journalist based in New York who covers the law, health, technology, and the media.