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$3 Million Grant Aimed at Community Journalism Research Center

The UNC School of Media and Journalism will use a $3 million grant to open a research center to explore new models for community news and support testing and development of digital media products for local news sites.

The grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will be matched with $1 million from the University provost’s office, the University announced Wednesday.

With the funding, school Knight Chairs Penny Abernathy and JoAnn Sciarrino will expand their digital media economics and marketing research focusing on finding patterns and strategies to better sustain legacy news organizations and digital startups.

The research center will build upon the school’s work developing new digital tools and products that can help reporters and editors be more effective and nimble in the newsroom. John Clark, executive director of the school’s Reese News Lab, will lead this effort, along with professors Steven King and Ryan Thornburg ’97. Clark, King and Thornburg have all previously been awarded Knight Foundation support for projects focused on the transformation of news in the digital age.

“UNC’s School of Media and Journalism has long been a leader in community journalism that informs and promotes a sense of place and a sense of purpose,” said James Dean Jr., executive vice chancellor and provost. “We believe the collaboration with Knight underlines the role the university can play in sustaining democracy and reinventing the future of journalism.”

The digital disruption of traditional news organizations has had a disproportionate impact on small and regional news operations, jeopardizing the information needs of local communities across the country, said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism.

“With UNC-Chapel Hill’s help, this new research center will support quality journalism at the local and regional level, examining the depths of the problem and identifying potential and existing solutions that can be replicated,” Preston said. “It will also work to set a new standard for journalism innovation in newsrooms across the country.”

The school will work with Knight to pursue several lines of research and activities around the digital transformation of news organizations — and to share the research findings, information and resources with industry leaders.

Research will help identify solutions that can be replicated in local and regional markets, including:

  • Experimenting with and testing digital media tools and approaches inside newsrooms in North Carolina and around the country that strengthen the quality of journalism, increase audience engagement, involve people in the newsgathering process and address business-development needs from membership to subscription to mobile capability.
  • Identifying local communities that are at risk for becoming “news deserts” and working with news organizations in these areas to research, analyze and document current strategies. Organizations will include for-profit and nonprofit outlets, as well as startup news sites.
  • Leading and hosting a national conversation among academic and industry leaders to share observations on solutions for media sustainability and innovation around digital media economics, the digital transformation of legacy news organizations and opportunities available to emerging news sites.

Support for the UNC School of Media and Journalism is part of Knight Foundation’s efforts to advance excellence in journalism and to help news organizations inform people in communities of all sizes through experimentation, innovation and leadership. Knight has made many investments in this area, including the $5 million Knight Local Media Initiative, which has supported more than 50 online news sites around the country.

Read a column by Dean Susan King of the School of Media and Journalism about the context of the Knight grant and the digital transformation of local media.
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