Innovation and sustainability in community journalism focus of new $4 million University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism initiative

Knight Foundation invests $3 million to launch new research center

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Sept. 9, 2015—The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill today announced that it will open a new research center to explore new models for community news and support the testing and development of innovative digital media products for local news sites. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is investing $3 million to launch the research center at the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism, with a $1 million match from the University Provost’s Office.

With the funding, University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism Knight Chairs Penny Muse Abernathy and JoAnn Sciarrino will expand their digital media economics and marketing research. The research focuses on finding patterns and strategies to better sustain legacy news organizations and digital startups in the 21st century.

The research center will further allow the school to build upon its 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 university’s Reese News Lab will lead this effort, along with professors Steven King and Ryan Thornburg. Clark, King and Thornburg have all previously been awarded Knight Foundation support for projects focused on the transformation of news in the digital age.

“The 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 Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost James W. Dean, Jr. “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 the University of North Carolina’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. It will also work to set a new standard for journalism innovation in newsrooms across the country.”

The School of Media and Journalism will work with Knight to pursue multiple lines of research and activities around the digital transformation of news organizations — and share the research findings, information and resources with industry leaders to encourage discussion and interaction.

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 University of North Carolina 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.  

About the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism

The University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism’s responsibility is to train the next generation of media professionals, including journalists, strategic communicators, teachers and researchers – and to serve journalism and communication professionals. We hold true to the core principles of media and journalism education while leading the transformation in the digital communications environment.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit


Kyle York, Assistant to the Dean for Communications, University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism, (919) 966-3323, [email protected]

MC VanGraafeiland, Media Relations Manager, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, (919) 962-7090, [email protected]

Anusha Alikhan, Director of Communications, Knight Foundation, (305) 908-2677, [email protected]