Category Archives: UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communicaiton

The Legacy of An Idea

It’s about a decade since the idea of News21 surfaced among strong deans at some of America’s great journalism schools at great American research universities.
News21 was an idea that would give support and wings to student ideas around serious journalism and new ways to engage audiences. News 21 would live at the J schools and create new laboratories for change that could influence the industry.

Failure—either in project ideas or in execution—was allowable. The financial collapse of news organizations didn’t allow wild ideas to take root. Failure was not an option. But at universities, experimentation is the coin of the realm and Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Knight Foundation believed experimentation was a must in journalism.

I was there at the beginning. When Eric Newton of Knight and I thought the deans had hit on something exciting with the idea of summer well-funded incubators for in-depth reporting and experimentation at great journalism schools. Ten years later, I am now a dean at one of the schools that continues that summer incubator for serious reporting.

I realize I am biased. I think UNC’s J-school and its Powering the Nation, an energy-focused version of News21(that continues even after the foundation support has ended), is sustainable and worth the effort. This summer’s focus on the hog industry and its potential as both a way of life and an energy source re-enforced the power of the idea. Whole Hog is another great year of reporting and of pushing the envelope.

When I read this article about a recent UNC Masters Degree grad from UNC, I felt double-y proud: at the legacy of the idea behind News21 and at what Powering the Nation and graduates like Josh Davis have been able to do.

But don’t read me – read what I discovered in this interview in Ochre by a young journalist. She was at a crossroads in her life and wanted to know where real journalism innovation lives—at the University or in the news industry? Her question: Who Leads?

Made my heart leap to find that idea ten years ago has created a legacy in terms of work and in terms of talent. At Carnegie and Knight we bet on the pipeline of a new generation of young journalists – we bet right.



Los Jets

I sat behind the team. Los Jets. Handsome high school athletes from Siler City, North Carolina. They were dressed for a premiere. Clean shirts. Nice slacks. Big smiles.

It was the premiere of Los Jets. The NUVOtv production about the soccer team at Siler City, North Carolina’s Jordan Matthews High School.

It was a joy to see them respond to a film about them. They laughed. They cheered. They sat transfixed. This wasn’t just a great sports film – and it is. Believe me I cheered when the film showed Los Jets winning points and carrying a game. This was a film about today’s America. It’s a story of struggle, of discrimination, of determination, of success. It is as old as Horatio Alger. American dream meets reality. The dream wins.
I sat in the Fed Ex Global Auditorium Friday night alternately entranced and entertained. You must know I am a softie for sports films. I love the stark battle of winning and loosing that sports offers. Other competitions are less stark, more ambiguous.   I loved the Los Jets TV series when the story was focused on the “win”.

To watch the chapter where the opposing school’s fans sat in the stands and harassed the Siler City young men—telling them to go back home to where they belonged and making derogatory remarks about their Latino culture was infuriating and humiliating. It’s hard to think white North Carolinians like me could be so cruel. I was pleased that the filmmakers distorted the faces of those offending fans. I didn’t want to identify with them. The Los Jets team didn’t let those embarrassing gringos keep them off their game…they won that night and I just beamed. It was a sports movie with all the satisfaction.

But there were so many other TV chapters in the series that really resonated and stayed with me. The story of one young man whose parents thought “it was safe” for him to cross the border and reunite with them when he was 7. The crossing was not safe. He cried on camera remembering.

Americans who leave home for America have always sacrificed it all for the opportunity to begin again, to start fresh, to breathe opportunity. This young Los Jets athlete followed his parents and the pain was very real. Dreams are not the same as reality.

As well, the video chapters on the aspirations and hopes of the athletes who wanted to go to college dug deep into my heart. SAT morning was full of the fear and the anticipation. No one likes those college board tests, but some are more prepared than others. English as a second language, the lack of math from the first grade on, doesn’t make succeeding at SATs easy. Watching the soccer athletes come to UNC and feel the power of the campus, the beauty of this historic place that has always offered its North Carolina students opportunity, was so evident. As well, the difficulty of these young athletes’ desire was all too palatable. As I watched, I wanted to make college happen for them. But the students needed to make it real for themselves and it was unclear to me that they had what is demanded to get into UNC and to receive the scholarships and support they needed.

Los Jets is an amazing program. It has all the elements of great TV. Entertainment. Context. Human stories. Drama. Suspense.   Pathos. Los Jets was better than I could have imagined – and I read the wonderful book by my colleague Paul Cuadros, A Home on the Field, that inspired the program. I left the movie moved. I left entertained. I left in wonder of Jennifer Lopez.   Her company produced the TV series and it’s clear to me she understands communications. She has put her name, her notoriety and her production company behind a program that is so much more than my beloved sports movies.
Los Jets is truly a story about America today. It is a story of the 21st Century immigrant in America. It is also UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication Professor Paul Cuadros’ story.
Paul won’t be the same kind of journalism professor anymore. He is activist; he is educator; he is journalist and he is a national success.   Los Jets is not simply his project anymore. It is a video/television experience.   And it is powerful.





Anticipating Accreditation

Facing the accreditation of a school is not easy.  It’s a demanding process of review, discussion, fact finding and introspection and it is simply daunting.

I spent a day high over Michigan Avenue in Chicago listening to the teams of AEJMC reviewers report on the accreditation visits at 23 universities yesterday.  It began at 8:30 in the morning and they got to the last one at 5:00 as many ran to the airport for flights to university campuses across the country.  I had not looked forward to the day – I knew it would be long and somewhat tedious.  I did not expect it to be so enlightening.
I heard comments about curriculum, tenure, scholarship and skills.  I listened to the narratives of journalism programs fighting for support from administrations, of budget woes in state systems on opposite coasts, of the difficulties in shaping more diverse faculties.  It became fascinating to hear about other campus’ struggles and successes.  We all get caught up in our own strategic needs and plans for the future, but we have much in common.
I felt very lucky as I heard about some of the problems committed faculty face on other campuses.  I felt more lucky when I heard about some schools’ less than impressive scholarship or failed attempts at strengthening its underrepresented faculty numbers.  I realize how much we have in Chapel Hill and what a strong foundation this school is building upon.
That doesn’t mean the next six months will be easier as we drill down into data, articulate our strategic initiatives and prepare for a comprehensive analysis of our assessment of student learning.  This is not easy to do – but after listening to hours of discussion about the power of an academic program and thought about its importance in the lives of our graduates, I decided it is time well spent.

As the J-school at UNC, we have spent a year talking about direction, shaping a strategic plan called The Path Forward, and we are now challenging our curriculum to make sure it stretches our students.  I’ve decided we can expect nothing less from our graduates than they invent modern media – whether they are in news or advertising or strategic communications.

The phrases that will energize me as we systematically review our ideas and program: Is it working?  Is it consistent?  Is it assessing real growth?  Is it about learning? Is everyone involved?  Can we be better?

If it was a long day in a hotel conference room in Chicago yesterday. I realize it will be a longer year preparing and focusing staff and faculty on the process.  I look forward to next year this time when I can look back at it all. At least now I also know it will be a process that will be powerful and that can energize all we are already about.