Major gift will fund student news project, professorship

Reese Felts in the 1950s and 1990sThe UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication is launching a major experimental student news project and audience research initiative funded by a $3.5 million gift from the estate of alumnus Reese Felts.

It is the largest single gift ever by an individual to Carolina’s journalism school, and it will also fund a distinguished professorship in the school. Jean Folkerts, dean of the school, announced the gift and project Oct. 1.

(View video of the announcement.)

Felts, a 1952 UNC graduate who worked for nearly 30 years as a radio and television broadcaster in Winston-Salem before retiring in 1980, died earlier this year. He spent most of his career with WSJS, which is now WXII. “The journalism school instilled Reese with an almost-religious awe of the role journalism in our society and the profound importance of a free and responsible press,” said Cowles Liipfert, Felts’ attorney and friend.

“Carolina’s journalism school has always been innovative," Chancellor Holden Thorp said. "It is fitting that a gift from an older generation of journalists will help our students shape the future of news dissemination.”

The school will transform one of its classrooms into a 24-hour newsroom where students will work with faculty to produce and distribute news for a variety of audiences. The newsroom and its publications also will function as a research center to study audiences and communities that form around the news. The flexibility to experiment and test theories is central to the project.

“Every journalism school in the country is talking about creating multimedia projects and converging technologies,” Folkerts said. “But none, to my knowledge, have created an environment that challenges current models and tests the results.”

“We’ll develop ideas, take risks and test how audiences respond,” she said. “We won’t be afraid to make some mistakes along the way. That’s how we learn what works and what doesn’t and how we can help preserve quality journalism in the new media environment. This project will focus on news and its importance within a democratic society.”

The newsroom and an adjacent computer facility create a hub equipped for students in every specialization taught in the school – reporting, editing and design, broadcasting, photojournalism, multimedia, advertising and public relations.

Carolina is part of an initiative funded by the Carnegie Corp. and the Knight Foundation that seeks to help journalism education adapt to the challenges of a struggling news industry. It encourages experimental journalism projects, curriculum enhancement and collaboration with other academic disciplines. The school will host a meeting Oct. 4-5 of deans from top journalism programs participating in the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education.

In 1996, Felts endowed an annual $3,000 scholarship for electronic communication students in the school. In 1997, he named three editing suites in Carroll Hall.

“Reese’s kindness and generosity were well-known by many,” Folkerts said. “His gift enables us to do something unique and meaningful for our students.”

This year, the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication is celebrating 100 years of journalism education at Carolina. Edward Kidder Graham taught UNC’s first journalism course in 1909. The school has grown into a national leader in research and teaching and is helping media adapt during a time of change for the industry. In 2009, the school is launching a new curriculum, converting its television studio to high definition, expanding its global reach and forging new research partnerships to ensure that quality journalism thrives in the digital age.