The Hussman J-school at UNC: Preparing students for the business of news


In response to the shifting tides of journalism in the digital age, the University of North Carolina embarked on a series of adaptations to prepare students for the evolving industry landscape. They are doing this while keeping commitments to public service and traditional reporting skills intact. 

Situated in Chapel Hill, a town of about 62,000, the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina was founded in 1924 and has a rich history of producing journalists dedicated to public service and excellence. Of the nearly 32,000 undergraduate and graduate students at UNC, about 1,000 are enrolled at the Hussman School. In 1950, the Department of Journalism became the School of Journalism and graduated journalists expecting to make an impact in the field.

Under the leadership of Dean Raul Reis, who took office in July 2022, the Hussman School significantly revised its curriculum, infusing courses that can assist students in excelling once they graduate — whether in journalism or other communication fields like advertising or public relations.

One notable addition to the curriculum is the introduction of specialized certificate programs, including a new course on political communication. This offering, which includes a semester-long internship in Washington, D.C., aims to provide students with practical experience in navigating the complexities of political reporting. This will add to the four existing certificates: business communication, sports communication, health communication and marketing, and fashion communication and marketing.

Recognizing the importance of integrating new technologies into journalism education, the Hussman School introduced courses focused on artificial intelligence, data gathering and digital reporting techniques. Reis told E&P the school is hiring faculty who can teach AI as a forward way of looking at helping news organizations grow. Reis, who joined the Hussman School after working as dean at Emerson College’s School of Communication, wants students to think digital-first, be prepared to create opportunities and, in some instances, create their own jobs.

“We are not forgetting the traditional basic skills that will produce good information, reliable information that people can trust and will regain or maintain the trust and the reliability of news organizations or even the financial health,” he said, adding that the school has rid itself of platform concentrations such as magazine and broadcast journalism. “We’re combining that tradition with new technology and a forward way of looking and thinking about journalism in these issues ….”

In addition to technological integration, the Hussman School also expanded its focus to include business education. The school seeks to equip students with the skills needed to succeed in an increasingly competitive industry through initiatives such as an entrepreneurship minor and partnerships with business and entrepreneurial journalism experts. The minor paid dividends, as nearly 200 media and journalism majors have minored in entrepreneurship. The Hussman School also added faculty from business and entrepreneurial journalism backgrounds to bolster the program’s specialization.  

From business journalism to critiques of the state of local and state news, students focus on a variety of courses. However, long-term sustainability, particularly in local news, has taken precedence in helping students and news organizations.

A key component of the school’s efforts to adapt to the changing media landscape is the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (CISLM). Established in 2015, CISLM is dedicated to supporting local news organizations through research, programming and partnerships through opportunities such as the UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes Newsroom Initiative. Among many things, the nonprofit partners with UNC and others to expand ideas to reinvent journalism.  

The Center allows students to connect with local news organization leaders to cover issues and audience engagement properly. CISLM publishes research studies that include an education and outreach component.

Erica Beshears Perel, a graduate of the Hussman School and a journalist for two decades, recently served as general manager of The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper. In 2021, Perel became the director of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (CISLM). Perel told E&P that conversations with journalism students entail — among many things — discussing the relationship between the business model of a news organization and its mission.

“The point is to have healthy, informed communities, a healthy democracy and civically engaged people,” said Perel, adding she wants those who work at the Center to understand its mission. “If we think about that as the end, then maybe we can be creative and flexible about what the news will look like.”

At CISLM, research is done looking at sustainable business strategies. This year, the Center detailed how local media is in disrepair and how local advertising buyers will spend money with local media, particularly in North Carolina. The report demystifies understanding a business model — a concept that Perel wants journalists to know.

“The more an aspiring or early career journalist understands the business models of the various newspapers or news outlets that they want to work for, the better they can decide where to go, or is it worthwhile to spend time in a news outlet, if all indications are that the business model is not working there,” Perel said.

The Center falls under three main banners: leadership training, making community media and convening and connecting to bring people together. "I hope publishers will see our Center as a resource for best practices, as a resource for training, as a resource that can help them do their job better," Perel said.

These days, while Reis is concerned about misinformation and disinformation, he believes AI is the future, and people will always need information. Journalism schools are the first line of defense for communication, he said.

“We have to make sure that they’re getting good information and that we are training people who can produce information at the highest level,” Reis said. “We just have to be prepared for it.”

Keldy Ortiz is a New York-based writer and educator. He has written for publications locally and nationally. (Photo by Michael Jackson)


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