Broadcaster's estate gives $3.5M to UNC journalism school

Posted October 1, 2009 11:57 a.m. EDT

— The estate of late Winston-Salem broadcaster Reese Felts has given $3.5 million to the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for an experimental student news project and audience research initiative, officials said Thursday.

The donation is the largest single individual gift to the journalism school.

Felts, a 1952 UNC graduate who worked for nearly 30 years as a radio and television broadcaster before retiring in 1980, died this year. He spent most of his career with WSJS-TV, which is now WXII-TV.

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 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.

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. But none, to my knowledge, has created an environment that challenges current models and tests the results," Jean Folkerts, dean of the journalism school, said in a statement.

"We'll develop ideas, take risks and test how audiences respond," Folkerts 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 donation also will fund a distinguished professorship in the journalism school.

"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," Cowles Liipfert, Felts' attorney and friend, said in the statement.

UNC is part of an initiative funded by 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.