The Knight Foundation and the UNC School of Media and Journalism are teaming up for a $4 million effort to seek new digital media ideas for local news sites deal with “digital disruption.”

UNC will use the funding to launch a “research center” with John Clark, executive director of UNC’s Reese News Lab, leading the effort.

The Reese lab is already working with students to research and develop digital tools for journalists. It also has launched a product, Captiol Hound, focused on coverage of the N.C. General Assembly. In July, the Reese lab landed a $150,000 Knight grant for a project to track political campaign speech.

In launching the program, UNC says the effort reflects the “digital disruption” created through the Internet and web on traditional news delivery.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is contributing $3 million. A $1 million match is being provided by the UNC Provost’s Office.

“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, in announcing the grant.

“With UNC-Chapel Hill’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.”

School of Media and Journalism Knight Chairs Penny Abernathy and JoAnn Sciarrino will expand their digital media economics and marketing research as well, UNC says.

Professors Steven King and Ryan Thornburg also are part of the effort, working with Clark at the Reese lab.

“UNC’s 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.”

According to UNC, key points in the research program will include:

  • 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 news gathering 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.