Q&A with Monty Cook of the Reese Felts Digital Project

The Reese Felts Digital Newsroom at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Monty Cook is executive producer of the Reese Felts Digital Project at UNC-Chapel Hill. In that role, he is the leader of a newsroom and research center at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Before coming to the university in 2010, Cook was senior vice president and editor of the Baltimore Sun. He has also worked at newspapers in Orlando, Myrtle Beach, Akron and Washington. D.C. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Cook describes his job, the goals of the Reese Felts project and the future of journalism education.

Q. Describe your job. What does the executive director of the Reese Felts Digital Project do?

A. It’s my role, and the role of Tony Zeoli, our lead developer, to work with students on projects, on programming, and on the site, as they develop the necessary skills and critical thinking needed to be journalists in the 21st century. We have resisted any model that forces students to simply shovel content onto the site. We don’t believe that students learn anything from working in a digital sweatshop or content assembly line.

We discuss stories. We talk about story form. We talk about technology. We talk about audience expectations. We talk about what’s happening in the industry and the culture.

We direct, challenge and work with students to put their work in the best possible position for audiences. We also allow students the time and freedom to choose some stories of their own to pursue. But through our experience we can create teaching moments along the way. Our student staff has been wonderful to work with. They’ve been engaged, energized and professional.

We also decide on the direction of the project; what research initiatives to pursue, which partnerships to form for the benefit of students and the project as a whole.

We’ve taken two steps since summer. We’ve renovated and created the space for the physical newsroom, and we’ve launched a news and information site in a little more than two months. It’s just two steps, and there are many more to come: hyper-local journalism, opinion, sports journalism, original programming and multiple audience research projects.

Q. Where does the Reese Felts site fit into the media landscape on campus, in Chapel Hill and beyond?

A. Reese Felts has many missions. We give students digital skill sets and practical application through story development, production and publishing across multiple platforms. Our site, reesenews.org, serves as not only an outlet for students’ work but the foundation for the project’s audience research initiatives. We look to create natural partnerships with legacy, new media and citizen journalists. That gives us an opportunity to look at strategies to help companies continue making the transition to the evolving digital and cultural audience habits.

Will we cover the university and Chapel Hill? Absolutely. We’ll cover the region, North Carolina and occasional national stories, too. Our goal is to experiment with story form — we’re already doing that with non-traditional sports game coverage — and also with long-form journalism and documentary style.

We believe that emerging platforms, like the iPad and other tablet devices, will ultimately change how journalism is presented. There will be more of a menu for story form options as audiences transition. But data visualization, animation and gaming will have roles to play, too.

Q. As editor of the Baltimore Sun, you oversaw significant layoffs at the newspaper, particularly on the copy desk. What do you see as the role of editing in today’s media?

A. It’s just as important in new media as it is in legacy media, maybe more so. Proper search engine optimization and learning how to draw audiences to articles, video, other content, is layered onto the critical roles of editing for context, for grammar, for structure, for word usage. Newspaper editors, news directors, they’re all being forced into false choices because of the audience transition to new platforms and the poor economy.

That said, journalism roles are becoming less specialized. Journalists need to understand programming, marketing and social media, editing and solid SEO. Those principles are no longer the roles of just a few in a modern newsroom. They have to be top-of-mind for everyone.

Q. You are a graduate of UNC’s journalism school. How has journalism education changed from when you were a student, and what changes do you see ahead?

A. Well, there was no digital newsroom in the mid-1980s. And I have many fond memories of the j-school from my time as an undergraduate. Jim Schumaker, covering town zoning board meetings for Dr. Donald Shaw’s class. I was in Jan Yopp’s news editing class the morning that Challenger exploded on liftoff. The teletype machines were going crazy in the next room.

But even if platforms have evolved, the Web, mobile, now tablet devices — and there will be others — the importance journalism plays in culture remains a constant. The barriers to entry are lower. You no longer have to be The Washington Post or The New York Times to provide news.

Citizen journalism and blogging continue to provide outlets for news, commentary and information. There has never been greater access to news and information. It’s just more fragmented. And it also may not be as in-depth.

Traditional news outlets have struggled with staff attrition. Small and mid-sized newspapers still provide quality watchdog functions to their readers. They may have to pick their spots, however, without the greater bandwidth of a large staff. There are some local broadcast outlets that provide valuable accountability journalism. The Raleigh-Durham market is an excellent one in that respect.

I think we’ll continue to see non-legacy news outlets rise, some broad-based, others niche. Whatever you think of The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast or even Gawker, those sites have large followings.

Reesenews.org, on a student level, will look at different models. We constantly ask how we can serve journalism, both from a practical and theoretical standpoint, on current and emerging platforms. The site itself is non-traditional and looks to create a design bridge between the browser and tablet interface experiences.

It’s about using technology in service of story, not as a toy at the expense of solid storytelling. It’s about using technology in service of reporting. Crowdsourcing and engaging with audiences, followers, after a story publishes are critically important to the newsgathering and dissemination processes.

It’s about understanding that metadata and search engine optimization are as important to the editing process as grammar, line edits, structure and usage.

We work with students on putting the vast digital knowledge and multitasking ability they already possess into the framework of 21st century journalism.

And the thing is, that’s what we see as the need in journalism education — now. As technology and culture continues to evolve, we’ll evolve.

UPDATE: Monty Cook has resigned as leader of the Reese Felts project because of inappropriate relations with a student. Faculty member Don Wittekind is serving in that role on an interim basis.