Q&A with John Clark, executive producer of UNC’s Reese Felts Digital Newsroom

John Clark is executive producer of the Reesenews project at UNC-Chapel Hill. Before taking that job this summer, he was general manager of WRAL.com, the award-winning website of the CBS affiliate in Raleigh, N.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Clark talks about his new job and what’s ahead for the project.

Q. Describe your job as the leader of the Reese project. What is your typical day like?

A. I don’t know that I’ve had a typical day yet. I’ve used my first month here to get acclimated with the project and the school. Most of my time has been spent getting ready for the fall semester. That has involved creating a new organizational structure, writing job descriptions and outlining what I’d like to see happen in the first year.

Q. Reesenews is entering its second year of existence. What do you see as the site’s successes? Shortcomings?

A. Interactivity has clearly been a huge success with the project (example: NCAA Probe: http://reesenews.org/2010/12/16/staying-in-bounds/7929/). I am amazed at the students’ creativity and skill.

The project also has the beginning of a vibrant social media presence. I know we will expand that in the coming year.

We do not yet have a mobile presence, and that is an opportunity. The advertising and revenue element is also missing.

Q. What changes do you see for the project, both in the near term and down the road?

A. The organizational structure will be a bit different this year. This year, we are creating an organization that mimics some of the more successful digital-only operations, and I’m looking forward to watching the students respond in that environment.

Mobile is a huge project to tackle, and it presents many challenges. We will have a mobile site formatted specifically for the most popular phones.

I also want to develop a mobile app for iOS and Android. That will let us develop and test content specific to mobile devices. Down the road, we’ll explore various financial models. That may be the biggest change from last year, but it is a necessary one.

Q. Part of the mission of the Reese project is to help other media survive and thrive, both journalistically and financially. What do you see as the future of news?

A. If you had asked that question to someone in 1911, I wonder how that person would have answered? More than likely, the answer would not have included televisions, computers or telephones.

The importance of news and information only grows. The Egyptian revolution, for example, shows us the importance of news and communication to spread and strengthen democracy. (Wired: Social Media Sparked, Accelerated Egypt’s Revolutionary Friday, http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/02/egypts-revolutionary-fire/)

The means by which we consume it is the challenge. Previously, the industry controlled content creation and distribution, so consumers would follow us. Now, consumers participate in creating and distributing content.

We have to figure out out how to balance the two and learn how to best engage consumers. We must create strong connections with them to collect and provide relevant news and information in the most effective ways possible.

Financially, we will rely on that relationship. If we are able to establish a trusted partnership with consumers around content, they will allow us – even ask us – to market, recommend and provide products and services to them. That is a much deeper engagement than traditional advertising. That’s also a relationship that will challenge our industry.