JOMC 491.3 - "PARNM" - Spring 2009

Course Syllabus: Public Affairs Reporting for New Media

Topic: North Carolina's Dropout Rate

Instructor: Ryan Thornburg

Meeting Times: Lectures - Tuesday, 9:30-10:45 a.m.; Open Lab Sessions - TWR, 2 - 5 p.m.

This is an APPLES service-learning course. Our community partners are news organizations around the state. You will meet your required 30 hours of service by working with them on stories over the course of the semester.

Our confirmed partners this semester are:

  • The N.C. Press Association
  • The Star-News in Wilmington
  • The Gaston Gazette in Gastonia
  • The Charlotte Post

This is a fast-paced class designed for students who are self-motivated, driven by curiosity, excited by unexplored frontiers and committed to high standards of personal and journalistic conduct. I will conduct this class as if we were a professional news team, affording you all of the freedom and respect that comes with that. In return, I will expect from you professional conduct toward yourself, your classmates and me.

Goal: The goal of this course is to create a package of multimedia and interactive stories and tools about the impact that North Carolina's rising high school dropout rate has on the people of the state. The components of this package will live on a site hosted by the UNC-Chapel Hill. Many of the components will also be made available for the state's news Web sites to download and publish on their own sites.

What You Will Do In This Course:

  • Learn how to conceptualize a public affairs story of interest to a specific audience
  • Examine professional journalism projects to understand the story format options, and they will learn how to apply those concepts to each of their own stories
  • Develop journalistic content that allows an individual community member to make the broad public issue more relevant to him or herself
  • Learn different techniques for engaging the community, and implement online community elements in each of the stories they publish during the semester.

Story conceptualization -- Public affairs stories are especially challenging because they are often not based on a single event, which is an important organizing principal for most news stories. Students will rely in large part on their discussions with community members to discover story ideas that “ooze instead of break,” as the famous newspaper editor and UNC alumni Gene Roberts once said.

Story format -- The Internet gives journalists more choices about the format in which they tell their stories. Some stories are best told with text, some with a database, some with audio and video and some with interactive discussions or message boards.

Content customization -- Community members often don't engage in public policy debates because they feel as if there is nothing in it for them. Databases, search tools and discussion boards can make public affairs stories more relevant.

Community-generated content management -- Online publishers have the ability to give every member of the community a place to share his or her own personal observations or opinions. With that new ability to increase the number of voices being heard in the media also comes the challenge of improving the quality of public discourse.

About the Instructor: Before joining UNC in 2007, I was the managing editor at U.S. News & World Report in charge of I have also been the managing editor of at Congressional Quarterly and was the editor of national and foreign news on during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2004 presidential election.

During those jobs, I created and edited nationally recognized multimedia packages and led online coverage of presidential election and the war in Iraq. As an entrepreneur, I started the Carolina Political Report, a site that was dedicated to coverage of state politics and government in North Carolina. I've also appeared as a political analyst on CNN, MSNBC and several other local and national broadcast outlets. My Web site is and my blog is

Contacting Me: The professional standards of this course include interpersonal communication and put an emphasis on personal accountability. Students are responsible for making sure they have the information and tools they need to complete their assignments on time and to a high standard. To do this, all you have to do is follow a basic tenant of journalism — if you don't know something, you should ask.

My responsibility is to outline clear expectations, help you find the resources you need to be successful and be available to answer your questions when you get stuck. I encourage you to meet with me about any topic, any time.

Here are some guidelines about how to best reach me:

  • In person: Face-to-face communication is the best for any in-depth topic. Grades, and career advice are two examples of the kinds of in-depth conversations I like to have in person. If you'd like to sit down and chat with me for more than five or 10 minutes, please make an appointment and I'll find time to meet with you.
  • E-mail: Use e-mail if you have a long, detailed question or explanation, or if you don't need a reply faster than 24 hours. Don't assume that I've read your email until you get a confirmation from me.
  • Instant Messaging: If I'm online you can email me short questions that require a prompt response, but don't require a lot of explanation.
  • Mobile phone: This is the best way to reach me in an emergency. But if you leave a voicemail, don't assume that I've received the message until you get a confirmation back from me.

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Contact Info

  • 219 Carroll Hall
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  • O: 919-962-4080