‘Opportunity to make a lasting impact:’ UNC grad provides higher ed coverage to WUNC, Open Campus

By Serena Sherwood

Brianna Atkinson didn’t always think she would end up reporting on higher education.

“I wanted to be a pediatrician, but found out that medicine wasn’t really for me,” Atkinson said. “I attended WRAL’s reporting bootcamp (and) just fell in love with it (…) I came to UNC and joined The Daily Tar Heel, which is where I was bit by the education (reporting) bug.”

Brianna Atkinson interviews Patrick Harrington on the docks of the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, California in June 2023. Photo by Jakub Mosur Photography.

Now, Atkinson exclusively covers higher education at WUNC thanks to the Fletcher Fellowship for Education Policy Reporting. It is a two-year post-graduate fellowship at the public radio station for recent UNC Hussman School graduates to work on in-depth reporting of under-covered education issues in North Carolina. (Editor’s note: Atkinson is a former CISLM intern, in 2021.)

“Most of the time in newsrooms, if there’s an education reporter, they’re covering everything, from kindergarten to a Ph. D. program at a university,” Atkinson said. “You can’t have one person covering all that information, because things will slip through the cracks — they can’t be at every meeting.”

Atkinson’s work is now supported by additional resources, thanks to a new partnership between WUNC and Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization focused on helping increase local reporting on higher education.

Open Campus provides professional development opportunities, a sense of community with other Open Campus fellows and increased funding for WUNC for Atkinson’s position. Open Campus has 12 partner newsrooms across the United States. (Editor’s note: There are now 14 partner newsrooms since publication.)

Some of Atkinson’s recent coverage includes FAFSA complications, SAT/ACT testing policies implemented at UNC schools and department cuts at UNC-Greensboro.

“We see this as a long-term marriage between us and the local newsroom (…) Open Campus will help fund a full-time higher education reporter who is an employee of that newsroom,” said Colleen Murphy, the managing editor who oversees the Open Campus Local Network. “That makes us distinct in the nonprofit news space partly because we do not place reporters in newsrooms — these reporters are hired by the newsroom, they’re managed by an editor in the newsroom, they’re an employee of that newsroom.”

Open Campus also provides opportunities for collaboration across the country, and its reach is growing. Open Campus and The Assembly, recently collaborated on an in-depth piece about Project Kitty Hawk, an education technology nonprofit designed for UNC campuses to run online degree programs.

“There’s always demand for more higher education coverage,” Murphy said. “Americans’ distrust in higher education is growing (…) our partners across the country are trying to help ease that distrust.”

Both WUNC and Open Campus see higher education reporting as especially essential in North Carolina, home to 16 public universities, 36 independent colleges and universities and 58 community colleges.

“We felt (that having a higher ed reporter) was super important in this state, but also in this particular region of the state, where higher education really is the big business in the Triangle,” said Dave DeWitt, WUNC’s supervising editor for politics and education.

There is a need for accountability coverage in local higher education reporting that shines a light on schools that are most relevant to a region, rather than the elite and Ivy League schools most covered in national news, Murphy said.

“The idea is that higher education is inherently a local issue,” Murphy said. “Most Americans go to school within 50 miles of home, but most news coverage is about colleges where most Americans don’t attend.”

The coverage also aims to cover the impact colleges and universities have on the community, including jobs and economic impact — not just on those learning or working at a university.

“It’s important for the public to be informed about what’s going on because it’s their money that’s going into the public universities (…) I would want to know what my money is going toward,” Atkinson said. “Chances are someone you love is going to want to pursue higher education (…) if you’re not informed about the different things that are happening (…) it hurts whatever decision that your family member or yourself, even, is trying to make.”

While Open Campus has a larger goal of creating partner newsrooms in all 50 states, it also aims to expand coverage of higher education in areas that are historically underrepresented. This is put into action with an HBCU reporting fellowship, which takes students from institutions including N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University, the largest HBCU in the nation.

“We’re really committed to helping all students get a leg up in this industry and to build a more diverse pipeline of journalists in the industry,” Murphy said. “That’s another place where there (are) lots of coverage gaps, including in North Carolina.”

While Atkinson’s time as a Fletcher Fellow is limited to two years, the partnership between WUNC and Open Campus is one that both outlets hope will last.

“My goal is that we’ll find a way to fund Brianna’s position here at WUNC (…) it’ll be an opportunity to continue to have the position, to continue to benefit from the editorial partnership that’s really growing and have a funding model that can sustain that position, hopefully long term,” DeWitt said. “(Open Campus) isn’t going anywhere…WUNC isn’t going anywhere (…) that’s the kind of partnership that has the opportunity to make a lasting impact.”