A new Knight Chair in Audience and Community Engagement for News will join the faculty of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications next week.
Stephen Wolgast, a veteran journalist who was part of a Pulitzer-Prize winning team from The New York Times covering the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, will work with students and faculty to explore new concepts in audience development and building community engagement with local news.
The School of Journalism conducted a national search for the endowed chair position, which is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight Chair program identifies leading journalists for professorships at 22 universities across the country, where they teach innovative courses, create experimental projects and develop forward-thinking programs to advance journalism in the digital age.
“We are excited to welcome Stephen as the new Knight Chair at KU,” said Dean Ann M. Brill. “His many years of professional newspaper work paired with a decade of teaching experience will benefit the school and the students. We are looking forward to seeing Stephen’s creativity put into practice here at the J-School and in the community.”
In his role at KU, Wolgast will teach writing and ethics and focus on helping students envision creative ways to connect and engage with readers. He has 10 years of experience teaching news reporting, photojournalism, copy editing and convergence as a professor of the practice at Kansas State University. He also was director of the Collegian Media Group, which publishes the student newspaper and the yearbook.
One of the biggest challenges Wolgast sees for the profession and journalism graduates entering the workforce is how to preserve local news during a time when communities in the United States have lost more than a thousand local newspapers in the last 15 years.
"What I want to be able to do is try to help solve the question of what's the sweet spot where journalists can be part of the city or the town or the state in a way that shares information that is important to people and makes people want to find out what's going on from a place that's reliable and accurate and trying to make a positive difference," Wolgast said.
That model of connecting and engaging an audience will have to look different than in the past in order to be sustainable, and Wolgast said that is the puzzle that faces today’s young journalists.
"One thing I really want to look at is entrepreneurial journalism. How can journalists come up with something new to share journalism?" Wolgast said. "So the challenge is to look at news and see what it is now but also look at what is going to come next,” he said.
Wolgast has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and bachelor’s degree in political science from K-State. He started his journalism career as a photographer at the Topeka Capital-Journal, then worked as a reporter for the Baltic Independent in Estonia. He also has worked at newspapers in Wyoming, Louisiana, Ohio and was a news design editor at The New York Times from 2000 to 2009. He was part of the staff that was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for “A Nation Challenged,” a special section published daily after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which covered the events, profiled the victims, and tracked the developing story locally and globally.
In 2016, he was named a humanities scholar by Humanities Kansas for presenting lectures on “Free Speech in Times of Crisis” around Kansas featuring William Allen White’s Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1923 and the modern phenomenon of "fake news."
One of Wolgast’s hobbies is learning about the origins cap and gown, which has a connection to the University of Kansas. The style of caps, hoods and gowns that most American graduates wear today is based on a proposal made in 1893 by John J. McCook — the same McCook who was KU’s commencement speaker in 1890, who donated $2,500 to build KU’s first football stadium, and who was the namesake of a temporary men’s dorm from 1946 to 1959. In 2012, Wolgast became the editor of Transactions of the Burgon Society, a British organization that studies the history and current use of academic dress.
About the Knight Foundation
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation endows chairs at 22 universities in the United States. The professorships are awarded to those who are committed to promoting the study of and advancement of journalism and journalism education. In 1990, the KU School of Journalism received one of the first three Knight Chairs in Journalism that focuses on teaching community journalism.