Carl Kenney joins UNC Hussman, revives The Durham VOICE community journalism project

By Claire Cusick

Experienced journalist and community leader Carl Kenney joined UNC Hussman as a teaching assistant professor in the fall 2023 semester. Kenney is leading the revitalization of The VOICE community publication covering Durham, North Carolina.

Carl W. Kenney II has always felt a calling to both journalism and ministry. He has carved out a career in both, earning degrees in journalism and divinity, pastoring churches in Durham and in Missouri, and writing columns in both states.

“I used to tell the folk every Sunday, I’m the only person qualified at the good news and the bad news on the same day,” he said. “I looked at my work as the Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other.”

In the Triangle, he has been a near-constant presence on printed pages and online since 1997: Durham magazine, the Durham News, The News & Observer, The Herald-Sun and Indy Week. While temporarily living in Columbia, Missouri, caring for his ailing father, he wrote for the Columbia Missourian and Columbia Faith Voices, a Religion News Service affiliate.

The North Carolina Press Association honored him as its best columnist in 2012, and the Missouri Press Association bestowed a similar award in 2016. Since 2007, he has blogged at Rev-elution, where he aims to “engage readers into a meaningful discussion related to matters that impact faith and society.”

Along the way, Kenney became a teacher, guiding students at his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. He joined UNC Hussman in 2022 as an adjunct professor, teaching MEJO 153: “Writing and Reporting.” In fall 2023, he became a teaching assistant professor, leading the MEJO 459: “Community Journalism” course and serving as editor-in-chief of The VOICE.

"We could not ask for a better person to lead the Durham VOICE into its next chapter," said UNC Hussman Dean Raul Reis. "Carl Kenney is an award-winning journalist with a keen understanding of the Durham community. Our students will learn so much from Carl about the practice and power of lifting local voices through local media."

It would be difficult to find someone more knowledgeable about Durham to take over The VOICE, the community newspaper founded by Senior Lecturer Emeritus Jock Lauterer in 2009. It began as the Northeast Central Durham Community VOICE, a partnership between the journalism programs at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University and Durham civic and church leaders, volunteers and residents. Lauterer’s vision was to create a community voice in the Northeast Central Durham neighborhood. The VOICE experienced several formats and iterations over its history and wound down publication in the early months of 2020.

Lauterer served as editor-in-chief of The VOICE until he retired that same year. Even after retirement, Lauterer said, he worked to ensure that The VOICE would be revived. He is thrilled to have passed the baton to Kenney.

“Carl Kenney is the right person in the right place with the right stuff,” Lauterer said. “He’s got fire in the belly, and it takes that. The VOICE is a passion project, a labor of love. It’s also a transformational experience. Carl will grow it in the direction it needs to go.”

Kenney pictures his students learning how to cover local issues in real time — and The VOICE filling an important void in local news. “What I envision is to do good journalism about life in Durham that is now being missed,” Kenney said. “I see this as a great opportunity to provide service to the citizens of Durham.”

Specifically, this fall brings both a primary and a general election in Durham, in which 12 people are running for three seats on the city council, and eight candidates are running for mayor. Kenney’s syllabus calls for MEJO 459 students to interview the candidates about pressing issues – one of which is housing amid rampant development.

“The students will have an opportunity to dig deep into the impact of this election,” Kenney said. “In Durham, there is a big issue of development. The students will be asking how the selection of mayor and members of the city council will advance or decrease the amount of building and development in the city, and how the residents feel about those issues. I want the students to also dig deep into interviewing the average citizen of Durham.”

Any election is about power. Durham is home to powerful political action committees (PACs) whose election endorsements are highly coveted. The most prominent of these is the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, founded in 1935, as well as the People’s Alliance, founded in 1976. The PACs, their history and their influence provide good lessons for budding journalists, demonstrating how elections are about more than just the candidates. “We will address these endorsements in Durham and how they play a part in who gets elected, and why they get elected,” Kenney said. “It’s really critical now because the sway of influence of both of those PACs is questioned. There is this incredible history of the Durham Committee, and not everyone knows that history. Durham, just like any other city, is a great place to examine the issues of the day.”

And that’s the beauty and the promise of local journalism, Kenney said. “Communities across America are going through a massive shift when it comes to the way we do politics,” he said. “We are shifting around how we define what it means to be a community. Our role as journalists is in defining who we are. Not only who we are, but who we are becoming. We’re becoming something different. This is an opportunity for the students to bring some insight to what this community is. We could grapple with this question for a long time.”

That impulse to start conversations drives him. “I always brought to my work the idea of being solution-centered, even though I am not the solution giver,” he said. “I want to lift up terms of conversation for people to think about.”

Journalists create a way for the world to become a better place, Kenney said. “We are the protectors of American democracy. We are responsible for creating what John Stuart Mill called the environment for the marketplace of ideas, for ideas to emerge and for people to figure out where they stand, for public conversations about a variety of issues. We hopefully create a way for people to see beyond what they believe to be the truth. And to me, there’s no better way to do that than with my words. And so that’s my love affair with journalism.”