New journalism wing under construction on University of Arkansas campus

by Jennifer Joyner ( 826 views 

Rendering of planned new look for the University of Arkansas’ media center in Kimpel Hall.

The first floor of Kimpel Hall will look dramatically different to University of Arkansas students returning from summer break this fall, and it’s only the beginning of changes to the facility that will be made before fall 2018.

Before the start of this fall semester, the university will finish a revamp that began in May and includes changes to the south end of the 54-year-old building’s basement level, a space that houses faculty offices for the Walter J. Lemke Department of Journalism in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.

Department Chair Larry Foley said the south wing has been “gutted.”

“Everything is different,” he said.

Four classrooms have been added, as have video editing bays for broadcast students. Construction has already begun on the Sue Walk Burnett Journalism and Student Media Center, a 3,500-square-foot wing adjacent to Kimpel Hall’s second floor, which is the ground level from the entry that faces McIlroy Avenue. The center will house a newsroom, control room and a television studio with a large window facing the intersection of Dickson Street and McIlroy Avenue. It will for the first time bring together all facets of UA student media — UATV, the student newspaper The Arkansas Traveler and the Razorback yearbook.

Robyn Starling-Ledbetter, a journalism faculty member and Director of Student Media out of the Office of Student Affairs, said the plan is for the student media to work together more, especially through digital content at UATV and The Traveler.  With the old design of the journalism department, the different entities were “very siloed,” she said. “It’s been a dream of mine to have a collaborative space.”

The new wing will also house the department’s new ad agency, Red Hill Strategic Media. Red Hill will open this fall, and Ledbetter has already hired a student agency manager and is looking to fill several other positions, including creative director and graphic designer. At the UA, advertising/public relations falls within the journalism department.

“Up until now, the advertising students have never had a practical learning lab,” Ledbetter said. “This will give them real, hands-on experience.”

The cost for Phase I of the project, including the already-completed renovations to Kimpel Hall and the construction of the media center, is $2 million. Additional Kimpel Hall renovations will begin in May 2018 and include updated bathrooms and stairwells. There isn’t yet a cost attached to the second phase, but Andra Parrish Liwag, director of communications for the Fulbright College, said it will be a smaller project than Phase I.

Foley, who has worked in Kimpel Hall since 1993, said while classrooms and other parts of the building have been renovated in the past, the journalism department — housed in the bottom-floor basement since Kimpel Hall was built — was not touched in previous renovations.

To him, the problem with the old suite of journalism facilities is, “it was never constructed for its use. What’s exciting about what is going on now is the new labs and classrooms and faculty members’ offices will be brand new, state-of-the-art, and (each) will be designed for its use.”

When Foley became chair of the department three years ago, he had an idea to take an unused space, a large concrete patio along Kimpel, for a media center, though he said the concept was “very much in the embryonic stage” at that time. Following the advice of Skip Rutherford, a UA journalism alum and dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Foley decided to get plans drawn up, so he could show people his vision.

Those plans were later seen by journalism department alum Sue Walk Burnett during a visit to Foley’s office. Burnett, president and founder of Burnett Specialists, a staffing agency with 10 offices in Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso and Dallas, decided after seeing the plans to give a $1 million matching grant to the project. Once the school agreed to meet the funding challenge, the ball was rolling, Foley said.

About a year and a half ago, a group of journalism faculty members and campus planning officials got together with architects to create the final design for the media center. Foley said the large window in the TV studio overlooking part of the campus was in part inspired by his visit to the Fox Sports Midwest studio, which boasts a scenic view of Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

The updated facilities, along with greater visibility of journalism work on campus, will likely be a boon for recruitment, said Foley, who spends enough time giving tours of the construction area that the crew gave him his own hardhat.

“It’s impossible for me to predict what’s going to happen, but we’ve never had anything like this to market ourselves before,” Foley said.

Incoming high school seniors who are touring Kimpel Hall with their families “have really perked up when we walked through the construction. Everybody that’s come to visit has told me, ‘I’m coming,’” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind that we’re not going to be taking a backseat in terms of facilities anymore.”