When she was a first-year in college, Erica Perel realized her life’s passion was journalism.
Perel, The Daily Tar Heel's general manager for the past three years, said she joined the newsroom's staff her first semester at UNC, but it wasn’t until a shooting on Henderson Street that Perel truly knew journalism was meant for her.
On Jan. 26, 1995, a UNC law student opened gunfire on Henderson Street, killing two people.
Perel was in the DTH newsroom when it happened and was assigned with a team of reporters to cover the story. For Perel, being on a coverage team for an event that impacted her local community was an eye-opener.
“I remember feeling like I was a part of something much bigger than myself,” Perel said. “I was part of something that was going to be a critical part of our community history. That incident really kind of created the spark for what made me decide this was what I was supposed to be doing.”
Since that career epiphany, Perel has played many different roles throughout her journalistic career. She was the DTH’s editor-in-chief and a reporter for The Charlotte Observer before later returning to the DTH as a member of the professional staff.
Perel will be leaving the DTH newsroom in April after 13 years of working professionally with the paper.
Daily Tar Heel beginnings
Perel’s start at the DTH was in the fall of 1994 as a reporter for the state and national news desk.
“Being at The Daily Tar Heel made me really understand what community journalism was,” Perel said. “What it meant to serve a community that needed information but also could get really upset if you made a mistake, and that’s a really important learning experience.”
Kevin Schwartz, then general manager for the DTH, said that when Perel became editor-in-chief her senior year, she brought along a welcoming atmosphere for student writers.
“She was the newsroom mom; she took care of everybody,” Schwartz said. “She was an awesome editor and coach to students. She was good at making everybody feel included.”
For Perel, being an editor for the paper taught her a sense of responsibility, something she would continue to carry throughout her career in journalism.
“Being an editor at the DTH is just a series of decisions all day long,” Perel said. “That decision-making breeds responsibility. It helps you understand the totality of a news organization and how your piece of the puzzle fits in.”
Professional career and return to Chapel Hill
After graduation, Perel worked at The Washington Post as a reporting intern, and soon after landed a job with The Charlotte Observer — one she would keep for the next decade.
During that time, Perel said she noticed the world of journalism shift away from print, entering the digital sphere.
In 2008, she reached a decade of reporting at the Observer; a milestone that made her think about her next steps.
She soon received an email from Schwartz about an open newsroom adviser position at the DTH.
“I got that email and I thought, ‘This would be perfect for me’,” Perel said. “I really wanted to give other students the chance that I had. I was really interested in the idea that I could help them through this very foundational, transitional period in journalism.”
Shortly after, Perel became the first newsroom adviser for the DTH.
“When I started as newsroom adviser in 2008, things were still really good for college newspapers financially,” Perel said. “The Daily Tar Heel was making a lot of money in advertising back then, over $1 million a year."
Over the next four years, Perel saw another digital revolution in the journalism industry, one she believes was even bigger than the first: the social media craze.
“Starting around 2012 or so, things really changed on our campus,” Perel said. “People got smartphones, people were on social media. That’s how they were getting their news.”
In the years following, Perel said the DTH experienced steep declines in revenue.
To combat some of the financial loss, Perel helped develop the 1893 Brand Studio — a collective of students dedicated to marketing and advertising. Perel also helped formalize the DTH Alumni Association, coordinating annual events to connect former and current DTH staffers.
“A huge part of what Erica does is keeping the alumni community together,” Jane Wester, 2016-17 DTH editor-in-chief, said. “She’s just like a human Rolodex. She’s helped keep everyone together when they’re spread all over the world.”
In December 2017, Perel became general manager for the DTH.
About a year later, she teamed up with Chrissy Beck, general manager of Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, to launch the first-ever Rivalry Challenge.
The DTH vs. Chron Rivalry Challenge is a two-week event, coinciding with the first UNC-Duke game, in which both student newspapers compete to see which can raise the most money from their fans, along with creating content for a special sports edition of their respective papers.
“For years, we have talked about trying to do something that would capitalize on the rivalry between the two student newspapers, the two schools, the two basketball teams,” Beck said. "We’ve found a lot of one-off victories, but this is something that, three years in a row, it just built — it got better and better.”
A new role at UNC
On April 12, Perel will start a new position at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media as director of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. Perel said in this position, she is looking forward to working with people in local news and supporting them.
"I’ve been saying for years that my job at the DTH is to provide resources to students, and I think this new job will be similar," she said.
Although she is formally leaving her position in the next month, Perel said she will always be a former editor-in-chief and general manager — something that will forever keep her tied to the DTH.
“I’m going to be showing up at birthdays and other events,” Perel said. “You won’t be able to keep me away. The number one thing I’ll miss is the people that I have gotten to know and work with; the team here is exceptional.”
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