When Charles Fountain applied to what he thought was an adjunct faculty position in Northeastern University’s School of Journalism in 1985, he was already a renowned reporter and broadcast sports anchor.
He had worked for WSMW-TV in Worcester, Massachusetts and for ABC Radio in New York, and his plan was to work part-time at Northeastern and full-time at the Boston Globe, if everything went according to plan. Fountain had just published his first book, “Another Man’s Poison: The Life and Writing of Columnist George Frazier,” which was getting gallons of “local ink” from Boston-area media.
Fountain later learned the position at Northeastern was a full-time position, but instead of taking his name out of the running, he committed. He’s been at Northeastern ever since and is now known as much for his foundational presence in the journalism program as his career in reporting.
Now, after 37 years of teaching the next generation of reporters, this past semester was Fountain’s last.
During the nearly four decades Fountain has spent at Northeastern, he has witnessed the arrival of the internet and the new media landscape that came with it. He has seen the rise of social media and the development of new streams of information. In that time, the journalism program has grown and evolved into an innovative, cutting-edge space where the next generation of journalists can find their voices.
In a sea of change, Fountain has remained a constant—a reminder that although the tools of journalism have changed, the core tenets are still the same.
“[It’s] a very different place than when I arrived here but still a place that’s very much the same, rooted in trying to train literate, thinking, careful, responsible journalists,” Fountain said.
The journalistic landscape has changed significantly since Fountain started at Northeastern, yet the foundation of his work has remained the same: A student-centered approach to education. For Fountain, there was always time to meet with a student who needed help.
“Whenever you walk by his office, his door is always open,” Jonathan Kaufman, director of the School of Journalism, said. “He’s got the lights on, he’s talking to students who are working with him. He’s got this ability to really connect with students, work with them on their stories, really figure out how to have their own voice come through their stories.”
Known for his sports writing and history of journalism courses, Fountain became most famous in the department for leading a mobile newsroom of students to cover the Head of the Charles Regatta, the world’s largest three-day rowing competition. Every year, since 2009, Fountain and a cadre of fledgling reporters have set up on the bank of the Charles River in Boston and gone hunting for stories.
“There’s just an abundance of story opportunities there,” Fountain said. “I think the kids that have done it have loved it because they’re getting to meet Olympians, and they’re for the most part eager to talk to reporters.”
Students have enjoyed the opportunity so much that some have returned year after year, even after they graduate. And Fountain says he hopes to do the same, leading the program even in his retirement. Kaufman said watching Fountain, a rower himself, walk from student to student in his windbreaker on a brisk fall day will be one of his lasting memories of the now-retired professor.
To his colleagues in the School of Journalism, Fountain was a model faculty member, especially for newcomers.
Journalism professor Dan Kennedy admitted that when he joined the department in 2005, the transition from the newsroom to the classroom presented “a steep learning curve.”
“I just looked to Chuck right from the beginning as this calm, mature presence who had made the same transition I had made some years earlier and was just an endless fount of good advice and wisdom,” Kennedy said.
When faculty meetings got contentious, Fountain—almost like an unflappable judge—was there to find compromise. Whether it was a conversation around a tenure decision, curriculum, or scheduling, he managed to find common ground, Kaufman said.
“Chuck was always the last person to speak at faculty meetings, but he spoke with a judiciousness that always carried the day,” Kaufman said.
Fountain was also integral to the evolution of the program. He led countless search committees for new hires, always with the intent of bringing in faculty who had both real-world experience and an interest in “teaching and imparting that to the next generation,” Laurel Leff, a professor who joined the department in 1996, said.
“He both fit that vision of the school of journalism and was one of the people who made that vision of the school of journalism come to reality,” Leff added.
Over the last decade, Fountain has helped the School of Journalism bring in faculty who are knowledgeable about the digital media landscape and the new tools that are available to journalists. That includes John Wihbey, associate professor of media innovation and technology in the School of Journalism who joined the department in 2015.
“As the digital and internet revolution came around, he was interested and open to new ways of telling stories and new ways of thinking about news media, but, ultimately, I think he realized his central value to his students and to the school and the university was to bring a strong sense of tradition and to evaluate innovation with regard to what has come before,” Wihbey said.
History has always been a passion for Fountain, especially when it comes to sports. His four books, which have covered everything from the 1919 World Series to Major League Baseball spring training, have used sports as a vehicle to cover larger social and cultural issues. The ability to tackle serious social issues through an accessible lens is one of the greatest assets of sports reporting, Fountain said, and it’s something he has always tried to impart to his sports writing students.
“I understand the motivation of the athletes, and to have that as an entry into some of the most important social and cultural questions of our time, what more do you want if you’re a writer?” Fountain said.
“I sometimes think of Chuck as the doctor who’s trying to get you to think a little bit about the choices you’ve made,” Kaufman said. “And rather than pelting you over the head with it, he kind of guides you to walk out of the class thinking, ‘Huh, I never thought about it that way.’”
Forever curious, Fountain said he expects to write another book on sports and culture. And with a documentary in the works and his continued involvement in coverage of the regatta, Fountain said he has no plans to slow down anytime soon. Although he said that he’s “really not retiring, I’m just leaving Northeastern for a new opportunity,” Fountain does hope he has left a lasting impact on the students who have come through his classroom.
“I would like to think that there are students out there who I’ve had over the last 37 years that are now working in journalism, or working in the law, or teaching elementary school, or have beaten me into retirement who would reflect back and say, ‘That class made a difference. It taught me something that stayed with me,’” Fountain said. “That would be a marvelous legacy.”
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