Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

February 03 2011

12:00

Medill and McCormick launch a news innovation lab with $4.2 million in Knight funding

In 2009, while announcing that year’s Knight News Challenge winners at a conference at MIT, Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen mentioned the foundation’s desire to launch “test kitchens” for journalistic tools: laboratories where innovative ideas for news production, distribution, and financial sustenance might be devised, improved, and put to use.

Today, Knight is announcing a definitive step in the test-kitchen direction. It’s giving a grant — $4.2 million over four years — to Northwestern University to establish the Knight News Innovation Laboratory. The Knight Lab will be a joint initiative of the Medill School of Journalism and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern — at its core, a partnership between journalism and computer science. It’ll be populated by Northwestern faculty and students, as well as, possibly, technologists and members of the media at large. And it will aim to help build and bolster the digital infrastructure that will guide journalism into its next phase.

“Speeding up” media innovation

“This is a significant step forward in terms of collaboration between journalism and computer science,” says Rich Gordon, professor and director of digital innovation at Medill (and one of the Knight Lab’s four faculty overseers). The Knight Lab joins a smattering of similar hacker-journalist-oriented programs popping up at J-schools across the country — Studio 20 at NYU, the joint Journalism/Computer Science M.S. at Columbia, Medill’s own journalist/developer scholarship, and on and on — all of them responses to the recognition that the content of journalism will increasingly be connected to the tools we use to create it.

Indeed, “to advance journalism excellence in the digital age, we must use the tools of the digital age,” Eric Newton, vice president of Knight’s journalism program, put it. “We hope this pioneering partnership between a school of journalism and a school of engineering will demonstrate how a major university can speed up media innovation in its surrounding community.”

One of the ways the Knight Lab is unique, though, is in its focus on outcomes. Though the Knight Lab is set in a school, its goal is pretty much to escape the ivory tower. And, to an extent, to topple it. The Knight Lab will team up with Chicago-area news outlets — partners so far include The Tribune Company, Chicago Public Media, The Daily Herald, the Chicago Community News Trust, and the Chicago News Cooperative — with the goal of improving the information available to the communities those outlets serve. In that, the Knight Lab’s mission is aligned with the general mission of journalism, Gordon says: to “accelerate media innovation in ways that advance the interests of journalism and well-informed communities.”

The Lab’s initial focus is the Chicago area simply because, Gordon notes, the Evanston-based Medill already has connections with the Chicago community and the publishers who serve it. “It makes sense,” he notes, ” to focus our energy on the community that we understand best.” That doesn’t mean that expansion won’t be a possibility for later on, though. “We assume that if we find ways to create things that are valuable to Chicago, it’ll be available to everybody.”

Closing the loop

One of the intriguing aspects of the Knight Lab project is its connection to the Knight News Challenge. The Knight Lab will make it a point to work with the technologies that have been created by News Challenge winners. News Challenge projects have generated myriad journalistic tools with large amounts of back-end code; one of the Knight Lab’s goals is to ensure that those technologies remain relevant even after their Knight funding runs out. It hopes to maximize the use of the code that’s been developed through the News Challenge, refining it and improving it and making it as helpful as possible to the media outlets who might put it to use.

Some of the plans for doing that include:

  • Cataloging and organizing software projects that have been supported by Knight Foundation grants to date;
  • Evaluating the software and determine if there are technical reasons why these systems have not been more widely adopted;
  • Determining which features of larger systems can be abstracted into freestanding tools that might have a greater chance of being adopted;
  • Looking for feature overlap that argues for the integration of multiple systems – and, if warranted, do that technology integration; and
  • Integrating these tools with existing publishing platforms as needed – for instance by creating plug-ins for popular content management systems.
  • There’s a strong component of pragmatism to all this: The goal isn’t just to improve code in general, but to improve it, in particular, according to the value it could present for media users. (And then, Gordon says, to “do whatever we have to do to get that code more widely adopted.”) In some sense, to be ultra-nerdy about it, Knight Lab : Knight News Challenge :: OpenBlock : EveryBlock.

    Another noteworthy aspect of the Knight Lab is its focus on information as its own kind of platform for innovation. Medill has departments not only in journalism, but also in Integrated Marketing Communications — and Chicago, with its storied national newspaper and its buzzing field of niche news sites, offers a particularly vibrant landscape to study. Part of the work of the Knight Lab will be to analyze, in detail, how people actually consume news: what they want from news, what they need from news. “There are opportunities to better undestand both how and why technologies are adapted by real people looking for news and information,” Owen Youngman, Medill’s Knight Chair in digital media strategy (and another Knight Lab faculty overseer), told me. The overall mission, he notes, is akin to journalism’s more broadly: to ensure that citizens and the communities they live in get the news and information they need.

    Oh! And they’re hiring

    Medill-McCormick is looking for a full-time executive director to run the Knight Lab’s day-to-day operations. It’s also looking for a director of software engineering and several full-time software developers. If you want to learn more — about the job openings, about the Knight Lab in general — Knight and Northwestern will be formally announcing the project later today. And at 4pm CST, they’ll be hosting a “virtual Q&A” session about it here.

    [Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab.]

    May 21 2010

    13:00

    The programmer majored in English: A fascinating study of the NYT’s Interactive News unit

    At the University of Texas’s International Symposium on Online Journalism conference last month, a series of academics presented papers on the future of news. There’s great stuff, including (Lab contributor) Seth Lewis’s analysis of the professional and participatory logic of the Knight News Challenge and (Lab contributor) C.W. Anderson’s argument for a more holistic approach to academic analysis of news structures.

    One that we, at least, found particularly compelling: Cindy Royal’s study of the New York Times’ vaunted Interactive Newsroom Technologies unit. (Think of it as the academic, ethnographic version of “The Renegades at the New York Times,” last year’s New York magazine profile of the team.)

    Royal, a Texas State University assistant professor who focuses on digital media and culture, spent a week with the team in an effort to “gain a systematic understanding of the role of technology in the ever-changing newsroom, driven by the opportunities and challenges introduced by the Internet.” The resulting paper examined the group of eleven guys (they’ve since added one gal) widely recognized to be the vanguard of the hacker-journalist movement — and put fascinating anecdotal data behind team leader Aron Pilhofer’s insistence that the group’s mandate is editorial as much as technological.

    Though the full paper (PDF) is well worth a read, here’s the slide deck:

    One of Royal’s more intriguing findings: Many members of the team don’t have traditional education in programming. “Undergraduate degrees were varied in Art & Design, Anthropology, English, History, Urban Planning, Rhetoric and of course, Journalism. Only two had done extensive educational preparation in a computer-oriented field, and another two had received technical-oriented minors in support of liberal arts degrees.” And their hacking skills? Largely self-taught. “Most had either taken up computing on their own at a very young age or had gravitated toward it due to necessity for a specific job.”

    The core unifying quality Royal found among the staff wasn’t a specific programming skill or even a set of those skills. It was passion. Curiosity. Enjoyment of the work and openness to new processes and approaches. “More than half our team members didn’t know Ruby on Rails [one of the Times' core web framework technologies] before they started here,” one member notes. (Team member commentary throughout Royal’s paper is anonymous.) “It’s really more about the concepts inherent in the language,” says another.

    However: The editorial part — “getting” the journalism — is also key. (“When I was hired, they definitely cared about how much I was interested in journalism and what my ideas were for projects.”) As is the collaboration part — the institutional realization of the open-source-centric approach the team takes toward its work. The department, Royal notes, “was founded to reduce bureaucracy and introduce flexibility in the process of creating each project, so the group could react more like a reporting team than a support organization.” That’s a goal that the Times is still actively pursuing — most recently, of course, with its decision to move Jill Abramson from her managing editor post to allow her to focus intensively, if temporarily, on digital operations. Abramson will likely be spending at least some of that time in the same way Royal did: studying and learning from the paper’s Interactive News unit.

    “The culture of technology is different than that of journalism,” Royal notes. “They each carry different ideas about objectivity, transparency, sharing of information and performance. By merging these cultures, what emerges in terms of a hybrid dynamic? How do the actors, their backgrounds and training, their processes and the organizational structure affect the products they deliver?”

    “The Journalist as Programmer” builds on the work of academics like Michael Schudson and Dan Berkowitz, taking an ethnographic (and, more broadly, sociological) approach to news systems — under the logic, as Royal writes, that “news products and ultimate change are not the result of one force or set of forces, but a complete system that encompasses the organization, individual actors and the culture that surrounds them.”

    As she explained it to me: “I just wanted to learn about the processes, and who these people were. I knew that they had to be a unique department with unique skills and backgrounds. Because the average programmer really doesn’t have much interest in traditional journalism or storytelling. And the average journalist doesn’t know a lot about programming. So who are these hybrid people — and where did they come from, and how did they learn this stuff?”

    After all, “programming and data is journalism,” Royal says. “And it can be practiced in such a way that it can create interaction, user engagement, and more information in terms of seeking the truth. Especially when you talk about Freedom of Information access to government data — if the public can have access to that in a way that makes sense to them, or in a way that’s easy for them to use, then that’s just really powerful.”

    Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
    Could not load more posts
    Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
    Just a second, loading more posts...
    You've reached the end.

    Don't be the product, buy the product!

    Schweinderl