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.
This afternoon, Knight is taking a definitive step in the test-kitchen direction. It’s announcing 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.
“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, puts it in a release. “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 says, “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.”
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 for studying user engagement. 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 says, is to ensure that citizens and the communities they live in get the news and information they need.
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. 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 their plans, which you can access here.
[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab.]