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Oct. 1, 2012, 12:01 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Can The Boston Globe and MIT hack the future of news together?

A Knight Foundation grant will allow the Globe and MIT’s Center for Civic Media to build tools for newsgathering and reader engagement.

The Boston Globe is looking to borrow some of MIT’s toys to change the way it reaches readers and reports on the community.

Thanks to $250,000 in funding from the Knight Foundation, the two Boston-area institutions will be working closely on practical ways to innovate within the newsroom. What the Globe gets is access to the minds, talent, and tools at MIT’s Center for Civic Media, a place where people come to hack the news and other information systems in a laboratory setting. With the Globe, they’ll get a chance to put those ideas into practice.

“There’s definitely a lot of things they’re already working on over there we would love to plug into and bring to our users to try,” said Jeff Moriarty, vice president of digital products at the Globe.

The Center for Civic Media has no shortage of interesting news-related projects. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the center, wants to develop nutritional labels for news, for instance. And don’t forget the B.S.-detecting Truth Goggles developed by Center for Civic Media alum Dan Schultz. Now a Knight-Mozilla Open News fellow with the Globe, Schultz is the bridge between the two programs, and just the type of person the Globe wants hacking for them. “Projects like Truth Goggles, we’re interested in those,” Moriarty said. “We’re looking to bring those to life.”

With the funding from Knight, the Globe will hire a university outreach coordinator and creative technologist who will work in the Globe Lab, the newspaper’s in-house R&D unit. Four research fellows from the Center for Civic Media will also work in the lab during breaks in the academic year.

Taking something from the theoretical, even the lab-tested, and making the leap to the real world, is not so simple. While the projects at the Center for Civic Media are made with practical applications in mind, Moriarty said the collaboration will bring those ideas in front of a larger potential audience.

Moriarty said there are a number of ongoing projects at the Center for Civic Media that could have applications at the Globe. A project like Media Cloud, an open source tool that examines how certain media cover the news, could be used to see how the Globe could improve its coverage, he said.

One project is already under way using the Center for Civic Media’s Newsflow, a real-time map that pinpoints stories based on location. Zuckerman told me over email that one of his students is using the software to map out what towns and neighborhoods the Globe reports on most and least, as well as the language used in articles.

A key component to the project is the as-of-yet unreleased articles API from the Globe. Chris Marstall, a creative technologist in the Globe Lab, said the goal of the partnership is to offer up data from the Globe to see what outsiders can do with it. “In the long term, maybe we’ll come up with something that will matter to the organization, to the bottom line,” he said. “In the short term, it’s just really cool to have these cool ideas floating around.”

Marstall said his goal is to have experimental modules that readers can play with on and provide feedback to the Globe Lab. The lab was created for the purpose of exploring ideas that could be transformed into products for the Globe, or tools that could be helpful in reporting, Marstall said. The additional manpower, and brainpower, provided by MIT, will accelerate that, he said.

The reason a handful of news organizations have created their own research and development labs is to have people working on new ideas outside of the day-to-day business concerns of journalism, Moriarty said. As important is it is to have people thinking about the next big developments in media, there’s also a need to create things that are useful today, Moriarty said.

“We’re looking towards the future but we want to build things that have applications now or in the next 3 to 6 months,” Moriarty said.

POSTED     Oct. 1, 2012, 12:01 p.m.
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