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J-Schools Can Play a Role in Bringing Innovation to News Industry

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June 2, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- That seismic change in the way information is gathered, disseminated and consumed has devastated professional journalism is hardly news. But the role that journalism schools and students can play in helping solve the woes of the news industry may be.

“Right now we’ve got the resources, time and energy to do research and development that the news industry doesn’t,“ says Jeremy Gilbert, assistant professor of multimedia at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. And, to prove it, he points to five Web applications being developed by teams of journalism and computer science students.

They include a program that creates computer-generated sports stories from box scores and play-by-play; a Microsoft Word plug-in that allows reporters to speedily research and fact-check stories as they write them without switching to an Internet search engine; an iPhone Web application that provides the daily news in five- 10- and 20-minute chunks for news-hungry readers with limited time to read; and two Twitter-based applications.

The student teams will present their innovations to a select group of local journalists, news industry leaders and Medill faculty, students and staff from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 10, in the McCormick Tribune Center Forum, 1870 Campus Drive, Evanston.

The innovations, Gilbert emphasizes, are not the work of journalism students and professors alone. The Medill New Media Publishing Project class is co-taught by Medill’s Rich Gordon and by Kristian Hammond and Larry Birnbaum, professor and associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

By including computer science students, the journalism students learn to collaborate and create the kinds of new tools needed for gathering or consuming news. “What I'll take away from the class is what it takes to work in a (multidisciplinary) team, some understanding about Agile design philosophy and a little more technical knowledge of things Python,” says journalism graduate student John Templeton.

The class is not Medill’s first to combine news and technology. Earlier in the academic year, a team of aspiring journalists and Web developers built NewsMixer, an interactive tool providing new ways to discuss news online.

Developed with Iowa’s Gazette Communications, NewsMixer recently earned its developers, including computer scientist/journalist Brian Boyer, a first place prize for Web innovation from the American Association in Journalism and Mass Communication. Boyer was just hired by the Chicago Tribune to build similar news- and data-driven Web applications.

The promising innovations coming out of Medill’s soon-to-be-completed Spring New Media Publishing Project are described below:

NEWS FEED: Imagine that you’re on the train or at a café between appointments with a short amount of time to catch up on the news. This iPhone Web application provides a digest of up-to-the-minute short news stories via e-mail in 5-, 10- or 20-minute reading chunks. The news digests can be ordered on the spot or at specifically desired times. It’s news on demand when you want it and in an amount you have time for.

MACHINE GENERATED SPORTS STORIES (MGSS): Using box scores, play-by-play data and information readily available on the Web, this tool produces computer-generated baseball stories. Using conditional probability -- which predicts who is going to win a baseball game based on the statistics and situation -- the stories can even identify key moments and plays in a game. “Not to worry,” says Gilbert to sportswriters. “The tool can’t replace the sports writer who watches a game, gets quotes from players and does analysis.” But there is a plethora of sports data out there that MGSS could use, including Little League and other games that no one covers. What’s more, the MGSS model could be adapted to create earnings reports, wedding announcements and other data-driven kinds of stories. 

EASY WRITER: The Web can be a wellspring of information for writers, as well as a new platform for journalism. But it also can be a time-consuming distraction. Using this Microsoft Word plug-in, a reporter or blogger can quickly research or fact-check a story without ever leaving Microsoft Word. Can’t recall if that Springsteen concert was in Alberta or Saskatchewan? Simply highlight the words in question, hit a keyboard shortcut and you’ll get the information you need from an Internet source you trust.

TWITTER NEWS SERVICE: One of Twitter’s greatest advantages is its simplicity. Twitter News Service creates a seamless system that sends pertinent news links to users based on their posts. While doing so, Twitter still runs efficiently and keeps user screens clutter-free.  Either the tool will run in the background of Twitter or from a designated Twitter account that users choose to follow (or un-follow) as they desire.

TWEEDIA: This tool will combine news stories with relevant personal opinion and information on a topic via Twitter. Behind it is the understanding that not only do individuals sometimes have information on a topic before the news media do but that they also have knowledge and opinions of interest to some readers. By integrating Tweedia into a news Web site, readers get instant access to relevant Twitter posts. News outlets can place a Tweedia link at the end of stories that will either open a gadget on the page or redirect readers to a Tweedia Web page.

There are plenty of reasons for the public to be interested in the marriage of journalism and technology, says Gordon, Medill’s director of digital technology in education.

“First, the interactive services that deliver news to consumers increasingly are technology-driven, and will be developed by journalists and technologists in collaboration with one another,” he says. “For another, technology can be deployed to help journalists do their jobs better.”

Finally, with the decline of the business models that supported the mass media, there is an urgent need to apply technology in ways that generate new revenues or reduce the costs of producing and distributing journalism -- while maintaining journalism standards.

“Working together, journalists and technologists can figure out the best ways to keep serving the public with the journalism they need in a democratic society,” Gordon says.
Topics: University