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Knight News Innovation Laboratory Launches

Unique journalism and engineering partnership seeks to speed local media innovation

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February 3, 2011 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Responding to the critical need for dramatic improvements in the digital tools used by journalists and community news and information providers, Northwestern University and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation today announce a four-year, $4.2 million grant to create the Knight News Innovation Laboratory at Northwestern.

The Knight Lab -- the first of its kind in the country -- is a joint initiative of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. It will bring journalists and computer scientists together to accelerate local media innovation by creating new digital tools, building partnerships with media organizations and expanding the media innovation community.

“To advance journalism excellence in the digital age, we must use the tools of the digital age,” said Eric Newton, vice president of the journalism program at Knight Foundation. “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.”

A record-setting storm in Chicago has forced the cancellation of a formal lab launch scheduled for today. However, Newton and the management team of the Knight Lab will be hosting an online question-and-answer session at 4 p.m. Central Standard Time today (Feb. 3) at http://kflinks.com/NorthwesternLaunch.

The Knight Lab’s mission is to improve the news and information people use to run their communities and their lives. It will partner with media organizations in the Chicago area to test, deploy and refine technologies that help them create and package content, engage audiences and improve their capacity to finance an improved flow of local news and information.

The lab will work with all kinds of organizations -- from large commercial media companies to nonprofit organizations that serve niche audiences -- to foster an environment of innovation that can be replicated elsewhere.

Among the Knight Lab’s goals is to maximize use of open-source software already developed through the Knight News Challenge, a $25 million worldwide media innovation contest now in its fifth year, as well as from other grantees from Knight Foundation’s $100 million media innovation initiative.

Those include projects such as Open Block, an aggregator of public information; Document Cloud, for managing and displaying original documents; Public Insight Journalism, which helps newsrooms tap the wisdom of the community to find better news sources; and Spot.Us, a new way of “crowd-funding” journalism.

The Knight Lab will review the News Challenge software, identify projects with the greatest value for local publishers and improve the technology so it can be easily deployed. The lab will also work on technologies originally developed at Northwestern and elsewhere. 

The lab’s work will be carried out under the auspices of the Medill-McCormick Center for Innovation in Technology, Media and Journalism, created in 2009 to be a driver for the development of innovative ideas, media technologies, people and products.

The Knight Lab is a natural extension of work fostered by the center. To date, this has included a series of classes enrolling journalism and computer science students in which cross-disciplinary teams have generated several news and information applications currently under development, as well as a scholarship program enabling people with computer programming backgrounds to earn a master’s degree in journalism from Medill.

Medill Dean John Lavine said the Knight Lab’s work is important because innovation in technology is one of the major forces driving the evolution of journalism and media. “Medill’s expertise in audience understanding and the management of media enterprises can inform technology innovation to ensure that it yields results that are meaningful for journalists, citizens and communities,” Lavine said.

McCormick Dean Julio M. Ottino emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of the Knight Lab’s work. 

“Today the greatest innovations happen at the boundary of disciplines,” Ottino said. “Northwestern is a university that embraces interdisciplinary work, and the McCormick School is a place where computer scientists and experts in areas such as journalism can collaborate to shape the future.”

The focus of the center and the Knight Lab is not just innovation but also impact. The lab will assess how news and information flowing through the new digital tools and platforms better engage communities.

Northwestern will recruit a full-time executive director to run the Knight Lab’s day-to-day operations. It also will hire a director of software engineering and several full-time software developers. The lab will also serve as a home for industry professionals and Northwestern undergraduate, master’s degree and doctoral students working on technology innovations relevant to media and journalism.

The lab will be overseen by four Northwestern faculty members, two from journalism and two from computer science:

•  Kristian Hammond, professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the McCormick School, is director of Northwestern’s Center for Innovation in Technology, Media and Journalism. His work focuses on intelligent information systems that attend to user context in automatically searching for information, and provide results in powerful and interesting new ways.

•  Owen Youngman, the Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy at Medill, is associate director of Northwestern’s Center for Innovation in Technology, Media and Journalism. He was the first director of interactive media for the Chicago Tribune, where he directed the creation and launch of such print and online news and information services as chicagotribune.com, metromix.com, RedEye and TribLocal.

  Larry Birnbaum, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the McCormick School, is a member of the management committee of Northwestern’s Center for Innovation in Technology, Media and Journalism. His research focuses on information diversity in search and on technologies for applying human editorial judgment at Web scale.

•  Rich Gordon, professor and director of digital innovation at Medill, launched the school’s online journalism program and serves on the management committee of Northwestern’s Center for Innovation in Technology, Media and Journalism. Before joining Medill, he was the first online director for The Miami Herald. In 2007, he won a Knight News Challenge grant to award scholarships to software developers interested in studying journalism at Medill.

A document with frequently asked questions about the innovation lab is at http://knightlab.northwestern.edu/faq.htm.

About the Medill-McCormick Center for Innovation in Technology, Media and Journalism

The Medill-McCormick Center for Innovation in Technology, Media and Journalism was established in 2009 as a vehicle for change. Working together with news, media and technology organizations, it seeks to drive the development of innovative ideas, technologies, people and products. As part of a major research university, it educates the next generation of leaders who will create the new technologies, distribution models and narrative forms that will integrate news ever more deeply into people’s lives. The center has initiated a series of classes for journalism and computer science students, creating cross-disciplinary teams that have generated innovative technologies.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation advances journalism in the digital age and invests in the vitality of communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. Since 1950, the Knight Foundation has granted more than $400 million to advance quality journalism and freedom of expression. Knight Foundation focuses on projects that promote informed and engaged communities and lead to transformational change. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.