Knight Lab: Computer Assisted Reporting Reimagined / by Robin Dienel

Richard Gordon, professor and director of digital innovation at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, is bilingual, but not in the way you’d think.

He speaks two “languages”: journalism and technology, and has worked throughout his career to combine the two in an effort to translate yesterday’s old world news to today’s online world.

In 2007, Gordon was one of the first-round winners in the Knight News Challenge, which awards monetary funds to journalism innovators. When he first heard about the grant opportunity in 2005, Gordon says in a phone interview he believed, “we could, at Medill, propose to use some of the Knight News Challenge money to apply for, and get a news challenge grants, to people in our journalism program with computer science backgrounds.”

In the average journalists’ minds at that time, the two schools of thought, journalism and computer science, couldn’t be more opposite. Gordon believed differently.

After a mocking mention of the opportunity on the tech blog Boing Boing, which Gordon says was the most successful thing he did for the scholarships marketing program, two scholarship winners were chosen and the initial program officially launched.

Gordon’s experience with online media traces back to his college days in the late 1970s at the University of Pennsylvania, where in addition to being a managing editor at the schools newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, he also took computer science courses. It was in those computer science courses, he says ironically, he received the worst grade in his college career.

Fortunately, in a time when desktop computers, or dumb terminals, were only used at newspapers to manage the workflow of an organization, Gordon says he was astute enough to see that, “whatever this computer thing was, it was going to be big.”

When he was appointed the first online director at The Miami Herald Online in 1995, he was tasked with the job to translate the printed version of the newspaper to an online audience, something that very few editors had done before him at that time.

“I thought I was being hired as an editor at a new publication when I took this job, and it really turned out I was being a publisher. I had the responsibility of both the editorial side and the business side,” says Gordon.

He hired the staff, designed the online layout, assigned editorials, and found himself hunting down advertising. During his last two months there, before taking the teaching job at Medill, Gordon is proud to say The Miami Herald Online experienced its first, but short-lived, profitable months.

But then came the dot-com bubble, when American Online, or AOL, and Time Warner signed that infamous $350 billion agreement. Jobs were loss, retirement accounts were emptied, and newspapers sifted relentlessly through executives, all in a chaotic response to the rapid extinction of profit in the news reporting industry. 

Gordon says he left the newspaper industry not out of foresight of its imminent doom, but out of a need to do something different. He says he felt there were things that journalism needed digitally that the free market was not providing.

In a report predicting the “Digital Life in 2025” published by The Pew Research Center in March 2014, 2,558 canvassed experts and technology builders foresaw a future with, “an ambient information environment where accessing the Internet will be effortless and most people will tap into it so easily it will flow through their lives ‘like electricity.’”

These experts agreed this would have a profound impact on a variety of things, especially business models established in the 20th century, including publishing. Newspapers needed an upgrade if they were going to stay relevant for consumers.

In December 2010, Gordon, along with Larry Birnbaum and Kristian Hammond of McCormick School of Engineering and Owen Youngman from Medill, took the scholarship program one step further and founded the Northwestern University Knight Lab, thanks to a $4.2 million grant to the university from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Lab’s mission is simple: “to advance news media innovation and education.” It consists of a variety of technologists, journalists, designers and educators who together brainstorm ideas and develop tools aiming to help translate information in a more meaningful and interactive way on the Internet.

However, what started as a small school program in an overlooked room off a wing on the school’s engineering building has turned into a full-fledged, bustling lab in the school’s communications building with its digital tools utilized by publications around the world.

The Lab’s online site shares both new interactive web tools developed by the Knight Lab team as well as the latest in journalism technology news.  Its web-native tools listed in its free  “publishers toolbox” have been embedded hundreds of thousands of times on websites like RadioLab, VH1 and Al Jazeera America, according to the Lab’s website. It’s become a hub for both developers and journalists to come together and learn about the future of interactive web reporting, which Gordon hopes has built a respectable enough reputation as a leader in journalistic innovation to encourage future funding in the coming years as its initial grants come to a close.

Currently, the Lab consists of eight full time staff members, two fellows, and a handful of students. Ideas for online tools can originate from anywhere, anyone, and at anytime.

One of the drawbacks to this free flow of ideas is the Lab’s inability to do more detailed user research, says Gordon. Since its business model does not include a designated staff member to research every stage of the development process, it’s hard to “bottle a replicable process” for how the Lab can continue to develop successful journalism tools, like the Timeline JS tool from Emmy awarding winning interactive producer and associate professor at Medill, Zack Wise.

“The biggest problem for anyone with innovation as an end goal is finding something that people really need and being able to define it well enough to build it,” says Gordon.

With its future and reputation on the line, Gordon says he plans to work on doing more user research for future projects at the Lab.