Columbia to distribute $2 million in grant money to find ‘best practices’ in digital media

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The facade of the Journalism School building. ()
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Three months after receiving an unprecedented $18 million endowment from Helen Gurley Brown to create a "media innovation" institute, Columbia's journalism school is celebrating yet another significant cash infusion.

The school has secured a combined $2 million from the Knight Foundation and the Tow Foundation for research projects exploring "best practices" for digital news.

“Newsrooms have little margin for error right now as they adapt and experiment with new technologies,” said Michael Maness, vice president for journalism and media innovation at Knight Foundation, in a statement. “This research is aimed to deliver deep data on what’s working and what’s not with their digital audiences, so newsrooms can make the resource choices that produce the biggest impact.”

The research will be overseen by Columbia's resident digital-journalism guru, Emily Bell, who joined the faculty in 2010 following a long career at The Guardian.

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In a brief phone interview on Friday, Bell said the money will be doled out in the form of grants and fellowships to academics and "news professionals" who pitch the best ideas for projects.

What might some of these potential projects look like? Bell declined to go into hypotheticals, but as an example of similar past research, she cited the j-school's 2011 study on the profit potential of digital journalism.

The school will hire a research director to administer the grants and hopes to have the first of what will likely be about half a dozen projects off the ground by the fall, said Bell. They will be conducted on an open source basis and the results will be "widely distributed" within the news industry.

"We're not in the business of creating projects for specific news organizations. This should be for everybody," she said. "Beyond that, it would be great to have people in the news industry who want to ask difficult questions and use the time and facilities we have at Columbia to research those questions properly."

A press release announcing the initiative didn't get much more specific than that, but said the research would focus on three areas: "Impact: measuring how new practices and tools affect audiences and newsroom resources; Transparency in journalism: focusing on public data—what’s available, what’s not, and what’s useful and relevant to people’s lives; Data visualization: examining which visuals work best in informing and engaging readers."