2015 Fellows: Project Descriptions

This cohort of 20 projects falls into five categories. The first is a series of six shorter pieces of research which we’re calling our ‘Guide to…’ series. They are landscape reviews, explaining key terms and highlighting the most important case studies. The other 14 projects will be more traditional pieces of research, which fall into one of the following four areas: Computation, Algorithms and Automated Journalism; Data, Impact and Metrics; Audiences and Engagement; and Experimental Journalism, Models and Practice.

The Tow Center ‘Guide to….’ Series

Guide to Automated Journalism
Tow Fellow: Andreas Graefe

Graefe’s main research areas are forecasting and computational journalism. His work on the development and validation of forecasting methods is published in leading journals in various fields. At the Tow Center, Graefe will work on a “Guide to Automated Journalism” and he will study news consumers’ perceptions of computer-generated news coverage of 2016 US presidential election forecasts.

Guide to Crowdsourcing
Tow Fellows: Jeanne Pinder, Jan Schaffer, Mimi Onouha

The ability of news consumers to participate in acts of journalism has moved far beyond eyewitness accounts captured in photos and video. This project examines how crowdsourcing has developed since the term was first coined a decade ago, develop a robust taxonomy of uses, showcase important examples in case studies, and explore emerging best practices.

Guide to Journalism + Design
Tow Fellow: Heather Chaplin

There is a growing movement arguing for a closer relationship between design and journalism. This project will examine the following questions: What do the two disciplines have to do with one another? What do people even mean when they say “design?” Where are examples of design methodologies being used successfully to produce better journalism? What promise does the notion hold? What might be unintended consequences? This guide will provide a review of the current landscape and will highlight some of the most relevant case studies.

Guide to Messaging Apps for Distribution
Tow Fellows: Trushar Barot, Eytan Oren

Messaging apps are a big deal: Snapchat claims an active user base in the USA of 100 million people. They claim 200 million worldwide. In their blog announcing their content play, called ‘Discover’ they said “Social media companies tell us what to read based on what’s most recent or most popular. We see it differently. We count on editors and artists, not clicks and shares, to determine what’s important.” Something is going on here.

To drive the point further, as of March, Business Insider reports that there are more people using messaging apps than traditional social networks. WhatsApp leads that charge with 800 million monthly active users, and major organizations like BBC News are trailblazing experimental campaigns on the platform despite its complete lack of formal tools for businesses.

This white paper will provide an insider’s overview of the messaging app landscape, explore the most effective existing case studies from news organizations, and forecast likely industry developments over the next 12-24 months. Key topics include new storytelling tools, Snapchat’s attempt to re-invent video news distribution, and chatting with your news organization’s AI-powered chatbot.

Guide to Podcasts
Tow Fellow: Vanessa Quirk

With the recent success of “Serial,” and the subsequent proliferation of podcasts and podcasting networks in its wake, Quirk’s research will offer a bird’s eye view of the current podcasting media landscape, focus on existing business models, and provide recommendations for the podcasting industry for the future.

Guide to Secure Drop & Encryption Practices in Newsrooms
Tow Fellow: Charles Berret

This report will describe the range of digital security tools that American journalists are using today, from secure email and chat protocols to fully anonymized whistleblowing platforms. Berret is working on the assumption that digital security concerns were greatly magnified among journalists in the wake of the Snowden affair and that examining new forms of practice among the most technologically progressive journalists and newsrooms will tell us something about the shape of journalism to come. This is a moment of interpretive flexibility in journalistic practice as these encryption technologies have not only been recognized for their enormous promise, and are even treated as an imperative in some cases, but also require active consideration from users. This research will record, illustrate, and understand this moment.

Computation, Algorithms and Automated Journalism

Algorithmic Accountability Reporting
Tow Fellow: Nick Diakopoulos

The goal of the project is to advance the field of computational journalism by expanding the methods and practices of algorithmic accountability reporting, developing standards and new user experiences for algorithmic transparency, and exploring the use of algorithms, automation, and bots in the news media.

Artificial Intelligence, Watchdog Reporting, and Campaign Finance Data
Tow Fellow: Meredith Broussard

In recent years, artificial intelligence has become increasingly valuable to journalists. Automated writing has helped journalists to more efficiently cover routine stories in sports and business. Machine learning has helped journalists to understand large datasets, resulting in document analysis tools like the Overview Project or DocumentCloud. Now, a third dimension of artificial intelligence has shown promise in helping journalists to find stories in data: expert systems. This research suggests that this concept of an expert system can be successfully modified for public affairs reporting so that journalists can quickly and efficiently discover stories in large public datasets. The project will include the documentation and prototype demo of a software tool that will attempt to discover stories related to Campaign Finance.

Open Contractors
Tow Fellows: Alexandre Gonçalves and Allison McCartney

Modern reporting is increasingly reliant on using data as source of evidence. Fortunately, many government agencies release their data openly on the web, but unfortunately much of this data is presented in a frustrating and byzantine manner. Data about US government spending, for instance, is open but available as a clumsy CSV file with hundreds of columns and millions of lines. Gonçalves and his project partner Allison McCartney want to address this problem by creating, a Web dashboard that will allow journalists to analyze, visualize, and interact with contractor data from the Department of Defense. The final product will create a pipeline to take journalists from query to embeddable visualization in only a few clicks.

Programming Language for Journalists
Tow Fellows: Mark HansenLéopold Mebazaa, George King, Gabe Stein

This research team aims to build a programming language that teaches journalists core programming concepts while making it easier for beginners to work on data-driven stories. The project also hopes to expand the industry’s notion of what constitutes data journalism by helping journalists think of anything that can be represented by a computer as data, allowing them to find and tell better and more complete stories.

Data, Impact and Metrics

Impact Case Studies
Tow Fellows: Lindsay Green-Barber and Fergus Pitt

This research will produce crucial and timely qualitative research into how carefully selected journalistic organizations manage for impact. The research will include three tightly written briefs; the first will frame the current state of thinking into journalistic impact, the rest will be case studies of how individual and varied news organizations and projects are approaching the subject.

The research will be framed around these broad questions: 1) What is going on inside news organizations with respect to impact assessment? 
2) What are some management options? 
3) What are the challenges and opportunities when newsrooms apply impact thinking to journalistic practice? 
 4) What are the effects of including impact considerations in journalism practice and management?

The two organisations that will service as case studies are Buzzfeed and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

Audiences and Engagement

Engaging Communities through Solutions Journalism
Tow Fellows: Andrea Wenzel, Daniela Gerson

Engaging communities through solutions journalism is a collaborative research project that will assess how audiences process local solutions-oriented stories, and their online and offline behavioral intentions. Adapting stories developed through a Metamorphosis research group project connecting South Los Angeles community organizations and local media, South LA residents will participate in focus groups exploring the impact of solutions-oriented community-based journalism. The project will make recommendations for a model for solutions journalism interventions that may be particularly useful for diverse communities.

Experimental Journalism, Models and Practice

Conflict Analysis Toolbox
Tow Fellow: Madeeha Merchant

The Conflict Analysis Toolbox aims to simplify satellite data collection and interpretation, allowing journalists, urbanists, humanitarian agencies and others to mine valuable information from satellite imagery during urban conflicts or natural disasters. Funded by the Knight Prototype Fund Grant in Jan 2015, CAT is being developed at the Spatial Information Design Lab. CAT operates within a journalist’s workflow, as an investigation driver rather than a data analyzer. CAT in Context will be user centered, focusing on testing these tools and frameworks through case studies and working alongside field practitioners and journalists. During this phase, we hope to educate users about the multiple applications of these tools and how they can incorporate the open source tools, into their existing workflows.

Constructive Technology Criticism
Tow Fellow: Sara Watson

Contemporary technology criticism is a product of the internet, characterized by oversimplified binary questions, clickbait headlines, and sensationalizing explorations of moral panics and progress narratives. Technology criticism has the potential to play an operative role in shaping the design, adoption, and policies around emerging technologies. Sara’s work explores how Constructive Technology Criticism can improve the broader cultural discourse about technology, not only commenting on the technologies we have, but also influencing and shaping the technologies we want.

The Templeton Project
Tow Fellows: Marguerite Holloway, Brian House, Jason Munshi-South

The Templeton Project will devise and use novel sensor technology to travel across interspecies boundaries to tell the story of several weeks in the life of New York City from the perspective of its least-loved resident: Rattus norvegicus. The team is intrigued by the possibility of up-ending people’s perceptions of rats by getting New Yorkers to identify with the creatures in unexpected ways and to discover the stories we share. The project aspires to gather new scientific insight into rat behavior, but, in addition, the team wants to provoke people to see rats in a different way, to connect with their rhythms and experiences and, ultimately, to feel the city as a rat does.

Economic News Networks in Social Media Journalism
Tow Fellow: Burcu Baykurt

This project will examine the expert networks of economic news on social media and explore the ways they are involved in the everyday routines of journalism.

Beyond 140 Characters:The Forces that Shape Journalists’ Strategic Twitter Engagement
Tow Fellow: Svenja Ottovordemgentschenfelde

This project project investigates the underlying dynamics of political journalists’ strategic Twitter engagement and how these shape their behavior on the platform. Svenja is particularly interested in questions of journalistic role performance and branding, varying degrees of skillfulness and investment into Twitter, the links between institutional logics, organizational strategies and individual behavior, as well as the changing conditions of different news climates and socio-political environments.

You Are Here:An experimental journalism-distribution network
Tow Fellows: Sarah Grant, Susan McGregor, Benjamen Walker, Dan Phiffer, Amelia Marzec

Thanks to high-speed satellite Internet service and the ubiquity of mobile devices, journalism audiences can now be reached anywhere, any time. The effect can be transporting – both for good and ill. When the Web is everywhere, what happens to the experience of being in a particular time and place? Even today, when so much of our lives takes place online, we still form communities based on geography as well as interest, yet our digital experiences rarely reflect those choices.

“You Are Here” is an experimental journalism-distribution network that leverages small, inexpensive, open-source wireless routers to deliver compelling, location-specific content to communities around New York. Starting with a series of high-quality audio pieces that reflect the unique culture and history of the people, politics and communities of the geographic area, the “You Are Here” servers can also act as a kind of digital town square where those nearby can exchange ideas, stories and information. The fact that these servers are not connected to the Internet allows them to accumulate a genuinely local character, in addition to serving as a safe, resilient means of exchanging digital information.