Boston Globe collaboration with MIT yields prototypes, new tools and lessons for newsroom innovators

Journalism / Article

Knight Foundation supports The Boston Globe to foster newsroom innovation through collaborations with universities, such as the MIT Center for Civic Media, another Knight grantee. Below, Michael Manning, executive director of emerging products at The Boston Globe, and Adrienne Debigare, a new media catalyst at the Globe, write about lessons learned during the first year of the project. Photo credit: Flickr user Taraji Blue

Reporting on the world-class colleges and universities in the Boston area and our vibrant digital innovation economy is a central mission of The Boston Globe. However, a yearlong Knight Foundation grant enabled us to make a more deliberate effort to work with the academic community.

We set several goals when we started this journey:

  • To develop new features and products for our audience
  • To pioneer academic research collaborations focused on core business challenges faced by news organizations
  • To craft tools to support digital and print storytelling.

A year later we’re well on our way, and we’ve gained fresh insights that have helped refine our goals and our approach. We’ve had one product launch, two academic research collaborations with many more possible, and a handful of promising internal prototypes.

The structure of our core team—three people, supplemented by fellows during the summer and winter breaks—has been an asset. Chris Marstall and Daniel McLaughlin are versatile developers, while Adrienne focuses on networking and identifying potential collaborators at MIT and beyond (along with having strong user experience and design skills). This group is big enough to work together and produce tangible results while being lean and nimble.

We started by working with Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, and others from the MIT Media Lab, who all proved to be generous and highly engaging colleagues. They invited us to fully participate in group meetings, introduced us to other researchers and suggested classes to audit. We’ve also worked closely with MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab, David Lazer, co-director of the NULab for Text, Maps and Networks at Northeastern University, and several others.

In addition to internal prototyping, our team launched 61fresh.com, a site that aggregates trending news stories based on Boston-area Twitter users, out of some work we did examining the flood of social news associated with the Boston Marathon bombings in April. This was a topic of interest for several groups we talked to, and our team was able to work collaboratively to improve our ability to extract topics of interest and to better identify important posts and sources. We plan to integrate much of the technology behind 61fresh.com more closely into our core site experience to add more breadth and perspective to our coverage.

One early lesson is that we realized the need to align business timing with academic calendars. Our team kicked off in January, right in the middle of the academic winter break. We soon had a number of promising contacts and conversations but finding people who were not already committed to completing work for the end of the semester proved to be a challenge. As the year progressed, we focused more energy on building relationships with academic advisers; they are helpful advocates who can help recruit graduate students at the right time in the research cycle.

For many collaborators, studying the Globe and our coverage was initially the area that interested them the most. While providing academic value, it proved difficult to connect this research in a meaningful way to newsroom practices or coverage patterns. Becoming a partner of academic research instead of the subject proved to be a valuable step because it shifted the focus more toward our audience instead of our staff.

Finally, we’ve learned that creating sustainable connections to the academic community is an ongoing process that will improve with months and years. Making the right connection, finding the right collaborator, matching resources and pushing something from prototype to viable feature requires varying degrees of skill, perseverance and luck. We’re fortunate to have had a good mix and plan to continue it in the coming months.