A Snapshot of Journalism Labs: Nieman Journalism Lab



There are a number of big journalism labs all striving to be on the cutting edge.  Below is a ‘snapshot’ of one of the more commonly known labs, Nieman Journalism Lab, with a discussion how they operate and some examples of projects they’ve developed.  Their research, techniques and new tools sometimes provide inspiration for BBG staff as they are looking for creative solutions.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting about the New York Times Research & Development Lab, Northwest University Knight Lab and HuffPost Labs as well.


Nieman Journalism Lab


“The Nieman Journalism Lab’s mission is to investigate and chronicle the changing world of journalism in the Internet age through original reporting, analysis and incisive commentary,” and is meant to “highlight attempts at innovation and figure out what makes them succeed or fail.”

Joshua Benton, Director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, describes it as “85 percent newsroom, 15 percent think tank,” “We try to contribute to a discussion of how journalism is going to move through this disruption.”  By disruption, he means finding a new way forward from traditional news and journalism into the current and evolving digital state.  As Harvard Magazine puts it, “the lab also covers many stories on journalistic innovation: new developments in data visualization; emerging business prototypes; novel advertising formats; the growing role of mobile devices in both consuming and producing journalism; the impact of Twitter, Facebook, and the ways news gets shared online.”  Benton says. “What are people trying, what is working, and what can we learn from it? It’s all aimed at trying to figure out a path forward for journalism.”



The lab is a physical place, but operates “an online news site about online news sites,” quotes Benton in the interview with Harvard Magazine.  The article goes on to state that “the lab has a rare status: a news operation running within the University that is not devoted to Harvard news.”  The Nieman Foundation’s endowment fund provides “most of the lab’s budget; it has also received grants from the Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation.”  This allows the Nieman Lab to operate like a news site without needing to place ads to turn a profit.

To get the word out about the lab, Benton travels heavily domestically and internationally to give talks, the lab keeps in touch with other journalism centers, and they host monthly happy-hours at the lab that are open to the journalism-minded public.

The Harvard Magazine article notes that the lab employs “three staff writers, plus many freelancers, do the lab’s reporting, posting new material five days a week; the day’s first tweet goes out around 9 a.m.”

Who are these staff writers?  In a post on Nieman Lab by Benton last year, he described his team’s perfect Staff Writer candidate.  In a nutshell, qualifications include being an “excellent reporter”, an “excellent writer”, and a “nerd”.  “In other words, you care about all this stuff — it matters to you, and it occupies your thoughts in ways that go beyond just wanting a job.  That’s the kind of person we want around here,” Benton sums up.


Project—From Lab to Production:

Fuego 2.0 is where readers can “get up-to-the-moment news and see what the future-of-news crowd is talking about and linking to.”  Once an hour, it pulls in popular links to articles and posts with the right keywords that fit the search algorithm, checks their popularity, then calculates which articles and posts tend to be at the center of conversations.

Benton posts about the process and updates, here, on the Nieman Lab blog.  He notes that they “believe in iterative design”.  He also feels that the new visual nature of the tool is thanks to the “magic of Embedly, a Cambridge startup with an API that converts simple URLs into rich metadata, including headlines and images.”

[Read more about it at Fuego’s FAQ page.]


More Projects:

In addition to Fuego, Nieman Journalism Lab has Encyclo, which is described as “an encyclopedia of the future of news.”  The design of each page of Encyclo is meant to inform journalists about particular brands, companies, people and issues by giving them background on why it may be important, it’s history, and a selection of articles related to it in the past.  To find out more about the “anatomy of an entry,” read about it here.

There is also the Nieman Lab Predictions for Journalism 2013, where they ask a bunch of industry experts for their thoughts on what the current year “will bring for the future of journalism.”  The discussions and links are extensive; offering the reader an in-depth understanding of what’s on the mind of today’s media specialists.


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Thoughts? Feel free to post comments or questions in the section below or tweet us @BBGinnovate.

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(Thank you to Rob Bole for his contributions to this post.)

(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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April Deibert

April Deibert

April Deibert is the Multimedia Blogger/Producer for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow her on Twitter: @BBGinnovate and @AprilDeibert.

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