A Snapshot of Journalism Labs: Northwest University Knight 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, Northwest University Knight 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.  I’ve already posted about the Nieman Journalism Lab and the New York Times Research & Development Lab, and next week, I’ll post about the HuffPost Labs.


Northwestern University Knight Lab


They recently revamped their branding strategy to better communicate their mission.  According to their blog, “Northwestern University Knight Lab is shorter and friendlier than our previous name and it comes with a tagline to help us better communicate our mission: Advancing news media innovation through exploration and experimentation.”



The Knight Lab is self-described as “a team of technologists, journalists, designers and educators working to advance media innovation through exploration and experimentation.”  They even repainted their office to match their updated orange logo design (see photo here).

They have two Fellows who have been “hard at work on the Lab’s new visual identity and branding” and they also have “an army of hacker-journalist students” hard at work on other tasks.  In fact, as of March 2013, they have “a student who tweets for (them), a number of them who write, and quite a few who commit code and develop projects.”  Over the summer, they plan on hiring a “research intern who will contribute to our business development and product design research efforts.”  As their plans and projects mature, they plan to share their “’living’ style guide as well as our content strategy and product development process documentation as a collection of resources for all,” they note on their blog, “We hope that publishing these guides and documentation will be useful for web-making teams everywhere.”


Project—From Lab to Production:

TimelineJS is perhaps the most well known of all the Knight Lab projects currently.  ODDI’s Brian Williamson documented how he uses it and then updated the post when HuffPo used it to document the timeline of the Boston Marathon bombings.  The TimelineJS Twitter account also is pretty active posting and RT’ing different uses of the technology.

The Knight Lab blog documents the evolution of production to different uses by journalists.  On March 21, 2012, Knight Lab discussed a new tool that they were developing to fit different needs that was built by Zach Wise (who joined the Northwestern University faculty from the New York Times).  It seems that Wise’s main goal was to create a tool that was easy to use, used open-source software, had simple coding, was able to incorporate a number of social media platforms, and looked nice to the user in order to explain events that happen over a set period of time.  To gain interest, the Knight Lab offered assistance to “publishers with compelling story ideas for timelines can get free help in building timelines from a team of Medill students working with Wise.”

About one month later, the Knight Lab noted that journalists had adopted the new technology. “Twitter feedback made it clear that Timeline’s developer and Medill faculty member Zach Wise had created something particularly useful,” Ryan Graff posts on the Knight Lab blog, “Visits to KnightLabTimeline.com also surged, peaking at 13,332 on March 29 (2012) before settling into a steady rate of about 1,400 visits a day.”

Two and a half months later, Knight Lab changed its name from Timeline to TimelineJS, which is “a move that makes the product easier to market and gives a nod to the technology’s JavaScript roots.”  And in addition to “Twitter, Flickr, Google Maps, YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion, and SoundCloud”, Wise also worked with the Knight Lab to incorporate “content from Wikipedia, Instagram, and Storify.”  New additions also include nearly a double in the number of supported languages and a newly developed WordPress plugin.

By September, 2012, TimelineJS had been deployed over 1,500 times and included new features such as: 25 supported languages (including Arabic and Chinese), an embed generator, and other customization options (size, font, and map style).


More Projects:

The Lab is still just under two years old, but has developed quite a portfolio of projects.  During that time, they “produced one stable product, deployed seven systems and 32 prototypes,” according to their website.  They also revised their blog, which is responsively designed for use across laptops, tablets and mobiles.

According to their ‘About’ section on their website, their first year, they “developed several prototypes and tools, including: TimelineJS, Local Angle, Local CirclePrintF, and SoundCite” and several other items under Social Loupe, “which includes prototypes of TweetCast Your Vote, TwxRay and Hashtagger.”

For a much more detailed set of featured projects, check out their projects site.  In 2013, they have three projects listed for continued development: Social Loupe (“experiments and ideas realized into technology which seeks to find meaning and utility in social media data”), Reporters’ Notebook (products geared toward “information gathering, data management, recording and correlating information found in online data repositories, virtual beat reporting, and more”), and The Publishers’ Toolbox (“tools and services intended to help with content publishing and aid in faster and easier web development around storytelling”).

They also recently held a 3-day hackathon which produced some really interesting results.


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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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