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J-Lab Honors Innovation in Journalism

By Sally Acharya

Talk about the future of journalism often revolves around shrinking newspapers and laid-off reporters. But there are other changes on the horizon — changes that use technology to deepen coverage and empower readers.

This year’s Knight-Batten Awards for Innovation in Journalism, administered by AU’s J-Lab, shone a spotlight on some of the most intriguing experiments in journalism today.  J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism is a center of AU’s School of Communication.

“This is a time when innovation is coming from both mainstream media like the New York Times and from local experiments. That’s very exciting,” said SOC dean Larry Kirkman, one of the judges who selected winners ranging from the New York Times to the Star News in Wilmington, N.C., to nonprofit centers.

“J-Lab knows where the experimentation and innovation is happening. As the whole industry and profession are changing, J-Lab is able to map that territory,” Kirkman noted.

The New York Times won for a body of work that includes a Debate Analysis Tool, which allows viewers to view the 2008 presidential debates and speeches with a searchable transcript, and Represent, which helps city residents follow their state and congressional representatives.

Other winners included, from the Star News, that allows readers to ask questions directly to reporters, and a body of work from the Center for Public Integrity that includes a searchable assessment of Bush administration failures and an interactive look at subprime lenders.

This year, one trend stood out to Kirkman: the growing link between new voices and the older, established “legacy media” as both seek to add depth and context to news stories by engaging the audience, motivating readers to learn more, and providing the tools that enable them to explore the issues further.

“Readers are going deeper into stories, looking at databases, and being surprised at how much they can know,” Kirkman said. The award winners have all created innovative ways to further those goals.

“It’s really about creating the kind of journalism that connects with your community and invites participation,” said J-Lab director Jan Schaffer. “In the old days, civic journalism did that in real space. Nowadays you do it in cyberspace. The baseline is: how do you involve the public?”

J-Lab helps news organizations and citizens use digital technologies to participate in public life. It administers the Knight Citizens News Network, the New Voices community media grant program, and the McCormick New Media Women Entrepreneurs Initiative.

SOC faculty members who have been involved in J-Lab projects include Amy Eisman and Wendell Cochran, who produced Tools for Citizen Journalists, and Angie Chuang and Lynne Perri, who created a learning module on interviewing for Knight Citizens News Network.

This year’s Knight-Batten winners were honored at a symposium and luncheon at the Newseum on Sept. 17.