Editors’ note: This is a guest post by Knight Foundation consultant Vincent Stehle. His full bio is included at the end of the piece.

In late 2009, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation invited me to explore the creation of one or more innovation labs for the improvement and promotion of digital media tools for local media. At the time, I had just departed from the Surdna Foundation, where I was program director for nonprofit sector support. In that capacity, I was fortunate to be able to help with innovative projects in media and technology, like the Public Radio Exchange and the Media Consortium.

Given the breadth and depth of Knight’s support for media innovation, the prospect of creating a lab that advances the foundation’s programs measurably was a real challenge. But it was an exciting challenge that has led us toward a potentially path-breaking new initiative.

What We’re Doing

The Knight News Innovation Lab, announced last month at Northwestern University, is the culmination of a two-year planning process at the Knight Foundation. The Innovation Lab was built with more than $130 million in grants for media innovation, and spurred by the recommendations of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. The lab’s management team is made up of faculty members from both Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism its McCormick School of Engineering.

“We hope this pioneering partnership between a school of journalism and a school of engineering will demonstrate how a major university can speed up media innovation in its surrounding community,” said the foundation’s journalism program vice president Eric Newton.

The main driver for creating the Innovation Lab was the sense that, while Knight Foundation has supported many successful experiments in news technology, particularly through the Knight News Challenge, the foundation could do more to promote the adoption of the tools they have produced. To be sure, there have been several great successes in the five-year, $25-million News Challenge, like Document Cloud and Ushahidi. But there have been other equally promising projects that have not seen the same level of uptake. The Innovation Lab seeks to improve these products, where necessary, and assist in promoting their use by a wide array of media outlets.

In the broader context, the Knight Commission Report that prompted the Innovation Lab’s creation offers extensive and highly detailed guidance on particular strategies to enhance access to information, but its recommendations can be boiled down to three fundamental objectives:

* to maximize the availability of relevant and credible information to communities;
* to strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information;
* and to promote individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.

The lab is intended to address the particular opportunities raised by the media innovation initiative, as well as the broader issues identified in the commission’s report.

Although the proposed initiative went under a variety of names in development — first Test Kitchens, then Knight News Testing Labs and finally the Knight News Innovation Lab — the purpose remained fundamentally the same: To promote the adoption of new digital media tools by removing technical barriers that can block many news organizations from using new tools; To help create new tools that would be developed within the lab; And to help create a culture of media innovation in the community in which it operates.

How It Came About

In the fall of 2009, Knight Foundation commissioned a consulting report to explore the viability of creating one or more news testing labs. In preparation for that report, dozens of experts in media, technology, academia and philanthropy, including several past News Challenge winners, were interviewed.These surveys revealed great enthusiasm for the concept, particularly as a way for Knight Foundation to deepen its investment behind some of its most promising experiments.

As Stephen Shepard, the founding dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, explained, “Knight has invested in a bunch of these tools in a strategy to let a thousand flowers bloom. Maybe it’s time to pick a few flowers and start selling them.”

Respondents felt that there would need to be a serious effort to identify and resolve technical problems associated with the software tools. While most interviewees agreed that it is necessary to refine the technology behind innovative digital media tools, there was widespread agreement that the new program should extend beyond a narrow focus on software, dealing with broader business and organizational challenges facing media innovators and media outlets.

“Ironically, as a technical guy, I don’t think that the technology is in the way,” said Scott Case, CEO of the Startup America Partnership, an initiative to promote innovation and entrepreneurship that was recently announced by the White House. “It’s just the human barriers to adopting tools.”

Concern was expressed that Knight Innovation Labs should operate in an open and transparent fashion and should promote the use of open source and open access tools. At the same time, several experts said the labs should also be open to working with innovators and media outlets that employ proprietary technologies.

“You don’t want to be exclusionary. That would take Google out of the equation and Apple out of the picture,” said Case, who is also co-chairman of Malaria No More and was the first CTO at Priceline.com. “You would not want to do anything that would limit yourself. You would want to be as open as you can be. And that means you want to be open to proprietary solutions.”

Why Northwestern Was Chosen

From the outset, the News Innovation Lab was originally envisioned as a project that might involve journalism schools and computer science and engineering departments working together at a leading university. But it was not a foregone conclusion that Knight Foundation would focus entirely on higher education. Indeed, there was a strong sentiment among those interviewed that academic institutions presented serious challenges to creating a successful lab.

In many important respects, academic institutions have led the transformation of journalism and other media disciplines. They have been change agents encouraging legacy media institutions to adjust to new times. And they are teaching the next generation of journalists and media industry workers new skills and new roles.

While many observers agreed that a leading journalism school could demonstrate both the entrepreneurial inclination and the collaborative behavior necessary to successfully host a news innovation lab, there was considerable skepticism that many journalism schools would be good venues to host these efforts. Chief among the concerns were the bureaucratic constraints and overly specialized nature of academic institutions.

Balancing the findings of the report against Knight Foundation’s own extensive history of working successfully with academic institutions, the foundation pursued a dual track of inviting proposals to establish a pilot lab from two different types of organizations: one a major university and the other a leading community-based media arts center, the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC).

From the start, Northwestern was seen as a strong contender for this program. The Medill School of Journalism, a longtime grantee, is a top journalism school. And the McCormick School of Engineering is likewise very highly regarded. Together, they created a unique inter-disciplinary program focused on media innovation in the community — the Medill-McCormick Center for Innovation in Technology, Media and Journalism. This collaboration between journalism and engineering builds on a previous Knight Foundation grant to Northwestern that supported master’s degrees in journalism for students with a background in computer science.

Surely, compared to a leading research university like Northwestern University, BAVC had to be considered a dark horse candidate for the Innovation Lab program. At the same time, BAVC had demonstrated tremendous potential through a variety of media and technology training programs and especially its Producers Institute for New Media Technologies, where documentary filmmakers and software developers work together intensively for a week to create outreach tools to enhance the impact of their documentary projects.

In the end, Ken Ikeda, the executive director of BAVC departed for a position with a new organization, the Public Media Company, before BAVC submitted a final proposal to create an Innovation. It was agreed that it would not make sense for Knight Foundation or BAVC to pursue the opportunity in the middle of a leadership transition.

But the process continued apace without BAVC and the proposal from Northwestern University was approved at the December meeting of Knight Foundation’s Board of Trustees.

A Promising Start

Going forward, the challenge remains to recruit a talented director for the lab — one who will have extensive experience in media and technology innovation and also has the management ability to keep the lab nimble within the confines of a university bureaucracy.

In addition, the lab will need to maintain a laser focus on serving media outlets and news consumers in the Chicago community, despite the inevitable temptation to serve a more global audience with digital tools. If the lab is successful, its products will eventually serve a wider audience, but its first priority has to be the local media ecosystem.

The Knight News Innovation Laboratory at Northwestern University was announced at a launch event in the immediate aftermath of an epic blizzard that blanketed much of the nation. Of course, Chicago is used to dealing with rough weather, but this was the rare storm that could bring the City of Big Shoulders to its knees.

The original plan was to convene Knight grantees and staff, along with representatives of all kinds of media organizations from around the Chicago region to participate in an event at the Evanston campus. But travel in and out of Chicago was impossible and even short trips around the region were out of the question.

So, without skipping a beat, the Innovation Lab directors from the Medill-McCormick Center organized an impromptu virtual announcement, with participation of the deans of the journalism and engineering schools at Northwestern, along with remote participation of Newton from the Knight Foundation. The event, which was presented as a live webcast for anyone to watch over the Internet, offered a forum for questions and answers from the hardy souls who braved the elements to attend in person, as well as many more who participated via the Internet.

In the end, it was agreed by all involved that the quick shift to an online announcement was a great test of the technological prowess of the host institution and represented a great way to give birth to the Knight News Innovation Lab.

Vincent Stehle is a consultant with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Previously, Stehle was program director for Nonprofit Sector Support at the Surdna Foundation, a family foundation based in New York City with assets approaching $700 million. Before joining Surdna, Stehle worked for ten years as a reporter for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where he covered a broad range of management issues for the nonprofit sector. Stehle has served as chairperson of Philanthropy New York (formerly the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers) and on the governing boards of YouthNoise, VolunteerMatch, and the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (NTEN). Currently, he serves on the board of Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media.