When it comes to the mission of journalism, it’s hard to imagine any function more fundamental than providing people with the information they need to choose their elected representatives. That’s why the first major initiative of the Knight News Innovation Laboratory, announced this week, will focus on coverage of the March 20 congressional primary elections in Illinois.

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There are 25 contested primaries in Illinois’ 18 congressional districts, the first elections under newly drawn district boundaries. As a result of the decennial redistricting process, many people will be choosing among candidates they know little about. Many of the districts are huge, extending across the circulation areas of multiple newspapers and even different television markets. At a time when traditional news organizations are shrinking, it can’t be good for democracy that it could take a reporter most of a day to travel from one end of a district to the other.

The mission of the Knight Lab, a joint program of Northwestern University’s journalism and computer science programs, is to “accelerate media innovation” in the Chicago area. The primary elections initiative takes into account the new realities of media and politics today, including candidates’ extensive use of social media and the fragmentation of the news audience.

The project’s three main elements are:

  • Candidate profiles from a social media perspective, including analysis of what the candidates tweet about and what their followers tweet about;
  • An aggregation tool that collects coverage of individual congressional primary races from many sources;
  • A simplified snapshot of campaign contributions that focuses on the geographical profile of each candidate’s contributor base.

All of these components will go live on www.congressionalprimaries.org in early February. More importantly, they are being offered — at no charge — to web publishers large and small. The Lab’s goal is to have the election coverage distributed through as many news outlets as possible.

News organizations can use the Lab’s congressional coverage to serve their users, adding their own branding and navigation to pages hosted by the Lab. Or news organizations can use "widgets" that incorporate elements of the coverage into their websites. Either way, they get coverage of the campaigns that goes beyond what any one organization can provide itself.

The elections initiative incorporates technology approaches that my Northwestern computer science colleagues have specialized in for years: powerful web searching, content categorization and extraction of meaning from editorial content and social media. By making these technologies available to local news media in connection with an important news event, the Lab seeks to whet publishers’ appetite for innovation and build their interest in collaborating with media they might also consider to be business competitors.

After the primary, the Lab’s leadership team will review the results of the elections initiative and consider expanding on it for the November general election.

Details about the congressional primaries project are available in two PDF files on the Knight Lab website: a project overview and FAQ. The Lab is reaching out to potential partners throughout Illinois and adjacent media markets to explain the project in greater detail. Potential partners can also contact r-graff@northwestern.edu to get a head start on customizing the services. 

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