J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer Reflects Back on 20 Years of Journalism Innovation

    by Jan Schaffer
    November 4, 2014
    J-Lab has been on the front lines of what began as "citizen journalism." Photo by Anton Muhajir on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    J-Lab director Jan Schaffer is wrapping up 20 years of raising money to give it away to fund news startups, innovations and pilot projects. She is pivoting J-Lab to do more writing, custom training and “discrete” projects. After two decades of work at the forefront of journalism innovations, interactive journalism and news startups, she weighs in with some observations and lessons learned. This post addresses journalism innovations and first appeared here.

    Little did I expect when I left the Philadelphia Inquirer to come to Washington, D.C., 20 years ago, that I would end up on the front lines of journalism innovation, participatory journalism and news startups ­– just as the journalism industry was on the precipice of profound disruption.

    "I gotta say: Civic journalism really worked."

    I quickly took on a leadership role in what was to become one of the nation’s most controversial attempts to reform journalism: the civic journalism movement. Castigated by the cardinals of the profession for its outreach to readers and viewers (there weren’t many “users” then), civic journalism was an effort to experiment with new ways to engage audiences and stimulate citizen involvement in elections, local issues and problem solving. Its critics found abhorrent any idea that citizens might have input into how journalists did their jobs.


    I can look back now with some amusement. But I gotta say: Civic journalism really worked. (More on this in another blog post.) It makes most of today’s audience engagement initiatives look a mile wide and an inch deep.

    Civic Journalism’s beginnings

    I now see the degree to which civic journalism was a precursor to today’s participatory and interactive journalism and the rise of citizen journalists.  And I am heartened when I see so many entrepreneurial news startups openly embrace civic aspirations. Consider Jim Brady’s BillyPenn.com, for one.

    Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 9.29.32 AM


    When a decade of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ generous support for civic journalism ended, I spun our efforts into J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism. Informed by early clickable maps that served as surrogate public hearings (kudos to the Everett Herald’s Waterfront Renaissance project) and by the gaming instincts of the first state tax calculators and budget balancers (hat tips to New Hampshire and Minnesota Public Radio), I wanted to move in a more digital direction. It was 2002, and we soon found ourselves in the vanguard of an onslaught of activities. We rewarded innovations with the Knight-Batten Awards, seeded startups with the New Voices projects and Women Entrepreneur awards, built digital capacity and created new kinds of knowledge.

    J-Lab became a catalyst for news ideas that work. The center and its advisory boards funded 100 news startups and pilot projects. They included community news startups, women media entrepreneur initiatives, networked journalism initiatives and enterprise reporting awards.

    In the process of monitoring these projects, J-Lab learned a lot. And we shared it in 11 publications and five websites that have been used as resources in newsrooms and classrooms. J-Lab was the first to chronicle the emergence of citizen-led community news sites. It was the first to capture the extent of nonprofit funding for news projects with a 2009 database of grant-funded news projects accompanied by video case studies. We tapped Mark Briggs to write “Journalism 2.0,” and it was such a popular early guide to digital literacy, it was downloaded some 200,000 times.

    As I pivot to embrace some new projects, I offer this roundup of some  lessons learned:

    • Innovations awards work – if they recognize more than multimedia bells and whistles. Audience engagement and impact are the most useful barometers of excellence.
    • Micro-grants for startups work – when the founders are genuinely committed to leveraging a proof of concept into an ongoing project.
    • News entrepreneurs see new jobs to be done in today’s media space ­– but far too many are leaving traditional newsrooms to do them.
    • You can change behaviors by incentivizing change – if you set out short-term and long-term expectations.


    Our funding for news startups ranged from $10,000 to $25,000 per project, and our pilot-projects ventures received $5,000 to $50,000. The demand for micro startup awards is enormous and the success rate is notable, especially when applicants must lay out plans for sustainability.

    We received 2,011 applications for 22 awards in our McCormick New Media Women Entrepreneur initiative, launched in 2008; 73 percent of those projects are still active. Across the board, the applicants were deeply accomplished, with many Pulitzer, Peabody and Fulbright winners in the mix. The vast majority of the proposals expressed a passion for purpose-driven news and information projects addressing such things as sustainability, social justice or equity. These themes have started to become more pronounced in recent years. Look at The Marshall Project as a case in point.

    Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 9.29.17 AM

    The vast majority of our women entrepreneurs were also refugees from traditional newsrooms. What a shame their ideas could not find the oxygen to be developed in-house.

    Our New Voices grants for community news startups attracted 1,433 proposals for 55 projects that turned into 57 websites. However, 44 percent of the projects were launched by journalism schools and half of these could not figure out how to continue after the initial funding was spent. Kudos, though, to some notable exceptions: Chicago Talks, Great Lakes Echo, Philadelphia Neighborhoods, Madison Commons and Intersections South LA.

    I am particularly proud that our award winners represented a broad cross-section of applicants who won on the merits of their ideas and not because they had past relationships or grant-writing abilities.


    J-Lab’s shared its learning in dozens of high-touch training programs for both journalism practitioners and educators at national journalism gatherings and at our own interactive summits and workshops. For more than 10 years J-Lab programmed lunches for journalism educators at AEJMC. For eight years, we produced sold-out pre-convention workshops for the Online News Association. We convened the first summit of university-based news sites and two women media entrepreneur summits.  When you give people practical, accessible tools and information, they will use them.

    Our Knight Community News Network suite of consultants engaged partners to provide learning modules on how to become a nonprofit 501(c)3, avoid legal risks, use social media and engage audiences. Our J-Learning site offers tutorials in using publishing software and hardware.

    Innovations Awards

    For nine years, J-Lab and its advisory board rewarded first-mover innovations via the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism. We honored 56 winners and showcased 196 notable entries, good ideas even if they didn’t win. Again and again, our awards were an early scout for innovations that later turned into Knight News Challenge winners or Knight grantees. Many of the ideas also were replicated by other news organizations.

    While we may not know exactly where we are going in the future, sometimes, it’s helpful to look back. I am struck by how, if you track past Knight-Batten winners, you really capture the arc of journalism’s reinvention over the last decade. The awards were among the first to validate and honor:

    • News games with Minnesota Public Radio’s state Budget Balancer (2003).
    • Participatory journalism with KQED’s “You Decide” exercise tool and early crowdsourcing with USAToday giving readers the chance to pick their winners in West Virginia’s NewSong Festival for songwriters (2004).
    • Database journalism with the Grand Prize going to ChicagoCrime.com, a searchable database of local crime that later became EveryBlock. Minnesota Public Radio was honored for Public Insight Journalism participatory journalism efforts that have since been adopted around the country (2005).
    • Blogs, with the still-robust Global Voices winning for curating and translating international blogs. Our first social media award went to the Bakersfield Californian. The theme of journalistic transparency emerged with webcast news meetings of the Spokane’s Spokesman-Review (2006).
    • Non-traditional journalism winners: the Personal Democracy Forum for its techpresident.com initiative and the Council on Foreign Relations for its Crisis Guides. It was time to acknowledge how new players were entering the news and information space. Our first citizen media award went to The Forum, the 9-year-old citizen-run hyperlocal site for Deerfield, N.H. (2007)
    • Fact-checking was the theme with Wired.com’s Wikiscanner winning for developing a way to truth-squad entries on Wikipedia. PolitiFact won for fact-checking public officials and candidates. Ushahidi showed us how mobile phone crowdsourcing could help with crisis information (2008).
    • Innovations in mainstream media had the New York Times sweeping the awards with a portfolio of innovative entries. The rise of nonprofit journalism channeled honors to the Center for Public Integrity (2009).
    • Transparency was the theme of Grand Prize winner The Sunlight Foundation‘s Sunlight Live coverage of the health care summit with an innovative blending of data, liveblogging, streaming video and social media. An award to ProPublica’s distributed reporting corps paid tribute to the theme of collaboration (2010).
    • Social media was the hallmark of the final year of the awards, 2011, which honored Storify’s social media story builder and NPR’s Andy Carvin for his Twitter coverage of the Arab Spring.

    The Knight-Batten Awards were unique in their focus on innovations that “spurred non-traditional interactions,” demonstrably engaged audiences, “employed new definitions of news”  and “created news ways of imparting useful information.” Again and again, they proved to be remarkably prescient about innovations that had real staying power.

    My thanks to our supporters, who had the courage and creativity to fund these activities, including The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Knight, McCormick, Ethics and Excellence, Ford, Wyncote, William Penn, Gannett and Ottaway Foundations and to American University, our home.

    Editor’s Note: Read about J-Lab’s new grant program for baby boomers here.

    Jan Schaffer is executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism and Entrepreneur in Residence at American University’s School of Communication, Washington, D.C. She launched J-Lab in 2002 to incubate pioneering initiatives in civic journalism, participatory journalism and citizen media ventures. She previously led the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, a $14 million initiative that funded more than 120 pilot news projects to engage people in public issues. She is a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she worked for more than 20 2years as a reporter and editor. She is a speaker, trainer, author, consultant and web publisher on the future of journalism.  She teaches the Symposium in Media Entrepreneurship to incoming cohort groups in AU’s MA in Media Entrepreneurship program.

    Tagged: citizen journalism civic journalism entrepreneurship innovation j-lab jan schaffer media innovation

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