Media lab to open in fall

Feb. 3, 2012, 3:04 a.m.

The David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation — the result of a $30 million gift to the Stanford School of Engineering and the Columbia School of Journalism (J-School) from former Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown — will be up and running on both campuses by the start of the 2012-13 academic year.


Stanford and Columbia will each receive $6 million to sustain a director on each campus and a fellow on each location to support the director. Each school will have an additional $6 million endowment to support “magic grants” — collaborative student projects related to technology and digital journalism.


“[The Institute] reflects a great promise, which is still unfulfilled — namely that people who work on content and people who work on technology will invent the next generation of media together,” said Electrical Engineering Professor Bernd Girod, who will serve as the Stanford director of the program. “It’s been long recognized that this is how it should be done, but it hasn’t really happened yet.”


The endowment will annually pay out roughly five percent — or $300,000 — each year for grants on each campus, according to Girod.


Columbia received an extra $6 million to support the development of a high-tech newsroom.


Each campus will choose its Brown Fellow by July and will begin a competition for magic grants in March, so that the selected students can prepare to develop their projects at the start of the next school year, Girod said.


“We want to tap into the creativity and new and original ideas that our graduate and post-graduate students have,” Girod said. “If a pair of students has a game-changing and original idea, we will fund them for a year.”


Preparing for the institute

Columbia is currently conducting a search for the Institute’s east coast director but is more concerned with finding the most qualified person than “meeting an artificial deadline,” according to William Grueskin ‘77, dean of academic affairs at the Columbia School of Journalism.


After soliciting applications and interviewing top candidates, a committee of Journalism School faculty will recommend a candidate to the J-School’s dean, Nicholas Lemann.


“We expect to make the hire later this year,” Grueskin said, adding that Girod will be involved in the search process.


“We’re looking for someone who can complement an engineer,” Girod said.  “That person will likely be technology-savvy, but will focus on content.”


Columbia does not yet have an exact timeline for construction of its technology newsroom but anticipates its completion in 2014.


“We expect the new newsroom will be a center for real innovation in multimedia, using tools in visual, aural and data-driven journalism,” Grueskin said. “The architectural plans aren’t complete, but we expect the space will include classrooms, offices and open areas for collaboration.”


In terms of Stanford space for the Institute, Girod said Stanford is currently in the process of identifying suitable space.


“We will likely convert some space in the School of Engineering,” Girod said.


Girod envisions the Institute having a similar style to that of the Institute of Design at Stanford (, which has open spaces that “inspire people to work together.”


Connecting East and West

Though the programs will be anchored in the School of Engineering at Stanford and in the School of Journalism in New York, Girod says the magic grants will be open to the entire community on each campus.


Girod stressed that a multidisciplinary approach is necessary to solving the problems facing 21st-century journalism.


“It’s not something that’s just going to happen for engineering students,” Girod said. “The more surprising the ideas are, the better. Often the best out of the box thinking comes when people with different backgrounds come together.”


Participants on both campuses will see each other at regular intervals, according to Girod.


“There will be a mechanism in place to connect people east and west — fellows and grant recipients,” Girod said.


“Bridging the gap”

Columbia and Stanford announced Brown’s donation and the creation of the Institute on Monday in a joint press release, along with Cosmopolitan’s parent company, Hearst Corporation.


“[The Institute] will recognize the increasingly important connection between journalism and technology, bringing the best from the East and West Coasts,” the release said.


The gift had been in preparation for roughly two years, according to Girod, who has been involved since September.


Brown gave the gift in honor of her late husband David, who completed a B.A. in communication at Stanford, before attending the Columbia School of Journalism to receive an M.S. in Journalism in 1937.


That the Institute is among the first of its kind is mostly due to the shortcomings of technology, according to Girod.


“Technology is just not sophisticated enough to extract meaning from text, or recognize the story of a movie,” Girod said. “But we are at the cusp of bridging what people call ‘the semantic gap,’ — of unifying the worlds of content and technology,” Girod said.


The J-School has been working with its Columbia engineering colleagues since it started work on a joint degree master’s program in computer science and journalism, Grueskin said.


Columbia enrolled its first class of students in the program last fall and will be hosting a hackathon this coming weekend with ScraperWiki, an online tool that helps users gather data from the Internet.


“We’ve seen a number of journalism initiatives at Columbia, and beyond, designed to bolster the role that universities have often played in solving problems in society, business and other fields,” Grueskin said. “We want to be sure that the Brown Institute is relevant to the challenges journalists face and that we produce genuinely useful research, tools and training in the years to come.”

Kristian Davis Bailey is a junior studying Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity. A full time journalist/writer and occasional student, he's served as an Opinion section editor, News writer and desk editor for The Daily, is a community liaison for Stanford STATIC, the campus' progressive blog and journal, and maintains his own website, 'With a K.' He's interested in how the press perpetuates systems of oppression and seeks to use journalism as a tool for dismantling such systems.

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