The Brown Institute for Media Innovation: cross-pollinating innovation and “Magic” on America’s coasts

The Brown Institute’s mission is to explore new forms of storytelling, with the intent of furthering both engineering research and journalistic practice.

To this end, the institute has forged a number of significant partnerships with individuals and organisations in the research, journalism and creative communities in New York and the Bay Area. The David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation is split between Columbia University’s Journalism School (East Coast, New York) and Stanford’s School of Engineering (West Coast, California). It provides roughly $1m annually to spark innovation through its ‘Magic Grant’ and fellowship programmes. It has also taken on a pedagogical function within the schools, leveraging its partnerships and networks of past grantees and fellows, to bring new ideas, new questions, to the faculty, students and alumni of each school.

Origins & Mission

The Brown Institute’s mission is simple, “to look at new ways to find and tell stories,” according to Brown Institute Director and Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, Mark Hansen.

Established in 2012 with a $30m gift from Helen Gurley Brown, the former editor-in-chief at Cosmopolitan magazine for over three decades, the Institute was created to provide a platform and to inspire young people in their pursuit of advancing the media industry. The endowment was created in memory of her late husband David Brown. A graduate of both Stanford and Columbia, Brown is most well known for producing hit films like Jaws, A Few Good Men and Driving Miss Daisy.

“David and I have long supported and encouraged bright young people to follow their passions and to create original content. Great content needs useable technology. Sharing a language is where the magic happens. It’s time for two great American institutions on the East and West coasts to build a bridge.”


The Brown Institute sets a late-March deadline for applications to its annual Magic Grant competition. The process itself is designed to be simple and straightforward, consisting of only a two-page proposal, a budget and CVs/resumes. After an initial screening, a shortlist of potential projects is identified, with special emphasis given to “bi-coastal” projects, those with teams made up of members from both the Columbia and Stanford communities. Two committees – one at each institution – are then assembled to hear oral presentations from the finalists. The committees rank the proposals and the institute directors and staff allocate funding for as many projects as they can, following the priorities set by the committees. Magic Grants can be up to $150k for a year, with that amount increasing to $300k if a project is bi-coastal.

Hansen sees definite advantages to journalism through such bi-coastal collaborations. Historically, journalism has tended to rely on tools and platforms that were built by technologists outside or independent of the profession, he notes. Through its training programmes and Magic Grants, the institute seeks to prepare journalists, or storytellers more broadly, to take an active role in technical development, “training them to be tool builders and not just tool users”.

Over its five years, the Brown Institute staff has learned a great deal about how to create “authentic collaborations” between journalists and engineers.

“What can happen if you’re not careful is that the engineers will look at the journalists as beta testers and the journalists will look at the engineers as programmers. You don’t really want projects growing up under those conditions. You want some kind of meeting in the middle.


The intersection between technology and storytelling, and journalism, in particular, is an exceptionally fertile area. The proposals that the Brown Institute look to fund fall along a spectrum of sorts, ranging from platforms to find and tell classes of stories, to tech deep-dives producing unique ways to tell a single story, Hansen explains.

Two years ago, for example, the Brown Institute received a proposal from three Panamanian journalists, one an alumnae of the Journalism School. “The team proposed an open data portal for Panama. It turns out that Panama has the strongest freedom of information law in the Americas, from Argentina to Canada,” Hansen states. “So we funded the creation of a database that would help Panamanian journalists track the operations of their government and hold the powerful to account.” In May of 2017, members of the institute travelled to Panama City and met with 50 journalists and representatives of the Panamanian government. “It was amazing to see how even the most basic data had never been examined before. There was a real sense of promise in the room.”

At the other end of the project spectrum, there are proposals that start with stories. With story-specific projects, the Brown Institute evaluates both the newsworthiness of the story, as well as the novelty of the technology to bring it to life. When the Institute funded a virtual reality (VR) project on the famine caused by civil war in South Sudan, the journalists in charge wanted to portray a sense of disbelief that a country with such natural beauty could also be a place of extreme hardship, Hansen explains. “The place had to appear as a kind of character in the piece and the use of VR was perfect. This was also our first partnership with PBS FRONTLINE who provided editorial supervision.”

The South Sudan piece was not the only time the Brown Institute has used VR to tell a story. A recent project, presented to the Institute by a partnership between a faculty member in Columbia’s School of Social Work and the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, is looking at the topic of racism. Although a common feeling around VR is that it is all about empathy, the social worker wanted to explore other aspects of what VR brings to storytelling, Hansen explains.

“The project is about everyday experiences of racism. We found it interesting because it’s bringing in another – again trying to experiment a little bit – another methodology. The social worker isn’t thinking about empathy, she’s more interested in how you think about a problem and the action you are motivated to take.”

Evaluating success

Once a project has gone through the application process and has been accepted by the committee, it is up to the grantees to define their important milestones and what success looks like to them. The Brown Institute assists grantees through this process with workshops on entrepreneurship, project management, and interdisciplinary collaboration. Both halves of the institute also meet quarterly in “All Hands” meetings that provide an opportunity for regular group check-ins.

Despite this framework, “sometimes the thing doesn’t get where it was supposed to go; … not all ventures are going to make it,” Hansen said. “Even if a project didn’t turn out to be the kind amazing, award winning thing everyone hoped, if the students or the people involved have grown in the process, if the experience of it has changed the way they think about what storytelling might be or what technology is capable of – that to me is the important thing.”

Hansen feels that the innovation and learning journey can be the most important result of the Brown Institute’s funding and is what sets them apart from similar programmes.

“[Be] it a journalist learning something new about technology and now they’re able to collaborate in ways they hadn’t before, or technologists understanding the importance of getting journalists involved [in innovation], is something that is really valuable.

“[That is] something that I think makes our institution unique.” Ultimately, Hansen points out, this goes back to the “Magic” in “Magic Grants.” “Helen Gurley Brown did not really have an interest in supporting institutions — she was wanted to support people as they pursued their dreams.” This, Hansen believes, makes the Brown Institute different.


Mark Hansen, Director, Brown Institute
Twitter: @cocteau



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