J-Lab: aiding new media start-ups through training, consultancy and research
With over 10 years of experience, J-Lab is one of the oldest digital media innovation institutions. It offers media organisations training and support to develop new ways of reporting and engaging with their audiences.
Over the years, the lab has tailored its work targets and approaches to the transformations in the media environment, staying up-to-date and providing useful information to media organisations to help them adjust to these changes. Located in Washington DC, the lab acts as a national media incubator for media start-ups and traditional news organisations to incorporate digital technologies in today’s media.
The lab was started in 2002 by Jan Schaffer, executive director and founder of J-Lab, as a spin-off from the Pew Centre for Civic Journalism. Its goal was to promote the use of digital technologies within the media industry:
“At that time I made a decision that I wanted to move towards innovations in the digital media realm,” Schaffer explains. “By 2002, websites were there, but they were created so you could just slap the whole newspaper online after you published it. It was very different from what we have now.
We started to get proposals that had a very interesting degree of interactivity and were very interesting for news consumers to participate in public policy issues and public policy positions, so I felt that there was a window there to develop that area a little bit more,” she adds.
J-Lab was initially based at the University of Maryland’s School of Journalism, but was later moved to the American University’s School of Communications, where Schaffer teaches civic journalism and media entrepreneurship.
For many years, the lab focused on offering grants to media organisations and start-up companies in order to support the development of dozens of pilot projects. However, in 2014, J-Lab’s main activities moved towards teaching, training and publishing papers, articles and studies on media innovation, giving up the task of funding new media start-ups and pilot projects:
“I made the decision that I was going to get off the hamster wheel of writing grant proposals. I didn’t want to do that anymore and also, I really felt that many of the funders were doing the same thing. They didn’t particularly want to fund us to do it, as they were doing it themselves. So I made the decision that I wasn’t going to raise more grant money, and pivoted the centre towards teaching, training, writing and consulting.”
Results through websites and teaching
At the moment, J-Lab provides training and courses on media entrepreneurship and social journalism for graduate students at American University and CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. Is also offers training for international journalists and journalism start-ups. An overview of the lab’s work can be found on its five websites:
- j-lab.org: The lab’s main website, which contains articles published by Schaffer, as well as J-Lab projects, research publications and workshop and training opportunities
- j-newvoices.org: The site which focuses on incubating news start-ups, describing guidelines for grant proposals and spotlighting each year’s grant winners
- kcnn.org: A self-help portal containing resources, research and learning modules to offer support for media start-ups and for traditional media newsrooms
- j-learning.org: An online how-to guide for community journalism which offers step-by-step information on building and sustaining a community news website.
- newmediawomen.org: A website dedicated to women media entrepreneurship which offers funding and resources for developing new ideas and media innovation in journalism led by women.
Through funding, J-Lab has helped launch various community news start-ups around the country, such as Madison Commons , Twin Cities Daily Planet, Chicago Talks, Appalachian Independent, Oregon Arts Watch, The Deerfield Forum, The Austin Bulldog and many others.
Jan Schaffer also publishes various studies, articles and books on media innovation, networked journalism and media entrepreneurship which are published on J-Lab’s main website.
Maintaining connections with different partners
J-Lab received funding for its activities from most of the leading journalism funders, including the Gannett Foundation. As one of the leading funders in the US media industry, the Gannett Foundation collaborated on funding a training summit for women news entrepreneurs and develop case studies and start-up resources. The Lab also has close ties with Knight Foundation, the national foundation dedicated towards funding art and media innovation projects and organisations, that was a main collaborator for the KCNN.org website and the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism.
In addition to this, J-Lab worked closely with the Robert R. McCormick Foundation on the New Media Women Entrepreneurs project, offering learning resources and funding for media start-ups led by women.
Over the years, J-Lab has also partnered with the National Association of Black Journalists, LION publishers, the Online News Associations and many other organisations to create and develop various media innovation projects.
Future development of the lab
J-Lab will continue to provide learning opportunities, training courses and consultancy for media entrepreneurs and for the use of digital technologies within media organisations to offer audiences better content in a more interactive way. In addition to this, the lab will continue to publish research papers and articles on media innovation and its impact on the present journalism environment.
Although she is open to helping start-ups focused on virtual and augmented reality, Schaffer is primarily interested in building the capacity for news innovations that contribute to building civic capital rather than developing projects focused on the latest digital technologies:
“For me, I think it’s more than developing a new app or a new toy or a new piece of software. My work has always been grounded in the civic news and information landscape. And so I think the whole purpose of journalism and the whole purpose of innovating in journalism is to figure out what jobs citizens need media to do, and how do we do them effectively so that we’re giving citizens the information they need to do their jobs as citizens,” she adds.
Journalism student at UCLan and intern on the Media Innovation Mapping project (summer 2017).