Columbia’s Brown Institute Joins Knight Foundation Initiative to Help Local News Outlets Use Artificial Intelligence for Long-term Sustainability | Columbia Journalism School

Columbia’s Brown Institute Joins Knight Foundation Initiative to Help Local News Outlets Use Artificial Intelligence for Long-term Sustainability

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation has been awarded a $500,000 two-year grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of a $3 million initiative to support the use of artificial intelligence to strengthen the sustainability of local news organizations.

Although national newsrooms have been able to use their resources and specialized staff to apply artificial intelligence (also known as machine learning) to boost reader engagement, increase subscriptions with more relevant content, and automate certain elements of news production to reduce costs, local newsrooms have lacked the necessary assets to keep pace with such advances. This was the conclusion of a year-long analysis by Knight Foundation on the impact of AI on journalism.

“Knight surveyed about 130 newsrooms experiments using artificial intelligence (AI) and found local news organizations are falling behind in the application of AI to support sustainable revenue and audience growth," said Paul Cheung, Director of Journalism and Technology Innovation at Knight Foundation.

“This initiative is to scale local news organizations’ internal capacity to leverage AI to help drive future business and audience growth.”

The study showed how AI is driving success in four key areas: Enhancing news production; mining customer data to engage and monetize the audience; improving business intelligence such as infrastructure cost reduction and operational efficiency; and producing new methods to enhance data and investigative reporting. The $3 million in Knight funding is building a collaboration among several partners to test strategies in local newsrooms, provide user-friendly open-source tools that bolster reader revenue, and amplify local knowledge in ways that previously only large newsrooms could achieve.  Through 2023, The Associated Press, the Brown Institute at Columbia, NYC Media Lab and the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence will be working to expand local news organizations’ adoption of artificial intelligence technologies. Each organization has a specific role:

  • Housed at Columbia Journalism School, the Brown Institute will work to devise and deploy experiments to test new data- and AI-informed approaches to enhance reader revenue. It will accelerate development and distribution of open-source software projects that automate time-sensitive decisions on how to manage premium content and optimize recommendations for quality engagement that drives subscription. The Institute will help build community by convening working groups, documenting the team’s findings, and establishing a platform where news organizations can share and build on each other’s experiences testing business strategies. 
  • The Associated Press will develop an industry-wide benchmark for AI readiness across editorial and business lines. The AP will also create a training and development program for at least 50 local news organizations in collaboration with Northwestern University.
  • NYC Media Lab will develop and manage a digital platform on AI in journalism that offers resources, information, and new knowledge in the field. The Lab will also launch an AI prototyping challenge to explore new approaches to applying AI for local news organizations.
  • Partnership on Artificial Intelligence will research the major ethical challenges journalists and platforms identify for AI’s use across the news lifecycle (from source to audience).

“The Brown Institute’s Local News Lab has been working with some incredible newsrooms, helping these outlets experiment with new, computationally-informed strategies for reader engagement and to boost revenue,” said Mark Hansen, Director of the Brown Institute and David and Helen Gurley Brown Professor of Journalism and Innovation. “We are grateful for the Knight Foundation’s inclusion of the lab in this amazing group — we are looking forward to what will be an important collaboration.”

Established in 2012, the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute is a collaboration between Columbia University and Stanford University, designed to encourage and support new endeavors in media innovation. At Stanford, the primary focus is on media technology, and the Institute is anchored in the School of Engineering. At Columbia, the primary focus is on content, and the Institute is anchored in the Graduate School of Journalism.

To achieve its goals, the Brown Institute operates as an academic venture forum. Once per year, we invite the Columbia and Stanford communities to submit proposals for Magic Grants. We look for ideas that are original and have the potential to bring true innovation in the media world. Typically, a Magic Grant supports a small team of graduate students or postgraduates who are expected to demonstrate the relevance and viability of their ideas by implementing a prototype or creating an innovative media product. Successful projects might continue as business ventures outside the universities.

The Institute also awards fellowships; Brown Fellows are postgraduate or graduate students who support the Institute together with their peers and the directors, while working towards engineering prototypes, creating innovative media products, or carrying out related research. Brown Fellows are appointed annually for the academic year; their terms can be renewed.

The Institute was established in 2012 with a generous endowment gift from longtime Cosmopolitan magazine editor and author Helen Gurley Brown. It is inspired by the memory of Ms. Brown’s late husband, David Brown, a graduate of both Stanford University and the Columbia School of Journalism. David Brown, who along with partners Richard Zanuck and Steven Spielberg created such classic American films as Driving Miss Daisy, The Verdict and Jaws, was also a former journalist, publisher and, late in his career, a stage producer whose credits included the musicals Sweet Smell of Success and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

At Stanford, the Institute is led by Prof. Maneesh Agrawala. At Columbia, the Institute is led by Prof. Mark Hansen. For more information, visit