Novel data analysis tool wins $10,000 prize from RJI’s collegiate Student Innovation Competition

Student teams from universities all over the country were honored with more than $13,000 in prizes

The Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) at the Missouri School of Journalism today announced that a team of students from Northwestern University has won the 2024 RJI Student Innovation Competition’s $10,000 grand prize.

The competition called for creating something that could help newsrooms measure the impact of their coverage, and 10 teams from universities all over the country competed over the course of a few months to implement their ideas in real-world settings.

Team, made up of students Eugenia Cao, Elizabeth Casolo, Daniel Gross and Janya Sundar, claimed the $10,000 grand prize for their project, which enables news organizations to analyze the impacts of specific stories over time.

“Silicon Valley has a saying: ‘fail fast, fail quickly’ — but in this competition, teams need to ‘succeed quickly,’” said Randy Picht, executive director of RJI. “In just a few months’ time, Team — along with the other finalists — went from a cool idea to something to test and some results to share with newsrooms. That’s what this competition is all about.”

The project included the development of software that underwent real-world testing with student publications at Northwestern University. The software united tools like sentiment analysis, readership data and other metrics into an in-depth analysis capable of tracking a large-scale story — such as a hazing scandal covered by the university’s student publications in the summer of 2023 — over time. In addition, the team created a guidebook covering how to tailor the data to a specific publication while explaining and visualizing the data in an accessible way.

The students were excited not only about the prize, but about their success in creating a tool that could have a real, positive influence on how news organizations communicate with the public.

“I think it’s really important for journalists to consider that their language carries meaning,” said Casolo, a junior at Northwestern University. “They have a responsibility to communicate in a way that does justice to their audiences.”

Silicon Valley has a saying: ‘fail fast, fail quickly’ — but in this competition, teams need to ‘succeed quickly.’ In just a few months’ time, Team — along with the other finalists — went from a cool idea to something to test and some results to share with newsrooms. That’s what this competition is all about.

Randy Picht, executive director of RJI

The team hopes their method could be provided on a consultancy basis to newsrooms looking for more specific data about the impacts of their coverage on the communities they serve.

For the three expert judges of the competition, who brought a wide range of experience in community news and data analytics, the decision came down to the project’s ability to effect real change.

“They were very clear about not just making individual-level changes but raising awareness and building community,” said judge Nahima Ahmed, a data analysis consultant with an eye toward social impacts. “As a scientist, it makes me excited to think about how we can make large-scale stories that have a point of view while actually quantifying the change we are creating.”

Lacey Reeves, a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism, took home the $2,500 prize for second place. As a team of one, Reeves built a mail survey asking readers to rank the top five most important stories in their local, rural newspaper.

“We were very impressed by the level of implementation and the response they got from the community,” said judge Ryan Sorrel, founder and executive editor of The Kansas City Defender, a Black nonprofit community media startup. “For us, it was about the ability to reach audiences and communities that are often neglected and finding a new, innovative way to do that.”

Third place and $1,000 went to Team UG from the University of Georgia. Students Sarah Fredrickson, Allison Mawn and Jesse Wood developed a widget that prompts readers for feedback about the online article they are reading. Gamified to encourage engagement, the widget allows newsrooms to gain useful qualitative data about how their stories impact audiences.

“We were excited about the simplicity and replicability of this project — how easy it is to implement this idea in a lot of small, community newsrooms that maybe don’t have a lot of time, capacity or high technical expertise,” said judge Madison Karas, a product manager at the Tiny News Collective, a support network for startup newsrooms.

But the recognition didn’t stop at the top three teams. This year, the projects were impressive enough to merit two additional awards, both of which went to teams from Florida International University.

Team Blue and Gold Girls won the Fan Favorite Award, determined by public vote, for their concept of a community-led awards ceremony honoring local news organizations, while an Honorable Mention was granted to Team Jaded Journalists for an interactive mural project in Miami’s North Beach Skate Park intended to illustrate how the community perceives media impacts.

“There was a great range of ideas and really creative, innovative projects from this year’s competitors,” said Kat Duncan, director of innovation at RJI. “I can’t wait to see what next year has in store for us.”

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