University of Kansas

University of Kansas

Datasmart Lawrence

University of Kansas is one of the 2017 winners of the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. See all 10 winners.


  • Pam Fine, Professor and Knight Chair for News, Leadership and Community, William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Kansas
  • Mike Williams, Director of Special Projects & Innovation and Associate pProfessor; William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Kansas
  • Hyunjin Seo, Associate Professor of Strategic Communication, William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Kansas
  • Chad Lawhorn, Managing Editor and Reporter, Lawrence Journal-World
  • Scott Stanford, Publisher, Lawrence Journal-World

For information about KU’s data visualization and interpretation courses, click here.

Describe your project

Our project will test the use of crowdsourcing to create a data channel for readers interested in locally-focused, data-driven business and demographic news. We’ll tap into the wisdom of the 8,000 subscribers to “Town Talk” — a business-oriented newsletter produced by our media partner, the Lawrence Journal-World — to crowdsource questions, tips and insights. We’ll use their input to develop data-related content and to identify additional public data sets to share with other readers. We hope to develop a crowdsourcing framework that could be used by other small news organizations that are interested in developing data-rich content but have limited staff resources.

What is your live news experiment?

Students, with guidance from Lawrence Journal-World (LJWorld) professionals and professors, will create data graphics and other visualizations from new data released by state and local agencies, such as retail sales figures and housing starts. We’ll feature this content in the LJWorld’s popular Town Talk, a daily email newsletter focused on business developments in our community that has more than 8,000 subscribers. We’ll also make the content accessible via social media, the paper’s mobile apps, websites and in the daily print newspaper. We’ll develop a brief set of questions to post with the content to mine readers’ insights including questions and tips. We’ll also solicit their suggestions for additional data sets to share with readers. We’ll then acquire those and turn them into published content.

We’ll repeat this experiment using other newly-released datasets several times during the inaugural semester of the project. We will track the impact of our crowdsourcing messages using A/B testing and also measure audience engagement with the content provided.

Prior to the actual project launch, student assistants will interview professionals in various business sectors about their interest and use of publicly available data. At the end of the experiment, students will reinterview the professionals to get their reactions to the experiment. We aim to continue this collaboration between the journalism school and Journal-World beyond these experiences to continue refining as we learn.

If the experiment works, what do you think might happen?

  • Students will learn how to capitalize on the two-way communication model to develop rich news content that informs and engages the community.
  • Professors will develop coursework that provides students with sophisticated community engagement and data reporting and visualization skills.
  • The experiment will develop into an ongoing data channel project class with LJWorld, and possibly be a springboard to other collaborative experiments that provide opportunities for active learning.
  • We’ll be able to develop a framework that can be used by other schools and news organizations.
  • For LJWorld, the experiment would help launch a robust, niche data channel. The newspaper is currently developing multiple content channels that it aims to market for paid subscriptions in the long run.

Students will continually collect and keep track of reader engagement and participation data. They’ll also conduct before and after interviews with business people to get their input. If the numbers and reactions are positive, we’ll know the effort had merit.

Professors will use student assessments and evaluations to measure learning and to get student input on the value of the experiment. That will guide how we shape continued work. In addition to ongoing discussions, we’ll do a formal debrief with our media partner, who will monitor digital engagement such as email opt-ins, in-market pageviews and downloads to gauge success.

How is this project unique and innovative?

The Lawrence Journal-World envisions developing targeted “content channels” with the ultimate goal of attracting channel subscribers. The targeted content subscriber would get daily email newsletters, text alerts and exclusive web content on a specific subject area. Channels would be focused on topics where the newspaper can go deeper than anyone else: University of Kansas (with separate channels for news and sports), healthcare, crime and public safety, local government and business and economic news via Town Talk.

The goal is to create targeted digital revenue streams that will significantly supplement traditional print and digital circulation revenue. This approach represents a strategic shift away from the historic newspaper approach of “something about everything” to a digital approach of “everything about something.” This strategy has not been implemented anywhere else, certainly not by a small daily newspaper like LJWorld. Our goal is to develop an innovative business strategy that can serve as a model for the industry.

The role of the university would be to enhance the business and economic news channel by identifying the economic datasets that meet the needs of the local business community; providing context, analysis and visuals that illustrate the economic information; and developing a database of economic information that would be a valuable digital resource to the local community.

What technology platforms will you use?

  • We’re likely to make use of many existing platforms including Facebook, Twitter and the LJWorld’s commenting software for crowdsourcing.
  • We’ll also make use of Tableau, or similar data analysis and visualization tools to share the information gathered through the experiment.
  • We’ll likely use Excel for data sorting and cleaning, and Google Sheets to share data.
  • This experiment also offers the opportunity to explore the newly developed “Ask” software recently highlighted in a Nieman Reports article as potentially good for smaller news sites to solicit input from readers.
  • We’ll also use Wrike or some other project management software to assign and track tasks and goals.

If it works, how might this experiment change teaching at your school or media practices in your partner’s newsroom?

Our school wants to integrate audience engagement and data skills across the journalism curriculum. This project could catalyze those efforts. We want our students in both news and strategic communications to be audience-focused, which means seeking and learning how to use information from knowledgeable people in the community. We also believe our students should graduate knowing how to acquire data and use spreadsheets, databases and visualization tools in their reporting and publishing.

Currently we teach a basic class on data reporting and visualization for undergraduate students. This project could lead us to develop an advanced course in these areas in concert with our news partner.

For the LJWorld, the goals is to spark an increase in data use by beat reporters and designers, and to support veteran journalists to develop new skills.

The University of Kansas team provided an update on its project in a March 2018 report.

Update: What have you discovered?

No major surprises but two nice ones: Business leaders in the focus group indicated a desire for more in-depth, business trend information by the paper. Students did a great job out of the box coming up with demographically-focused data viz ideas which will serve as baseline info for the data channel.

Additionally, the journalism students who are serving as paid project assistants are gaining more advanced skills in data acquisition, cleaning, reporting and visualization. They’re also gaining project management skills and a greater understanding of audience needs and how professional news organization and their leaders operate.