Rapid changes in digital journalism and its audiences have inspired a lot of research. Much of that research measures how much things have changed, or describes the latest state of affairs.

But where’s the research that tells us what to do about it?

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Tow Foundation are hoping to fill that gap, by giving Columbia School of Journalism $2 million to fund what you might call “applied research in journalism” -- studies that not only describe what’s happening, but prescribe the best practices for journalists to follow.

Later this year Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism will issue a call for research proposals, Director Emily Bell told me. First it will spend a couple months hiring a research director and assembling an advisory board to evaluate the pitches.

Tow will seek the best research ideas from all sorts of people -- academics, working journalists, experts. Some may be small projects done by one person in a few months, others may be long-term projects by teams collaborating across multiple newsrooms.

There are countless potential areas of study, Bell said. Some examples:

  • How should realtime analytics and audience feedback be used to guide news reporting?
  • How to best use data in reporting that really matters to the audience?
  • How should we define and measure ambiguous concepts like “impact” and “engagement”?
  • How do we measure the value to the audience of article comments?

“There is still a lack of knowledge and accessible realtime information about what these changes actually mean, and what the implementation of new tools, technologies or platforms -- how journalism should think about that,” Bell said. “There isn’t a great deal of reliable information in the field.”

Another fertile question is, how much do and should journalists manage their reliance on third-party platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and such)? “We’re only just now beginning to have more discussion about what does this actually mean to produce a great deal of your content on platforms that are inherently unjournalistic.”

Any of those questions, or entirely different ones, may get research funding from the grant. In each case, the goal will be to use quantitative research and hard data to produce advice, standards or best practices that journalists can rely on.

The product of each research project will not just be piles of paper full of statistical models, Bell said. It should be accessible, easy to consume and share, and facilitate learning.

“Having outputs which people can use is really the key aim for us in all of this.”