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With Scrim and Rolling Desks, a Journalism School Seeks a Tech Edge

A little over a century after his death, Joseph Pulitzer still looms large at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. The building that houses the school bears his name. Every year the school announces the Pulitzer Prizes from the World Room, a reference to The World, his New York newspaper.

A bust of the publishing tycoon and school founder peers across the first-floor lobby and into what has been a construction zone for the past nine months. But on Monday, professors are to move into the space, the new headquarters of the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation. In its sleek design and open layout, it feels like a cross between a newsroom and a start-up. An official opening is planned for September 16.

A gauze-like scrim covers the interior. By day it will allow students and professors to project images onto the walls. By night the material’s translucence will combine with interior lights to cast what the institute’s co-director, Mark Hansen, calls “a kind of soft glow” onto the campus green. The working space will be malleable, highlighted by six rolling desks and wall-mounted television screens for those looking to plug and play.

The institute itself is intended as “an academic venture forum” for journalistic innovation—a place where graduate students and fellows can test new media, platforms, and business ideas. In its early days the institute, based on the premise that journalists and engineers aren’t talking enough with each other, has also functioned like a matchmaking service for students in the journalism and the engineering schools.

“Anybody who is connected to journalism understands that the future of journalism requires deep understanding of the new technologies of the Internet,” says Lee C. Bollinger, the university’s president.

Created in 2012 with a $30-million gift from Helen Gurley Brown, late editor of Cosmopolitan, the institute is a joint endeavor between Columbia’s journalism school and Stanford University’s School of Engineering. Stanford received $12-million, Columbia got the same amount, and $6-million went toward building the new space.

It is tempting to wonder what Pulitzer, whose gaze will now keep watch over the Brown Institute’s front door, would have thought of the space. He was, on the one hand, the consummate innovator, responsible for popularizing color cartoons, illustrations, and a brand of watchdog journalism aimed at working-class readers. One imagines that he would have delighted in the digital-art display that Mr. Hansen—whose work has popped up at the New York Times building and the University of Texas—designed for the institute’s doorway.

But Pulitzer was also a man of his times—convinced, as many were then, that the editorial and business sides of the news industry should remain separate. Although he would probably have admired the Silicon Valley flair and tech-start-up attitude that Stanford brings to the Brown Institute partnership, he might not have wanted it in his hallowed halls.

“I am sure that, if my wishes are to be considered,” Pulitzer wrote in a 1904 essay for for The North American Review, ”business instruction of any sort, should not, would not, and must not form any part of the College of Journalism.”

In fairness, the Brown Institute is not solely, or even primarily, an incubator. So far, its “Magic Grants”—prizes of up to $300,000 awarded annually to students, faculty members, and postdoctoral researchers in both schools—have gone to a wide array of proposals, many focused more on storytelling than on making money. The Reframe Iran project, for example, uses a new medium, called immersive video, to profile Iranian artists living in Iran and abroad.

This summer the institute sent 10 recent graduates of Columbia to a four-week camp at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, where they got to experiment with new technologies like the 3D-gaming device Oculus Rift. In future years the collaboration may turn into a jointly taught class between the schools.

Mr. Hansen says the broader goal is to create a place where journalism and engineering commingle. It’s a task he believes goes well beyond individual matchmaking.

“Maybe initially that’s how I conceived of it,” says Mr. Hansen. “But now I’m seeing the stakes are higher. It’s really about lowering the barriers between disciplines.” That, he says, involves testing new courses and curricula, in essence “rehearsing for the school how journalism education might function in the future.” He adds, “This is the moment where journalism begins to take on technology and data in a much more significant way.”

The venture also has strategic significance for Stanford, which has appeared eager to plant a flag on the East Coast. In 2011 it bid to build an applied-sciences campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island before abruptly withdrawing its proposal late in the process.

Note: Avi Wolfman-Arent, a reporting intern in The Chronicle’s technology section, is a recent graduate of Columbia’s journalism school.

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