2019-20 Magic Grant Proposals Due Monday, April 8!

2019-20 Magic Grant funding proposals are due Monday, April 8!
Apply at: brown.submittable.com.

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation is a bi-coastal research effort located within two premier universities: Columbia Journalism School and Stanford’s School of Engineering. Our mission is to develop new tools and modes of expression, and to create stories that escape the bounds of page and screen. Brown brings fresh thinking to media through prototyping and other forms of creative research in conjunction with private and public partnerships. The team at Brown is committed to radical experimentation with the potential to define new priorities and practices for both engineering and journalism.

Are you passionate about the role that emerging technologies can play in the future of media? Do you have a story that can only be told outside the scope of traditional media? A Brown Institute “Magic Grant” might be for you.

Every year, the Brown Institute awards up to $1M in grants and fellowship opportunities — its “Magic Grant” program provides year-long funding awards of up to $150,000 ($300,000 for teams with members of both the Columbia and Stanford communities). In addition to funding, grantees have access to a distinguished advisory and mentoring group, and an extensive and inspiring alumni network.

Since its founding in 2012, the Brown Institute’s “Magic Grants” have funded 150 people and over 50 projects. Previous grants include…

A 360-video documentary on the famine in South Sudan, co-produced with PBS FRONTLINE.

An open-source software infrastructure to explore and systematically analyze extremely large video collections — with a focus on examining the last decade of TV news.

A series of deep audits of forensic DNA software, exploring and exposing important issues of algorithmic transparency that include both the mathematical description of an algorithm as well as its implementation in software.

A database to collect and contextualize the reporting by the nearly 100 journalists killed in Mexico since 2000 — providing the history of the places where they lived, the social forces they faced, and the stories they told.

Experiments with natural and gestural (i.e., not a joystick) interfaces to drones.

A new “urban storytelling” reportage, mixing illustration, analog data visualization and oral history, resulting in an NPR/Gothamist portrait of NYC’s “canners,” people who pick up cans and bottles on the streets of NYC for a living.

A prototype aid for science journalists as they assess a “breaking” research report — Is the topic timely? Is the report at the center or the periphery of a debate? And given the network of the authors, the report’s citations and the other scientists working in the field, who would make a good source for comments?

A natural language processing algorithm that “reads” a news article and counts citations by gender — it is currently under trial at both the Financial Times and the New York Times.

And the list goes on. You can see the 2018-2019 grants on our website. We have also produced profiles of the grants from 2018-2019. They include a deep dive into forensic DNA software, a new way to train AI systems, and an attempt to collect the work of the 100 journalists killed in Mexico since 2000, before it disappears.

We are looking for story proposals, new software platforms or even innovations in hardware. We are interested in projects that advance storytelling and journalism through original technology development. We also are interested in tools, technologies and stories that extend media broadly. A successful application clearly explains a unique story or technological advance and outlines a one-year (at most) plan for its realization or the creation of a prototype.

We seek applications from teams of students, faculty, and alumni — as well as practitioners working in areas relevant to media and technology* (e.g., journalism, communications and the digital humanities, as well as statistics, computer and data science, engineering, design and business). Depending on the needs of the project, teams can also include members from outside the university networks. Eligibility for who can apply varies by campus; please see below for eligibility criteria.

The Institute will give special preference to “bicoastal” proposals, those having team members from the research and creative communities in both the Bay Area and New York City. Funded teams are expected to work together at one or both of the Brown Institute locations and participate in Institute events, helping build a multidisciplinary community of researchers and storytellers.

Application Process

Teams must submit an application to be considered for a Magic Grant. Applications will be evaluated on various criteria — the novelty of a platform or the quality of a story, the broader impact of the project, and the strength of the team.

Each team must submit the following documents in PDF format:

(1) COVER LETTER: A signed cover letter, including proposal title and the full name, affiliation, and contact information (postal address, email address, phone) of each team member.

(2) PROPOSAL: A two-page proposal that explains:

  • The innovative idea(s)
  • Originality, uniqueness, and relation to other work in the area
  • Potential for broader impact
  • Work plan to demonstrate viability of the idea(s) within 12 months
  • Expected outcomes, results, prototypes, or media products

(3) LETTERS OF SUPPORT: Two letters of support that assess the importance of the project and its chances of success. At Stanford these should be from faculty members, preferably written by the advisors of the team members, if any. If both team members have the same advisor, one letter suffices. At Columbia, students and alumni can submit letters from their advisor or another faculty member familiar with their work. Letters from non-faculty should identify the recommender’s relationship to the team members. Team members applying on the Columbia side who do not have an affiliation with Columbia should get letters from advisors and/or peers working in the field.

(4) RESUME: The résumé of each team member

(5) TRANSCRIPTS: The transcript of each student on the team. Those applying on the Columbia side must submit transcripts if applying within five years of receiving their degree.

(6) BUDGET: A budget for 12 months not exceeding a total of $150,000. The budget can include financial support of the team members (e.g. tuition remission and salary in accordance with University guidelines); cost for specialized hardware, software, and materials; travel, services; etc. and should follow the rules of the respective university. Each line item must be justified. Do not include indirect costs/overhead. Students are urged to consult with their faculty advisor(s) and the university administration. Bicoastal teams must submit separate budgets for Columbia and Stanford, under respective rules, each individually not exceeding $150,000. Columbia applicants should use the budget template provided here. Stanford applicants should use the budget template provided here.

(7) SUBMISSION: Each team should combine their application documents—cover letter, proposal, letters of support, résumés, transcripts, and budget—into a single ZIP file. This should be uploaded April 8, 2019 (as long as it’s April 8 somewhere on the planet, you can still submit) via: brown.submittable.com


Stanford University

Teams of two or more graduate students or postdoctoral fellows working in disciplines relevant to media and technology, (e.g., computer science, engineering, data science, statistics, communications, journalism, the digital humanities, design, and business) are encouraged to apply. Teams may also include an exceptionally qualified undergraduate student or a visiting student, as long as the other team members are graduate students or postdoctoral fellows. All grant recipients must be matriculated at Stanford during the 2019-20 academic year. Magic Grants can complement fellowships or similar unrestricted funding from other sources. Students who already have partial funding for the proposed project are also encouraged to apply. Applications may be submitted directly by students, with supporting letters from faculty.

Columbia University

We seek applicants from teams of students, faculty, alumni, or members of New York City’s larger creative and research communities working in areas relevant to media and technology (and specifically journalism, communications, the digital humanities, statistics, computer and data science, engineering, design and business). Magic Grant recipients, however, must spend their time working on their grants at Columbia during the 2019-2020 academic year, assuming they are in the NYC area.

Bicoastal Teams

The Brown Institute is a unique connection between Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford School of Engineering. As such, we are particularly interested in supporting “bicoastal” Magic Grants proposals, those with teams that have at least one member associated with each university meeting the institutional eligibility requirements listed above.

Selection of Winners

Judging will take place in a two-step process. First, based on the reviews of the written applications, a small number of teams will be selected as finalists at each university. Finalists will then be invited to give a formal presentation, followed by a Q&A. We encourage any supporting faculty or outside advisors to join us for the presentations and Q&A, though their attendance is not mandatory. Finalist presentations will be organized both at Columbia and Stanford. Bicoastal teams should be prepared to present at both events — Stanford team members presenting at Stanford, and Columbia team members presenting at Columbia. Magic grant winners will be selected after the finalist presentations.


  • Proposal submission deadline: April 8, 2019
  • Announcement of finalists: April 15, 2019
  • Presentation by Columbia finalists (in NY): April 22, 2019
  • Presentation by Stanford finalists (in CA): [April 25 or 26 — or open to suggestions from Stanford!]
  • Announcement of winners: April 30, 2019
  • Projects start: September 2019 (Summer 2019 by special arrangement)

Benefits and Expectations

Each winning team will receive:

  • Funding of up to $150,000 for the 2018-19 academic year (with up to $300,000 for bicoastal teams)
  • Access to the resources of the Brown Institute, including 24/7 access to the Brown Institute spaces on both campuses.
  • Opportunity to work with the Brown Fellows and other Magic Grant recipients.

We expect that Magic Grant recipients to carry out their work in residence at the Brown Institute, either at Columbia or at Stanford, and participate in the Institute’s activities, including quarterly “All Hands” review meetings in California and New York. To promote cross-fertilization, we expect that Magic Grant recipients will collaborate with others Brown Institute members.

Teams at Columbia will work with Brown Institute staff to identify milestones prior to the start of the granting period, and progress will be evaluated quarterly at our All Hands meetings. Teams will be provided professional development opportunities, goal setting, project management, and other tools and techniques to ensure a successful project.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can the team members be from different departments?

A: Yes, of course. Multidisciplinary teams are especially encouraged.

Q: Can a team have only one member?

A: No. We ask that a team of two or more work together on forming and executing the idea.

Q: Can the same team submit more than one proposal?

A: No. We expect that you devote your undivided efforts to the project, if it is funded.

Q: Can a person be part of two different teams who submit two different proposals?

A: No, for the same reason.

Q: What happens if one or both applicants on a winning team already have financial support?

A: This is great, if this support is compatible with carrying out the proposed project. For example, if a student has a fellowship or a research assistantship from his/her advisor to work on the proposed project, we welcome this as a partial offset of cost.

Q: If one or both members of a winning team already have financial support, should this support be included in the budget?

A: No. Cost that is not funded by the Brown Institute should not be included in the budget. It also does not count against the $150,000 maximum budget. However, you should explain in your budget justification that you already have support and this particular item is therefore not included in the budget.

Q: Can “Magic Grant” recipients apply for a project continuation after the first year?

A: Yes, if there are compelling reasons. Proposed projects should be designed to reach their goals within one year. Follow-on proposals will have to compete with new proposals and go through the same application and review process.

Q: For applications directed to Columbia’s side of the institute, does at least one member of my team have to be affiliated with Columbia University?

A: Teams applying through Columbia’s half of the Brown Institute do not need to have a formal affiliation with the university. Each year one or two funded projects come from outside of Columbia entirely. This flexibility has allowed us to support projects that clearly fall within our mission and are unlikely to be funded elsewhere.