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June 24 2013

15:44

Opening up government: A new round of Knight News Challenge winners aims to get citizens and governments better information

Moments ago, the Knight Foundation announced its latest round of winners in the Knight News Challenge, its currently semiannual competition to identify fundable ideas that advance the interests of journalism and the information needs of communities. This round focused on the open government movement, and its eight winners all fit squarely into that box. More about them below.

But the big news is what Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen just said here in Cambridge at the opening morning of the 2013 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference. He asked openly for ideas on what the future of the News Challenge should be, because, as he put it, “It may be finished. It may be that, as a device for doing something, it may be that we’ve gone as far as we can take it.”

#civicmedia @ibarguen @knightfdn asks for ideas on how to take #newschallenge to the next level. He asks is #newschallenge dead? Send ideas

— Damian Thorman (@dthorman) June 24, 2013

The six-year-old News Challenge is probably the highest-profile effort to fund innovation in journalism and media. It has funded many dozens of projects over the years, and beyond that, its application process has forced thousands of people to turn fuzzy ideas into concrete proposals. Knight devotes $5 million a year to the News Challenge, which has evolved from a single annual open call to a series of smaller, faster, more focused contests, which a significant reboot leading into 2012.

With more than a half decade in the rearview, Ibargüen asked what had been accomplished: “What have we actually achieved? How have we changed the way people receive their information? How have we affected the existing news community?….They take, I think, comparatively little notice of the things people in this room do.”

To be clear, he gave no sign of stepping away from funding journalism innovation, which remains a core Knight mission. But he noted that the foundation had maximum flexibility in how to accomplish that goal: “We have a huge luxury: We can do whatever we want to do. We can use whatever process we want to use.”

Which was behind his question to the assembled crowd: “What would you do if you had decided to invest $5 million a year in figuring out how to best get news and information to communities? What would you do?”

There will be at least one more round of the News Challenge later this year (topic TBA), but beyond that, Knight’s thinking about where to take the broader idea. Ibargüen said he expected the foundation would make these decisions over the next four to five months. If you’ve got an idea, get in touch with Knight.

But that’s the future. How about the brand new round of winners? Civic Insight promises to create better databases of vacant properties so activists can better connect land to opportunities. OpenCounter wants to make it easier for small businesses to navigate local regulation. Outline.com aims to build public policy simulators, estimating the impact of legislative decisions on people’s circumstances. The Oyez Project will offer clear case summaries of the suits before American appellate courts. GitMachines wants to make it easier for governments to add servers quickly.

As I wrote in January for the last round of announcements, the “News” in Knight News Challenge seems to be moving out of the spotlight in favor of a broader concept of connecting civic information to people who can use it. In the classical American 20th century news model, that was a role that typically involved journalists as intermediaries. Today, though, those communities of self-interest can organize in ways more efficient than a newspaper’s subscriber list. While a few of the projects funded could be of use to journalists — making data available to the general public also makes it available to reporters, who can then approach it with a different set of interests — they’re not the primary target. (That growing disconnect, I imagine, is something that will be addressed in whatever new form the News Challenge takes.)

Civic Insight

Award: $220,000
Organization: Civic Industries
Project leads: Alex Pandel, Eddie Tejeda and Amir Reavis-Bey
Twitter: @CivicInsight, @alexpandel, @maromba, @eddietejeda

Neighbors, cities, nonprofits and businesses all have an interest in seeing vacant properties become productive again. However, a lack of public access to information about these properties makes it difficult for groups to work together on solutions. By plugging directly into government databases, Civic Insight provides real-time information on vacant and underutilized properties, enabling more collaborative, data-driven community development. With Civic Insight, journalists and residents can search for a property on a map and learn about its ownership, inspection and permitting history, and subscribe to receive real-time notifications about changes. Civic Insight grew out of a successful pilot in New Orleans called BlightStatus, which was created during the team’s 2012 Code for America fellowship. It is now available for licensed use by cities nationwide. Knight Foundation’s support will help the team expand the software and test new use cases in more communities.

Team: Eddie Tejeda is a web developer and former Code for America fellow who brings 10 years of experience working on open-source civic projects such as Digress.it and Littlesis.org. Tejeda is engaged in the Open Gov movement in his home city of Oakland, where he co-founded OpenOakland and serves as a mayoral appointee to the city’s Public Ethics Commission, which oversees government transparency.

Alex Pandel is a designer, communicator and community organizer. Before her 2012 Code for America fellowship with the City of New Orleans, Pandel was engaged in public-interest advocacy work with CalPIRG, as well as designing print and web solutions for organizations like New York Magazine and The Future Project.

Amir Reavis-Bey is a software engineer with experience building client-server applications for investment bank equities trading. He also has web development experience helping non-profits to collaborate and share resources online to promote human rights activism. He spent 2012 partnering with the City of New Orleans as a Code for America fellow.

GitMachines

Award: $500,000
Organization: GitMachines
Project leads: Greg Elin, Rodney Cobb, Ikjae Park, Terence Rose, Blaine Whited and John Lancaster
Twitter: @gregelin

Governments are often reluctant to adopt new software and technology because of security and compliance concerns. GitMachines allows developers doing civic innovation to easily build new technology governments can use faster, by offering a grab-and-go depot of accreditation-ready servers that support their projects. Unlike traditional servers that can take hours or days to set-up, GitMachines can be up and running in minutes and are pre-configured to meet government guidelines. This makes it easier for governments to adopt open source software, and will help government agencies adopt new technology more quickly in the future.

Team: Rodney Cobb is a mobile developer and data analyst working in Washington D.C. Through his previous work with Campus Compact, Cobb has worked on several projects combing civic engagement/service learning and virtual interaction. Cobb received a bachelor’s in political science from Clark-Atlanta University and his master’s in politics from New York University.

Greg Elin has spent 20 years developing easy-to-use information tools and helping organizations embrace disruptive technologies. In 2006, Elin created the Sunlight Foundation’s Sunlight Labs. Previously, he was chief technology officer at United Cerebral Palsy before entering the civil service in 2010 as one of the first chief data officers in federal government. Elin has been leading the Federal Communications Commissions’ efforts to lower data collection burden and improve data sharing with modern web service APIs. He was a member of the White House Task Force on Smart Disclosure exploring machine-readable data as a policy tool and citizen aid. Elin has a master’s in interactive telecommunications from New York University’s Tisch School of Art.

John Lancaster has bachelor’s degree in computer science, a minor in studio art and is studying for his master’s of information systems technology. He has worked as a technology consultant the past four years at the Department of State where he builds mission critical websites that reach a global audience in over 60 languages, and manages the server infrastructure that supports the entire operation.

Ikjae Park is an expert in software development and system administration working for a government contractor and has developed enterprise JAVA applications at Salesforce.com, among others. He is passionate about development and making a simple workflow process for the community.

Terence Rose is a senor business Analyst with MIL Corp., currently leading the content development and user experience for high profile Department of Commerce projects. He previously worked as a technologist on contract for the Office of Head Start.

Blaine Whited is a programmer and systems administrator with a bachelor’s in computer science.

OpenCounter

Award: $450,000
Organization: OpenCounter
Project leads: Peter Koht, Joel Mahoney
Twitter: @opencounter, @yurialeks, @joelmahoney

While entrepreneurs may have market-moving ideas, very few can expertly navigate the local government permitting process that allows them to open and operate. Whether it’s a startup, boutique or restaurant, OpenCounter helps to simplify this interaction with city government. It collects and sorts data on existing regulations while providing running totals of the costs and time involved in setting up shop. A team of Code for America fellows developed and piloted OpenCounter in Santa Cruz, Calif. during 2012. Knight Foundation funds will support OpenCounter’s expansion to new communities, including several 2013 Code for America cities.

Team: Peter Koht, a self-described civics nerd, is an experienced economic development professional who most recently worked for the City of Santa Cruz. Koht worked on a number of issues at the city, including leading a regional broadband policy group, opening up city data and spearheading policy initiatives that lowered administrative barriers to job creation. Previous to his public sector role, he worked in technology and media.

Joel Mahoney is a civic technologist and serial entrepreneur. He was an inaugural fellow at Code for America, and served as a technical advisor to the organization. Before Code for America, Mahoney founded several startups, including an online travel site, a genetics visualization tool and an m-health platform for diabetics. His work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

Open Gov for the Rest of Us

Award: $350,000
Organization: LISC Chicago
Project leads: Susana Vasquez, Dionne Baux, Demond Drummer, Elizabeth Rosas-Landa
Twitter: @liscchicago

Open Gov for the Rest of Us is seeking to engage neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side in the Open Government movement. The three-stage campaign will connect more residents to the Internet, promote the use of open government tools and develop neighborhood-driven requests for new data that address residents’ needs. Building on the success of LISC Chicago’s Smart Communities program and Data Friday series, the project aims to spread a culture of data and improved use of digital tools in low-income neighborhoods by directly involving their residents.

Team: Susana Vasquez is LISC Chicago’s executive director. Vasquez joined LISC in 2003 as a program officer and soon became director of the office’s most ambitious effort – the New Communities Program, a 10-year initiative to support comprehensive community development in 16 neighborhoods. She has a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Illinois and a master’s from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Dionne Baux, a LISC Chicago program officer who works on economic development and technology programs, has worked in city government and for nonprofits for more than seven years. Baux leads LISC’s Smart Communities program, which is designed to increase digital access and use by youth, families, businesses and other institutions. She has a master’s degree in public administration, with a focus in government, from Roosevelt University.

Demond Drummer is tech organizer for Teamwork Englewood, an organization formed in 2003 as part of LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program. Its goal is to strengthen the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Drummer joined Webitects, a web design firm, in summer 2009. Previously, he coordinated a youth leadership and civic engagement initiative in Chicago. A graduate of Morehouse College, he is completing a master’s degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Elizabeth Rosas-Landa is the Smart Communities program manager at The Resurrection Project in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. A Mexico City native, she received a bachelor’s degree in information technology from Insurgentes University and later joined the Marketing and Promotion Company in Mexico. In 2008, she moved to the United States to work with community organizations on technology issues. At The Resurrection Project, Rosas-Landa has implemented computer literacy programs for residents and businesses.

Outline.com

Award: unspecified, through Knight Enterprise Fund
Organization: Outline.com
Project leads: Nikita Bier, Jeremy Blalock, Erik Hazzard, Ray Kluender
Twitter: @OutlineUSA

Outline.com is developing an online public policy simulator that allows citizens and journalists to visualize the impact that particular policies might have on people and their communities. For instance, with Outline.com, a household can measure how a tax cut or an increase in education spending will affect their income. The project builds on the team’s award-winning app Politify, which simulated the impacts of the Obama and Romney economic plans during the 2012 campaign. The Outline.com simulator uses models developed by a team of economists, backed by open data on American households from the IRS, the Census Bureau and other sources. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has hired Outline.com to develop an official pilot. The team is a part of the accelerator TechStars Boston.

Team: Nikita Bier, CEO, recently graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with honors and degrees in business administration and political economy. During his college years, he researched higher education finance, receiving recognition for his insights from the president of the university. While a student, he founded Politify.us, an award-winning election application that received national coverage. Before that, he worked in business development at 1000memories, a Greylock and YCombinator-backed startup.

Jeremy Blalock, CPO, led design and development for Politify.us. He is currently on leave from UC Berkeley, where he studied electrical engineering and computer science.

Erik Hazzard, CTO, is an active member of the data visualization and mapping communities. He was formerly lead developer at Visual.ly. He is the author of OpenLayers 2.10 Beginner’s Guide. He graduated from Florida State University with a bachelor’s degree in information science.

Ray Kluender graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin with majors in economics, mathematics and political science. His extensive research experience includes involvement in developing value-added models of teacher effectiveness for Atlanta, New York City and Los Angeles public schools, election forecasting for Pollster.com and studying optimal health insurance design and government intervention in health care at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He will be starting his Ph.D. in economics at MIT this August.

Note: Outline.com is receiving funds through the Knight Enterprise Fund, an early stage venture fund that invests in for-profit ventures aligned with Knight’s mission of fostering informed and engaged communities. In line with standard venture-capital practices, the funding amounts are not being disclosed.

Oyez Project

Award: $600,000
Organization: University of Chicago, Kent School of Law
Project lead: Jerry Goldman
Twitter: @oyez

The activities of courts across the country are often hard to access and understand. For the past 20 years, the Oyez Project has worked to open the U.S. Supreme Court by offering clear case summaries, opinions and free access to audio recordings and transcripts. With Knight Foundation funding, Oyez will expand to state supreme and federal appellate courts, offering information to the public about the work of these vital but largely anonymous institutions. Beginning in the five largest states that serve over one-third of the American public, Oyez will work with courts to catalog materials and reformat them following open standards practices. In conjunction with local partners, Oyez will annotate the materials, adding data and concise summaries that make the content more accessible for a non-legal audience. Oyez will release this information under a Creative Commons license and make it available online and through a mobile application.

Team: Professor Jerry Goldman of the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law has brought the U.S. Supreme Court closer to everyone through the Oyez Project. He has collaborated with experts in linguistics, psychology, computer science and political science with major financial support from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Google and a select group of national law firms to create an archive of 58 years of Supreme Court audio. In recent years, Oyez has put the Supreme Court in your pocket with mobile apps, iSCOTUSnow and PocketJustice.

Plan in a Box

Award: $620,000
Organization: OpenPlans
Project lead: Frank Hebbert, Ellen McDermott, Aaron Ogle, Andy Cochran, Mjumbe Poe
Twitter: @OpenPlans

Local planning decisions can shape everything about a community — from how residents get around, to how they interact with their neighbors and experience daily life. Yet information on projects — from new plans for downtown centers to bridge replacements — is often difficult to obtain. This project will be an open-source web-publishing tool that makes it easy to engage people in the planning process. With minimal effort, city employees will be able to create and maintain a useful website that provides information that citizens and journalists need while integrating with social media and allowing for public input.

Team: Aaron Ogle is an OpenPlans software developer. Prior to OpenPlans, he was a fellow at Code for America where he partnered with the City of Philadelphia to build solutions to help foster civic engagement. He specializes in JavaScript and GIS development and has contributed to such applications as reroute.it, septa.mobi, changeby.us, walkshed.org and phillystormwater.org.

Andy Cochran, creative director, provides design vision for OpenPlans’ projects, building user interfaces for tools that enable people to be better informed and stay engaged in local issues. Cochran has a bachelor’s degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and he has over a decade of experience in print and web design.

Ellen McDermott leads OpenPlans’ outreach to community organizations and cities, to help them be effective in using digital and in-person engagement tools. She also manages operations for OpenPlans. Previously, McDermott was the director of finance and administration for Honeybee Robotics, a technology supplier to the NASA Mars programs. She is a graduate of Amherst College and King’s College London.

Frank Hebbert leads the software team at OpenPlans. Outside of work, he volunteers with Planning Corps, a network of planners providing assistance to non-profit and community groups. Hebbert holds a master’s degree in city planning from MIT.

Mjumbe Poe is a software developer for OpenPlans. Previously, Poe was a fellow at Code for America, and before that a research programmer at the University of Pennsylvania working on modeling and simulation tools for the social sciences.

Procure.io

Award: $460,000
Organization: Department of Better Technology
Project leads: Clay Johnson and Adam Becker
Twitter: @cjoh @AdamJacobBecker

The government procurement process can be both highly complicated and time-consuming — making it difficult for small businesses to discover and bid on contracts and for journalists and transparency advocates to see where public money is going. As White House Presidential Innovation Fellows, Clay Johnson and Adam Becker built a simple tool for governments to easily post requests for proposals, or RFPs. Based on its early success at the federal level, the team is planning to expand the software to help states and cities. In addition, they will build a library of statements of work that any agency can adapt to their needs. The goal is to bring more competition into government bidding, as a way to both reduce costs and ensure that the most qualified team gets the job.

Team: Clay Johnson may be best known as the author of The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption. Johnson was also one of the founders of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed Barack Obama’s online campaign for the presidency in 2008. Since 2008, Johnson has worked on opening government, as the director of Sunlight Labs until 2010, and as a director of Expert Labs until 2012. He was named the Google/O’Reilly Open Source Organizer of the Year in 2009, was one of Federal Computing Week’s Fed 100 in 2010, and won the CampaignTech Innovator award in 2011. In 2012, he was appointed as an inaugural Presidential Innovation Fellow and led the RFP-EZ project, a federal experiment in procurement innovation.

Adam Becker is a software developer and entrepreneur. He co-founded and served as chief technology officer of GovHub, a civic-oriented startup that was the first to provide users a comprehensive, geographically calculated list of their government officials. In 2012, he was appointed alongside Johnson as an inaugural Presidential Innovation Fellow and led the development of RFP-EZ.

May 29 2013

14:00

Scott Lewis: Learning from social platforms to build a better news site

About four years ago, I nervously sat on a roundtable between Madeline Albright and Alberto Ibargüen, CEO of the Knight Foundation. Next to Ibarguen was Marissa Mayer, then an executive at Google. She was co-chair of a commission Knight put together to study the information needs of communities at the height of what seemed like a crisis for news and civics.

During the discussion, Mayer described her vision of a hyper-personalized news stream. News publishers, she said, needed to learn from what social media and YouTube were doing. Here’s how a writeup of the gathering later paraphrased her remarks about a new type of news publishing:

Users could get a constant stream of content based on their interests, on what is good for them or on the popular ethos. They could also introduce serendipity. These streams could be available by subscription. They could also involve hyper-personalized, well-targeted advertising that would be engaging.

While Mayer spoke, Ibarguen leaned over to me. He quietly said I should do that on the Voice of San Diego’s website. He would help if I gave it a go.

And that’s when I got the old same feeling I’ve gotten for years: dread. Once again, I would have to reveal how truly far behind on technology we were. We were almost imposters. Counterparts and leaders in our industry across the nation had called Voice of San Diego digital pioneers. Yet we knew next to nothing about technology and had put a paltry amount of resources into it.

Four years later, Mayer runs Yahoo and now Tumblr. I’d like to think she is heading furiously toward her vision of a hyper-personalized news and content experience. I’d like to think I finally am, too. I just couldn’t afford Tumblr. Or anything.

A mission to educate

Because of how Voice of San Diego started and how we’ve grown, we’ve never built up the kind of capital to make a major investment in technology. If we added resources, it was always writers. Then, the focus was on sustainability, and diversifying the money coming in to make the organization stronger and, frankly, to make payroll.

In fact, resource strain has defined us, and in some ways has been an asset. To do cool things, we needed partners. We created innovative relationships that became national standards. Our paucity obligated us to focus. A focused reporting staff distinguished Voice of San Diego for its investigative work.

Thrift, however, also pushed us to use an affordable content management system to run our website. It was Blox, the main product of the well-run, customer service-oriented TownNews.com in Moline, Ill.

I love TownNews.com. Without TownNews.com, we would not have achieved anything we did. The team there truly made the barrier to entry low and we turned the opportunity it provided us into a local institution. But we were only one of a couple of web-native clients for TownNews.com, which mainly services many hundreds of newspapers. Those newspaper publishers are still focused on one primary mission for their websites: Display daily posts and sell advertising next to them.

That’s not Voice of San Diego’s mission. Our mission is to help people get information. It is an educational mission. That’s why we have the nonprofit status we do.

If your job is to help people get educated, you can’t just display stories. Imagine a university that simply invited students into a room with huge posters and pictures and expected them to find everything they needed. Everywhere I look, news sites remain committed to simply displaying their stories and images. At the same time, social sites keep working on how to serve users.

And we’re watching social media eat news sites’ lunch. We’re gawking at an act of bullying taking place right before our eyes. When newspapers write about Mayer’s dream of well-targeted, engaging advertising and her visions for Tumblr, do they realize that’s money newspapers are not going to get?

Falling short

We’ve fallen many years behind social media platforms in serving users. Some news publishers have ceded the ground completely. They let Facebook run their social layer or rely on YouTube for their video sharing.

I’ve been watching this develop for years. Two years ago, I was positively despondent. I went so far as to dream that Facebook itself would create a content management system for news publishers. I’d be the first to sign up.

How far are we from actual Facebook or Tumblr-based news organization? Are you a news publisher? Ask yourself what your CMS does that Tumblr doesn’t. Mayer’s vision of a hyper-personalized news stream isn’t just something she thinks should happen. It is something that will happen. Are news organizations going to be a part of it?

If so, we have to stop working solely to display our content well and start working to serve our users well. Those are not mutually exclusive, but they are different.

Let me rephrase: If we think our community is going to pay for our services (as many, including Voice of San Diego, The New York Times, and Andrew Sullivan do), then we absolutely have to learn how to serve users.

It doesn’t mean that we compete with social media platforms. That ship has sailed. But social is as much about a way of doing things as it is a technology. Social platforms, for instance, have taught us a few things that users now expect. Here are three:

  • You should expect to be notified if something you “follow” is updated.
  • Anyone should be allowed to submit content. It should be easy to do and its success is dependent on the community.
  • You should be able to relentlessly tailor your feed of information, bringing it closer and closer to what Mayer might call a “hyper-personalized” experience.

So you can see why I was despondent. I was nowhere near being able to be part of this. The best I could hope for was to continue displaying content. Then maybe I could master social media, somehow weaving it all together to serve our users and build a loyal, grateful community.

Making the switch

This is where I was last year when I met Kelly Abbott, who runs Realtidbits, a company that provides the commenting and social layer for sites like ESPN, Cleveland.com, the Irish Times and even Lady Gaga. Abbott went from not knowing about us to one of our most loyal readers and donating members. And then he decided he wanted to help more.

He recommended we switch content management systems. The thought made me nauseous. Anyone who knows CMS transitions knows why. But Abbott persisted. He had the same vision I did and he wanted to tackle it. Voice of San Diego was lucky enough to be a part of a great discussion in this country about the future of local news. We had an obligation to bring our technology up to speed.

Abbott created what he called an “engineer-free zone” for me. We would first solve basic website frustrations I had about mobile, search engine optimization, and commenting. But then we would dream. What would I create if I could?

I wanted to switch from an effort to display content well to one focused on serving users. Sure, our stories, photographs, and images needed to look good but my mission was to get people educated and to raise money to make the service stronger. A local foundation, Price Charities, came aboard to help us with the initiative. Then, we brought along another partner: Idea Melt, a company working to help publishers “imagine and thread beautiful, holistic, and engaging social experiences for your community.” And we chose to switch to WordPress.

Finally, last week we launched. Our stories and images look better. Our search engine indexing is much improved and our mobile experience is improved with a new responsive design. We also added three new features.

  • Notifications: Users can now follow storylines, or “narratives,” on the site. If there’s a new update, they don’t need to search for a section heading, they should see a notification.
  • Peer-to-peer and reader-to-author following: They can also follow individual writers, or even their peers.
  • The Plaza: Here, users can submit text, photos, links or video and their peers can vote on it to buoy it above other submissions. Yes, it’s a lot like Reddit.

All of these features need work and we’re moving furiously on a massive to-do list. But I look at everything with different eyes now. Soon, we’ll begin building our membership system into the site. Our 1,600 members will be able to check their status, learn about events they might want to attend, and get special alerts.

What we have is a new future. We can spend it constantly evolving to serve the community more in line with our mission and our business model.

We’re a long way from the vision Mayer described. But at least we started walking.

Scott Lewis is the CEO of Voice of San Diego. You can reach him at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or on Twitter at @vosdscott.

February 03 2011

12:00

Medill and McCormick launch a news innovation lab with $4.2 million in Knight funding

In 2009, while announcing that year’s Knight News Challenge winners at a conference at MIT, Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen mentioned the foundation’s desire to launch “test kitchens” for journalistic tools: laboratories where innovative ideas for news production, distribution, and financial sustenance might be devised, improved, and put to use.

Today, Knight is announcing a definitive step in the test-kitchen direction. It’s giving a grant — $4.2 million over four years — to Northwestern University to establish the Knight News Innovation Laboratory. The Knight Lab will be a joint initiative of the Medill School of Journalism and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern — at its core, a partnership between journalism and computer science. It’ll be populated by Northwestern faculty and students, as well as, possibly, technologists and members of the media at large. And it will aim to help build and bolster the digital infrastructure that will guide journalism into its next phase.

“Speeding up” media innovation

“This is a significant step forward in terms of collaboration between journalism and computer science,” says Rich Gordon, professor and director of digital innovation at Medill (and one of the Knight Lab’s four faculty overseers). The Knight Lab joins a smattering of similar hacker-journalist-oriented programs popping up at J-schools across the country — Studio 20 at NYU, the joint Journalism/Computer Science M.S. at Columbia, Medill’s own journalist/developer scholarship, and on and on — all of them responses to the recognition that the content of journalism will increasingly be connected to the tools we use to create it.

Indeed, “to advance journalism excellence in the digital age, we must use the tools of the digital age,” Eric Newton, vice president of Knight’s journalism program, put it. “We hope this pioneering partnership between a school of journalism and a school of engineering will demonstrate how a major university can speed up media innovation in its surrounding community.”

One of the ways the Knight Lab is unique, though, is in its focus on outcomes. Though the Knight Lab is set in a school, its goal is pretty much to escape the ivory tower. And, to an extent, to topple it. The Knight Lab will team up with Chicago-area news outlets — partners so far include The Tribune Company, Chicago Public Media, The Daily Herald, the Chicago Community News Trust, and the Chicago News Cooperative — with the goal of improving the information available to the communities those outlets serve. In that, the Knight Lab’s mission is aligned with the general mission of journalism, Gordon says: to “accelerate media innovation in ways that advance the interests of journalism and well-informed communities.”

The Lab’s initial focus is the Chicago area simply because, Gordon notes, the Evanston-based Medill already has connections with the Chicago community and the publishers who serve it. “It makes sense,” he notes, ” to focus our energy on the community that we understand best.” That doesn’t mean that expansion won’t be a possibility for later on, though. “We assume that if we find ways to create things that are valuable to Chicago, it’ll be available to everybody.”

Closing the loop

One of the intriguing aspects of the Knight Lab project is its connection to the Knight News Challenge. The Knight Lab will make it a point to work with the technologies that have been created by News Challenge winners. News Challenge projects have generated myriad journalistic tools with large amounts of back-end code; one of the Knight Lab’s goals is to ensure that those technologies remain relevant even after their Knight funding runs out. It hopes to maximize the use of the code that’s been developed through the News Challenge, refining it and improving it and making it as helpful as possible to the media outlets who might put it to use.

Some of the plans for doing that include:

  • Cataloging and organizing software projects that have been supported by Knight Foundation grants to date;
  • Evaluating the software and determine if there are technical reasons why these systems have not been more widely adopted;
  • Determining which features of larger systems can be abstracted into freestanding tools that might have a greater chance of being adopted;
  • Looking for feature overlap that argues for the integration of multiple systems – and, if warranted, do that technology integration; and
  • Integrating these tools with existing publishing platforms as needed – for instance by creating plug-ins for popular content management systems.
  • There’s a strong component of pragmatism to all this: The goal isn’t just to improve code in general, but to improve it, in particular, according to the value it could present for media users. (And then, Gordon says, to “do whatever we have to do to get that code more widely adopted.”) In some sense, to be ultra-nerdy about it, Knight Lab : Knight News Challenge :: OpenBlock : EveryBlock.

    Another noteworthy aspect of the Knight Lab is its focus on information as its own kind of platform for innovation. Medill has departments not only in journalism, but also in Integrated Marketing Communications — and Chicago, with its storied national newspaper and its buzzing field of niche news sites, offers a particularly vibrant landscape to study. Part of the work of the Knight Lab will be to analyze, in detail, how people actually consume news: what they want from news, what they need from news. “There are opportunities to better undestand both how and why technologies are adapted by real people looking for news and information,” Owen Youngman, Medill’s Knight Chair in digital media strategy (and another Knight Lab faculty overseer), told me. The overall mission, he notes, is akin to journalism’s more broadly: to ensure that citizens and the communities they live in get the news and information they need.

    Oh! And they’re hiring

    Medill-McCormick is looking for a full-time executive director to run the Knight Lab’s day-to-day operations. It’s also looking for a director of software engineering and several full-time software developers. If you want to learn more — about the job openings, about the Knight Lab in general — Knight and Northwestern will be formally announcing the project later today. And at 4pm CST, they’ll be hosting a “virtual Q&A” session about it here.

    [Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab.]

    October 26 2010

    17:00

    Google donates $5 million for news innovation to Knight Foundation and new international efforts

    Google and news organizations have had a rocky time of it. To overdramatize the situation only slightly: Google insists that it cares about journalism as a necessity of our shared democracy; news organizations resent it as a (perceived) key cause of the financial strife that keeps them from fully defending that democracy. Today, though, brings an olive branch — a multi-million-dollar olive branch: Google is announcing that it will donate $5 million to encourage innovation in digital journalism. The grant will come in two parts: $2 million of it will go to the Knight Foundation, the journalism mega-funder — and $3 million will go to fund international news-innovation efforts, via a partnership with an as-yet-unannounced organization.

    A peace offering for innovation

    “Google has been pretty clear about the fact that we want to do our part to help fulfill the promise of journalism in the digital age,” says Chris Gaither, Google’s senior manager for news industry relations. And while, on the one hand, today’s grant is part of Google’s larger work in philanthropy — as policy, the company commits one percent of its profits and equity toward charitable efforts — it’s also a way for the organization to put some money where its mouth is when it comes to its relations with journalism. “In addition to all the business partnerships and business relationships that we have with news companies,” Gaither told me, “we also wanted to try to encourage innovation at a more grassroots level.”

    The $2 million to Knight will be loosely divided: $1 million or so will go toward augmenting the Knight News Challenge, the foundation’s innovation contest, which will divvy up $6 million in grants this cycle instead of the usual $5 million. In its five years of operation, Gaither notes, the News Challenge has supported projects like DocumentCloud and Spot.us — projects that innovate not just the products of journalism, but the process of it — “and we thought it was a really interesting initiative to try to support.” The other $1 million or so will go toward Knight’s broad fund for grant-making, to encourage general innovation in digital journalism. And while Google and Knight, in the conversations leading up to today’s announcement, have discussed their shared goals and interests in the news-innovation space — business models to aid sustainability, new platforms for news, and digital skills training, in particular — ultimately, it’s Knight that will be making the decisions as to who gets funding.

    “It’s really quite a wonderful — not just a wonderful endorsement, but a wonderful encouragement,” says Alberto Ibargüen, Knight’s president. “Because they’re not saying, ‘We want you to do X, Y, and Z projects.’ They’re saying, ‘We want you to continue the kind of work you’ve been doing — except do more of it.’”

    While the $2 million for Knight will expand the funding of its existing efforts, the details of how the $3 million for international journalism innovation will be spent are still being worked out. Google expects to announce the details of that collaboration early next year. “We’re really eager to do even more internationally than what the Knight News Challenge provides for, so we’re going to be investing the remaining $3 million in journalism projects in other countries,” Gaither says.

    The value of collaboration

    So, for Google, why go the funding-partnership route, rather than simply funding nonprofits directly — or, for that matter, starting its own News Challenge-y contest? “We really see ourselves as a platform for discovery,” Gaither says, “and it’s important to us that we remain independent. [Google CEO] Eric Schmidt and other executives have made pretty clear over the years that we are not content creators.” Instead, “we have a symbiotic relationship with content creators, where we really help with discovery and monetization and other things,” he notes. Ultimately, “we do our thing, they do their thing.”

    And, for that end, Knight was a good match — which is why Google made the overture to the foundation in the first place. “In this particular space, Knight is an expert,” Gaither said. “Knight has already been funding and trying to promote innovation in digital journalism for a while now — so they seemed like a perfect partner to pair up with for this one.” There’s also the fact that the newly articulated focus areas of the News Challenge — mobile, sustainability, authenticity (trust and reputation), and community — match nicely with Google’s broad goals when it comes to information. “We think that organizations of all shapes and sizes can really benefit from the grants that we’ll be providing,” Gaither says. And then there’s the organizations’ shared emphasis on scalability, impact, and open-sourcing. (Knight requires that its News Challenge winners open-source their code and generally make their platforms open and available to the public.) “We really try to encourage people to release things as widely as possible when it’s appropriate for their business,” Gaither notes. “And in this case, we think that’s a cool requirement that Knight has — and it’s something that we wanted to support, as well.”

    For Ibargüen, the grant — in addition to providing extra funding, of course — is a validation of one of Knight’s core approaches to grant-making and to, even more broadly, the future of news itself: teamwork. “One of the reasons I’m so pleased by this is that so much of what we’re doing really requires collaboration,” Ibargüen notes. “To have a company like Google volunteer collaboration is not merely gratifying; it also really confirms the way to work.” The news space, he says, “is an area where collaboration really pays dividends. And I’m glad that the folks at Google agree.”

    [Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab.]

    August 17 2010

    20:00

    Seeking Sustainability, Part 1: Voice of San Diego’s Woolley and others on the role of the “venture mindset”

    This spring, the Knight Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion exploring a crucial issue in journalism: sustaining nonprofit news organizations after an initial injection of funding gets them off the ground. The Seeking Sustainability conversation sought to examine nonprofit outfits not just as recipients of philanthropic funding, but also — and more so — as businesses that share many of the same concerns that their for-profit counterparts do.

    “Traditional media companies have been particularly distressed by shifts in the markets and business models that historically supported them — and the conversation about how to ’save’ or ‘reinvent’ journalism has been largely focused on their concerns,” Knight noted in its summary of the roundtable. But

    to a growing group of practitioners, funders and observers…the challenge is not saving traditional news organizations or traditional forms of journalism. The challenge is creating, strengthening and protecting informed communities and local information ecosystems, of which journalism is a necessary component.

    Thus enters the nonprofit model, which allows organizations to pursue a journalistic mission without the competing demands of operating a for-profit business. Nonprofit news startups have been created in communities across the country, most with funding from major donors or foundations. The Knight Foundation alone has funded more than 200 experiments with what it calls a “build to learn” approach.

    To benefit from the education those startups have been receiving, the foundation convened a group of experts to share practical insights about improving and sustaining nonprofit journalism. It also, thankfully, recorded the conversation that resulted. In a series this week, we’ll pass along the videos of those conversations (and, as always, we’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section).

    In today’s first pair of videos, Buzz Woolley, chairman of Voice of San Diego, discusses the power of what he calls the “venture mindset” in journalism (above). In the second video (below), he is joined by an all-star panel of nonprofit startup leaders, including — in general order of appearance — J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer, the Chicago News Cooperative’s Peter Osnos and Jim O’Shea, the St. Louis Beacon’s Margaret Wolf Freivogel, Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Voice of San Diego’s Andrew Donohue and Scott Lewis, Knight president Alberto Ibargüen, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Robert Rosenthal, the Connecticut Mirror’s James Cutie, The Bay Citizen’s Lisa Frazier, Oakland Local’s Susan Mernit, and the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass.

    June 28 2010

    14:00

    Opening up journalism’s boundaries to bring change back in: How Knight and its News Challenge have evolved

    It was with considerable irony that I found myself last week missing much of the action surrounding the announcement of the latest winners of the Knight News Challenge, all because I was scrambling to put the finishing touches on a dissertation about…the Knight News Challenge.

    Go figure.

    Now that the dissertation is finished (at least temporarily, in the hands of my committee members), I’ve had a chance to reflect on how this fourth class of winners fits into the overall picture that has developed from the Knight News Challenge. This contest matters because, far and away, it’s the most prominent innovation effort of its kind in the future-of-journalism space. And so, in some sense, the News Challenge has an agenda-setting impact on the rest of the field at large, emphasizing certain trends over others and altogether giving shape to what we think of as “news innovation.”

    But to understand the News Challenge in full, we have to step back and consider the organization behind it — the nonprofit John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the leading funder of journalism training for years and now the biggest philanthropic supporter of news-related startups and experiments. This, of course, is especially true in the nonprofit news sector: Just pick your favorite news upstart (Voice of San Diego, Texas Tribune, et al.), and chances are it has a good share of Knight funding. [Including this website — full disclosure, the Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab. —Josh]

    So, the question that prompted my dissertation was simply this: With all this investment and influence in journalism innovation, what is the Knight Foundation trying to accomplish? (We can put this another way. Mark Dowie, in his 2002 investigation of nonprofit foundations, said, “If foundations are indeed ‘America’s passing gear,’ we need to ask what, or whom, they are passing, and where are they taking the country?” In our case, if Knight is akin to journalism’s passing gear, how — and toward what future — is it attempting to drive the field?)

    The short answer is that Knight has sought to innovate journalism in part by stepping away from it, by making a strategic shift from “journalism” to “information.” This broadening of boundaries has created crucial space for innovators — from inside and outside journalism — to set forth a reformed view of what journalism is and ought to be. Chief among these new ethics is the emerging ethic of participation — the sense that journalism not only can be participatory, but indeed should be, and that something is missing if the public isn’t involved. In this sense, the foundation and its innovators, in rhetoric and action, are working to bring change to the rather ossified occupational ideology of journalism, or this professional culture that has developed much of its authority around the idea that it has gatekeeping control over what passes as “news.”

    Now let me try to explain the longer answer. First, I came at this case study of the Knight Foundation and the Knight News Challenge from a number of angles: interviews with foundation leaders and more than a dozen KNC winners (namely, the ones who seemed to want to build a news organization/platform with their funding); an analysis of hundreds upon hundreds of pages of documents, such as foundation reports and News Challenge applications; and even some statistical analysis using a large body of data gathered on KNC applications from the first three years (the 2007, 2008 and 2009 contest cycles). There isn’t space in a single post to summarize my findings from each of these areas, but elsewhere I presented some early results on the KNC, and you can contact me if you’re interested in the final dissertation come July.

    For now, I’ll touch on the big picture: how the Knight Foundation and its News Challenge have evolved in recent years.

    From the news industry to the crowd

    The Knight Foundation has long been a leading supporter of journalism education, and for much of the 1990s and early 2000s did this through the endowment of chaired professorships at journalism schools around the country. But after Alberto Ibargüen took over as foundation president and CEO in 2005, Knight began to realize that, as Ibargüen has said, it shouldn’t be in the business of teaching best practices for jobs that might not exist in the future.

    Around the same time, Ibargüen and Knight became attracted to philanthropy’s growing use of challenge contests and other means of tapping into the “wisdom of the crowds” to find solutions to problems. If the “problem” for journalism in an era of digital disruption was the need to find new or refurbished models through which journalism’s core functions and societal benefits could be achieved — to “meet the information needs of communities,” in the foundation’s common refrain — then Knight was making a break from its past in turning away from faith in industry expertise and toward an acknowledgement that the solutions may well come from the aggregate expertise of a participatory crowd of contributors.

    The Knight News Challenge was born in 2006 in this context: as a contest attempting to tackle a big professional problem (the shrinking of newspapers in many communities) by purposefully looking beyond the profession alone, seeking to engage a whole range of people — techies, entrepreneurs, activists, etc. — and their ideas that might shake up journalism. This crowdsourcing strategy is seen both in the nature of the contest — which is open to all — and in the actual content of the proposals that have been funded, many of which have a crowd-focused component of distributed participation (from Spot.Us in 2008 to Ushahidi in 2009 to GoMap Riga and Tilemapping in 2010).

    From professional control to participation

    These connected assumptions — that neither Knight nor the news industry had the solutions to its “informed communities” problem, but that answers could come through participation from distributed crowds that were newly connected online — led Knight to conclude that it should give up control over some facets of its philanthropy, as it did with its challenge contests, first the Knight News Challenge and more recently with the likes of Knight Community Information Challenge and Knight Arts Challenge.

    What’s more, the foundation chose to give up control over maintaining journalism’s professional boundaries of exclusion — of defining journalism by one’s professional status — thus rhetorically opening the gates to greater participation from audiences. This was no small shift. Professionals, by nature, seek to be autonomous from outside influence, and so an acknowledgment of one’s lack of expertise or lack of control is a serious departure from the professional paradigm. Nevertheless, Ibargüen’s logic — of openness, of distributed control, of crowd wisdom and collective engagement — is more in tune with the digital media environment and its participatory culture. And, in this sense, his logic may reflect the Knight Foundation’s adaptation to the situation — its own way of “figuring out the flow” (Ibargüen’s words) and leveraging the momentum to accomplish its purposes.

    All of this works to “open up” journalism in a way that allows something like crowd participation — which is still mostly at the margins of mainstream journalism — to become not only palatable but indeed truly valuable, a very ethic of good practice, in a rebooted formulation of journalism. This, in fact, is the general perspective of the KNC winners I interviewed, and is one of the core themes I explore further in the dissertation.

    From journalism to information

    In more recent times, the Knight Foundation has undergone a further evolution from “journalism” to “information,” both in rhetoric and practice. First, remember again that Knight’s ultimate goal is helping people get the information they need to function in (local) democracy. Historically, it was the newspaper that took care of providing that crucial information, and so the News Challenge was an effort to work on the problem of declining news at the community level.

    But, as the News Challenge developed over time, Knight staff began to wonder if they were unduly focused on the “means” of informed communities — on the troubled journalism profession — and instead should be giving more emphasis to understanding and promoting the “outcomes” of informed communities, with less regard to how those outcomes were achieved. It’s kind of like being less concerned about the well-being of doctors and more concerned about public health, whether or not doctors are the ones doing the healing. As Ibargüen told me in an interview:

    If you’re being agnostic about the form [i.e., digital delivery], shouldn’t you really focus on the end result? [Emphasis mine.] That is, stop trying to figure out how to fix current media and instead ask the question, “What does a community in a democracy need? What kind of information does it need in order to function well within a democracy? Where are we now, and what public policy can you support that will get us from where we are now to where we ought to be?”

    In other words: Worry less about journalism and more about quality information, however it gets gathered and distributed. This line of thinking led to the formation of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. This high-level commission produced a report that was among the major future-of-journalism treatises to emerge in 2009. While journalism does receive fairly substantial treatment in the report, Amy Gahran was “struck by how little [the report] had to say about how professional journalists and mainstream news organizations fit into the future of civic media.”

    Even more, the Knight Foundation appears to have realized that it can have a broader impact in philanthropy and society to the extent it downplays “journalism,” a term that, like it or not, comes with the baggage of stereotypes and a professional identity complex. “Information,” by contrast, has no particular ideology, and therefore can be malleably shaped to suit the circumstances. By invoking “information” and “information needs,” the Knight Foundation has been able to communicate to and connect with a range of fields, foundations, and corporations in a way “that we almost certainly would never have done before,” Ibargüen said. Because “information” is an empty vessel, open to interpretation, it has enabled Knight to speak the language of other fields, even as it seeks to advance the interests of its own. As Ibargüen told me:

    One of the lessons for me is that when I used to talk about this as journalism, I’d get the great glazing of the eyes, as people would say, “Get over yourself, you’re just not that important, you know!” And now I know to say, “OK, this matters, this is at the center of almost anything. You tell me your subject, and I’ll tell you how information matters.” [Emphasis mine.]

    This journalism-to-information shift can be seen in how the News Challenge has developed. My own examination of winners over the years suggests that projects have become less and less about “producing journalism” and increasingly about “supporting information,” some of which might be considered journalism in a traditional sense. And this gets us to the big existential question: What is journalism, anyway? In a world where the boundaries (rhetorical and structural) around news gathering, filtering, and distributing are becoming increasingly hard to detect, when does information become journalism? It is in this soup of uncertainty and confusion that the Knight Foundation has sought to bring profession-wide change: opening the boundaries of journalism and its own philanthropy to the logic of crowd wisdom, and using its position as a boundary-spanning agent, straddling several fields, as a means of bringing fresh ideas into a field that sorely needs them.

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