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April 27 2012

15:30

Agile, social, cheap: The new way NPR is trying to make radio

Old radio

The last time NPR launched a show was five years ago. It was the Bryant Park Project, a morning newsmagazine aimed at younger listeners. The network developed the show in secret and beefed up its New York bureau with reporters, producers, and editors. The budget for its first year was more than $2 million.

BPP was cancelled after 10 months, having reached just 13 markets. The underdeveloped show could never compete with Morning Edition, whose national listenership is topped only by Rush Limbaugh. A few months later, NPR cancelled two more news programs, Day to Day and News and Notes, blaming a disastrous budget gap.

Now NPR is taking another stab at creating new programming, but the approach looks quite different. Its newest show, TED Radio Hour (hosted by Alison Stewart, formerly BPP’s co-host), debuts today in at least seven markets. Ask Me Another, a prerecorded live game show for puzzle types, begins airing next weekend in at least six markets, including Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. And John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders, which I guess is a variety show for hipsters, debuts later this year.

What’s different this time? The network seems to be taking a page from agile software development, the philosophy that products should be released early and iterated often. The shows are live (cheap) and/or adaptations of existing shows (easy), all produced in six- or 10- or 13-episode pilot runs instead of as permanent offerings. Listeners and local program directors are invited to help shape the sound of the programs, making it something of a public beta.

“We’ve had successful shows that have been around for decades, and the newest ones that are reaching big audiences — even those are a decade old.”

Ask Me Another, for example, is perfectly designed for social media (which, remember, barely existed when Bryant Park Project began). Because it’s a live show, every member of the audience is a potential Twitter or Facebook connection.

Word of the show spread on social media — which is how I found out about it — so NPR PR has a head start. The network says 4,000 people have already attended the live shows, pre-launch. The shows are being fed to member stations free of charge.

“Historically, the way that NPR and others in public radio have produced big programming is we come up with an idea we think is really good, we hire a staff, we keep all this very cloak-and-dagger secret, and then we try to make a big launch with it, and we end up with 30 stations and then over time more stations add to it,” Eric Nuzum, NPR’s newly promoted vice president of programming, told me.

“Using that process, it takes years to determine years if something is going to be a hit or not. And that involves millions and millions of dollars.”

In other words, failure is a much bigger fail. If Ask Me Another doesn’t take off, hey, it was still a relatively cheap experiment. Nuzum says the weak economy is driving in the new strategy. (NPR would not tell me how much money is budgeted for the programs, but it’s safe to say none of them costs $2 million.)

Two years ago, NPR conducted an “audience opportunity study” that found listeners wanted more shows that sound like them. A lighter approach, more humor. Shows like Ask Me Another could be the hook that casual listeners need to discover other radio programming, Nuzum said. Some of the most successful public radio shows, after all, are weekend shows — This American Life, Car Talk, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!

“It’s much easier to describe this when I’m in person with someone, so I apologize if some of this seems vague, because I actually draw when I’m talking about this,” Nuzum said.

Don’t worry, Eric Nuzum, we got this. Here is an interpretation of what his drawing might look like, by Lisa Tobin:

Circles

“Imagine there’s a circle, and the circle’s really dark, and that circle is our current audience. And it’s dark because there are so many people — there’s like a gravitational force — that are all kind of brought together. Then imagine a much larger ring around that circle, and that’s our potential audience. What we’re trying to do is bring that audience towards that center, trying to bring them more towards our programming.

“What we did before was we were just creating shows that occupied space in that larger circle without really paying attention to how well it connected to the inner circle. These shows are much more an attempt to have something that connects both to the larger circle and the inner circle as well.”

Nuzum said he is emulating HBO’s iterative approach to programming. He’s not the first to make the comparison. Cambridge-based PRX has experimented with new programming and distribution for five years, including with Marc Maron’s podcast WTF and The Moth Radio Hour. Jake Shapiro, the executive director of PRX, has long proposed a “public radio pilot season.”

“We’ve had successful shows that have been around for decades, and the newest ones that are reaching big audiences — even those are a decade old,” he told me. “We had a really good experiment with something similar, which was Public Radio Talent Quest, but that was more focused on hosts and new voices.”

Glynn Washington, one of the two Talent Quest winners, would go on to host NPR’s Snap Judgment. But the five dozen other people seen as serious competitors were largely forgotten. Shapiro says there’s a big ecosystem of podcasters and aspiring podcasters who would jump at the chance to be a part of public radio.

“It revealed that there’s a way to take some of what is the chaotic but very effective commercial television season dance and translate it into public radio terms, where essentially we collaborate with stations to introduce new show concepts, on air and online, in a very visible, very vocal way,” he said.

Nuzum said the nimble approach to programming is more or less the new normal at NPR. “Whether [these shows] have a future or not, I’m really proud of what we’ve come up with,” he said. “The bigger experiment is the process…This wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago.”

Photo of an old radio by santibon used under a Creative Commons license.

December 08 2011

15:00

A Y Combinator for public media: PRX, Knight launch a $2.5 million accelerator

A new Public Media Accelerator, funded by $2.5 million from the Knight Foundation, will rapidly fund disruptive ideas in public media, PRX announced today.

Public Media Accelerator logoThe final details are still being worked out, but the accelerator is modeled on successful startup-focused initiatives like TechStars and Y Combinator. Technologists and digital storytellers will compete for cash to build their ideas. Winners will come to Cambridge for intensive, 12-week development cycles, under the guidance of mentors with deep experience in the field, all culminating in a demo day and the chance to win additional rounds of funding.

“In the digital domain we’re not setting the pace for innovation in the same way we did in the broadcast world,” said Jake Shapiro, the executive director of PRX. The accelerator is welcoming both nonprofit and for-profit ventures, unusual for public media. Shapiro said he wants to attract top talent, people who might never consider the field otherwise.

Last week, writing for Idea Lab, Shapiro said he observed a “worrisome gap” between coders and storytellers, estimating that fewer than 100 of the 15,000 people in public broadcasting are developers :

As public broadcasting goes through its own turbulent transition to a new Internet and mobile world, the technology talent gap is a risk that looms large. Yes, there are many other challenges…But the twin coins of the new digital realm are code and design, and with a few notable exceptions, public media is seriously lacking in both.

A shortage of innovation is not unique to public media, he told me. Nonprofits suffer constraints on financing ideas to scale, a lack of risk capital, and a lack of investment in deep R&D and technology, Shapiro said. The accelerator “gives license to risk in a more intentional way, and we definitely need more of that.”

The Public Media Accelerator is also another sign the Knight Foundation is taking cues from Silicon Valley’s startup culture. Knight will retain a financial stake in for-profit ventures that receive seed money, moving away from its traditional role as pure philanthropist. Earlier this year, Knight launched a venture-capital enterprise fund. And in October, senior adviser Eric Newton said the annual Knight News Challenge, a five-year experiment, will speed up to three times per year, starting in 2012.

“As we’ve started funding more smaller entities and startups, that model makes a lot more sense for us,” said Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president of journalism and media innovation. “That model allows us to go smaller, faster, more nimble.”

Even the program came together fast: Shapiro approached Maness and Knight’s John Bracken with the idea in July. Board approval came in September, and the project will formally get underway at SXSW Interactive in March.

So if for-profits are making public media and funders are buying stakes in startups, is it “public media” anymore? What is public media, anyway?

“It’s about intent and values and goals and impact,” Shapiro said. “I’ve been in endless philosophical conversations about ‘what is public media’ over the years, and in some cases there are examples of pub media that are completely outside our field. I think on good days The Daily Show is public media…I think Wikipedia is public media. I’d rather just claim them than have to reinvent them,” he said, half-joking.

The Public Media Accelerator immediately begins searching for a director to administer the fund and an advisory board. Shapiro, Manness, and Bracken will remain as advisers.

December 16 2010

18:00

Gawker copycats, luxurious print, more robots, and a new blogging golden age: Predictions for 2011

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Below are predictions from Susan Orlean, Joe Grimm, Matt Haughey, Adrian Holovaty, Megan McCarthy, Mark Potts, Jake Shapiro, and Cody Brown.

We also want to hear your predictions: take our Lab reader poll and tell us what you think we’ll be talking about in 2011. We’ll share those results in a couple days.

We’ll be reading more on our phones, our iPads, and our Super Scout Decoder rings by the end of next year.

Several magazines — maybe Time or Newsweek or both — will go monthly and/or digital only. But there will be new magazine startups in print that will be luxurious and expensive and book-like. 2011 will be the year of those two forms making themselves distinct; things on line will become more webby, and print publications will become more “collectible” and classic.

Journalism schools will offer a “web producer” major.

The last typewriter living in the wild will be captured, its DNA sequenced; and then it will be humanely destroyed.

Joe Grimm, Poynter blogger and recruiter, Patch

In 2011, I expect to see some shakeout of traditional and innovative newsrooms. Some of the new ones will have hit the wall that tells them they don’t have the right model to go forward. Legacy newsrooms seem to gaining traction with digital advertising and are feeling some traditional advertisers come back, but they have been substantially weakened and devalued. With the amount of cash that is sitting idle, I expect we will see some acquisitions among traditional media companies. The prize in those deals will be the content parts of the operations, of course. I would not surprised if some traditional newsrooms are absorbed by digital companies looking to build credibly news-oriented footprints fast.

Watch Yahoo! and Facebook in 2011 to see how they try to grow their reputations as news sources.

Mobile and tablets will continue to boom, with some shakeout among devices and a real gold rush to build apps, backed up by original news and news aggregation. Individualized services or services curated by friends will grow.

Whether or not the Gawker suite of sites redesign is successful or not, the rest of the New York media blog world will follow suit and copy the new direction for layout, because big business blogging is basically a cargo cult where everyone does what Gawker is doing since that seems to be successful for them (in the hopes it is successful for them).

This is sort of a half-prediction and half-hope, but I’d love to see the self-publishing pendulum start to shift the other way, from centralized services (like Twitter and AOL before it) back to a beautiful diversity of decentralized/independent tools and services like we had in the “golden age” of blogging. We’ve seen some occasional banter about this over the last few years, but I think people are going to get more serious about it in 2011, and certainly by the end of 2012.

Oh, and Google is totally the new Microsoft. I can see that being a theme of 2011.

The convergence of the media and technology industries will continue. Consumer-facing technology companies will start to encroach onto traditional media territories, and media companies will realize that they need to invest more into technology in order to compete with the tech companies entering their space. There will be more tech/media partnerships like the one between Betaworks and the New York Times, but there will be a struggle to see which side — tech or media — comes out on top. The real winners will be developers, executives, and small sites that straddle both worlds.

Mobile access to the web will become more reliable, especially if the iPhone heads to another carrier (like Verizon) as has been predicted. A spike in smartphones will bring an obvious spike in mobile views. Apps will still be important, but, as mobile OSes multiply, the smarter move might be towards mobile-friendly websites that work across platforms (like http://mediagazer.com/m)

Traditional web advertising will still be a mess, yet there will be substantial resistance to changing the model. There will be too much emphasis put on metrics that no one actually knows how to measure. Pageviews will become more and more meaningless, but people will still chase them, like rainbows, hoping to find that pot of gold.

Oh, and there will be more robot/cyborg/machine involvement in media, and it will be a good thing. Algorithms are not the enemy!

A continuing explosion of blogs covering local communities and local interests, written by passionate community members whose coverage and audience engagement far outstrips what can be managed by corporately backed local interlopers like Patch. Key to these efforts, though, will be the bloggers and local site operators getting serious about tapping their share of the $130 billion local-advertising market. At the same time, the rise in location-aware mobile services will begin ushering in a new generation of targeted local coverage and information in the palm of readers’ hands. Mobile is local, and I suspect we’ll see the first breakthrough, wildly popular local mobile product in the next year or so.

Apple will change its tune on one-click donations to nonprofits and public media.

Public broadcasting will emerge from its existential crisis (Juan Williams fiasco and defunding threats) as a more focused, collaborative, and inclusive “public media” industry, reasserting a central role in sustaining journalism and leading innovation.

The Public Media Platform will launchand catalyze more collaboration and innovation, expanding beyond the borders of public radio and TV.

News orgs will start leveraging Mechanical Turk and other crowd-powered services to help manage overwhelming data needs.

“Private” social media websites like Path are going to boom. Sites that see privacy as a value as opposed to an antiquated social norm are going to go big. I don’t think Path is actually that great, but they are in the right space.

WikiLeaks will leak a government document that outlines strategies to assassinate Julian Assange.

Gawker will buy then break a story that starts a war.

November 12 2010

16:43

Remix Radio Re-Imagines Public Radio as Interactive Collage

While we continue to delve into code-level collaboration with Spot.Us to get our Story Exchange crowdfunding project launched later this year, I'll take the opportunity in my next couple posts to give updates on other emerging PRX services that are helping reshape public radio, and that ultimately will amplify the results of Story Exchange.

First up is Remix Radio, an entirely new sound for public radio.

Remix Radio

remix_flyer_front_hi.gif The basic idea of Remix is to create a story-driven radio format that aggregates and curates remarkable audio -- short-form documentaries, features, podcasts, interviews, archives, "found sound" -- and rotates it through a 24/7 channel in surprising and serendipitous ways. The goal is to make it sound awesome, interesting, fresh, diverse, unusual and compelling. We want to reach a new audience -- one that is younger and more diverse than the current public radio average, and that is curious about the world but not satisfied with the steady diet of talk/news on the radio or elsewhere.

You can check out Remix Radio now using the player below, visit the Remix Radio website, find Remix in the iTunes radio directory, favorite it on our Public Radio Player iPhone app, or tune into XM 136. And soon you'll be able to find Remix on local public radio stations around the country.

On Remix you might hear a classic short documentary from the Kitchen Sisters followed by audio from a recent PopTech! presentation, mixed in with a voicemail music mashup from the new website OneHelloWorld.

Some things you won't find on Remix Radio:

There is no set schedule, no top-of-the-hour news, no standard public radio clock (the breaks at the top of the hour and at 20 and 40 minutes, public radio's circadian rhythm). There are no daily or weekly national programs like "Fresh Air" and "This American Life," although you might encounter short segments that have appeared on other shows, brought into a new context. There are no announcers, news-readers, or reporters. But we do have a host -- our head curator, documentary DJ and producer extraordinaire Roman Mars.

Experimenting With a New Format

There are several insights driving the development of Remix Radio.

First is the realization that there are tons of powerful stories and audio pieces that often languish in the margins of existing formats and programs, or don't get on the radar screen to begin with. NPR calls these "driveway moments" -- the stories that trap you in the car lest you miss a second of a gripping tale.

PRX has a growing catalog of tens of thousands of these stories, and mostly we help get them out to local stations for broadcast. Last year we distributed over 9,000 pieces, but, with the exception of some superb showcase programs like KUT's O'Dark 30, the best stories aren't tied together to create a collective impression.

Another is the sore need to experiment with a new public radio format. The main flavors of news/information, classical, jazz, and Triple A have largely stayed the same for decades in public radio. The focus on consistency has been a necessary and successful strategy to build audience, but it's also led to uniformity and lack of innovation around new local/national channels and new program development. (See Bill McKibben's article in the New York Review of Books that underscores this and highlights some promising programs.)

While public radio has been making serious investments in new digital capacity and experiments on the web and now in mobile, there's little systemic strategizing or experimentation (with the notable exception of Vocalo) for the industry's biggest platform by far: Audio broadcast and streaming.

Then there's the fact that many of the best stories that air on public radio aren't heard by the majority of listeners because they air only once or twice, when only a fraction of a station's "cume" (weekly total listeners) is tuned in. This is especially true for short pieces.

Remix Radio has turned a necessity into a virtue: Since we have 24 hours a day to fill, we inevitably have to repeat a lot of content. Rather than hide that fact or resort to big blocks of looping programs we hand pick hundreds of stories that bear repeated listening and much like a music station we put them in heavy, medium and light rotation (with help from our friends and partners at Backbone whose Internet radio automation software is a linchpin of the service). We set patterns and ways of tagging and categorizing the pieces, but it's an algorithm that chooses what to play when and we ourselves aren't sure what might play next.

And lastly is the somewhat paradoxical and intriguing notion that at a time when the world is going on-demand and we all have the tools to stitch together our own media menu, there's an interesting opportunity to rethink the lean back experience of a curated channel. Where's the sweet spot between the rapidly fading value of "appointment listening" ("tune in this afternoon at 3 o'clock to hear...") and the unsustainable expectation that we will meticulously assemble podcast playlists, sync our devices, and devote time to discover new stuff?

Remix Radio is plunging into that question and using it as an excuse to reimagine radio from the ground up.

New Ideas

Some ideas we're cooking up:

  • Mobile participation -- How might Remix enlist listeners to help shape the channel, submit content, vote on playlists, and connect with each other? We've been keeping an eye on Jelli, a commercial music radio attempt to do some of this. And we're in love with Twilio as a way to integrate our web applications with voice interactivity.
  • Networked DJing -- One great advantage of our Remix Radio setup is that anyone working on the channel can manage it remotely from their laptop. All of the audio is stored in the cloud, streamed directly for the web and mobile, and delivered over the Internet as broadcast-ready files for XM and terrestrial delivery. There's no physical station, control room, master control engineering, satellite dishes etc. This means we can have a distributed network of program directors, show producers, on-air hosts, etc. -- all collaborating on Remix from different locations.
  • The continuum of sound -- We're thinking hard about how audio pieces traverse the various platforms that audiences use, what form factors apply, and where smart systems can help make that migration smooth for producers and listeners. What kind of technology, design and editorial input is needed for a podcast to become a segment of a radio program, for it to live as an embedded widget on a page, or a swipable screen on an iPhone app? It doesn't make sense to focus exclusively on one end of the continuum or the other; listening happens everywhere.

    How does all of this tie back in to Story Exchange? At PRX we're rethinking the whole life cycle of content creation, distribution, and engagement. Story Exchange will create opportunities to find and fund new stories, and Remix will help connect them with audiences in new ways.

Stay tuned!

July 07 2010

14:00

WBUR app inches public radio toward mobile fundraising

Apple just approved a local public radio iPhone app, now in the iTunes store, that promises to deliver “localism, journalism, participation and monetation” — goals set out by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in backing its development.

The app, from Boston station WBUR, is a test of sorts. It was built by PRX, creator of (among others) the popular This American Life app, with a grant from the CPB. The hope is that the app leverages the strengths of a local station and entices other stations to pick it up.

“PRX plans to offer the resulting code under an open source license to enable other local stations to develop additional apps, and encourage a developer community to help improve and extend the app for subsequent versions,” Jake Shapiro said in a blog post when the plan was announced. Shapiro told me in an email that at the moment the code belongs to WBUR and PRX, but they’re working with the Berkman Center on hashing out licensing issues.

Content and engagement aside, mobile offers another potential benefit for public radio: fundraising. Imagine being able to click “Pledge $60 Now” on your phone and then being able to sit out the rest of the pledge drive. But unfortunately for nonprofit journalism, Apple bars apps from letting users donate directly within the app. PRX worked around that issue by using pledge buttons that call WBUR (it is a phone, remember) or send you an email reminding you to donate online through your web browser.

Shapiro wrote about the issue here for Ars Technica, after the This American Life app ran into a similar problem. Apple claims it’s a liability issue for them: They don’t want to be held responsible for scammers pretending to be legit nonprofits, even if it’s an organization like NPR developing the app. (Shapiro calls that a cop-out.) The workaround Shapiro came up with isn’t ideal — who wants to read a credit card number over the phone instead of just pressing one button? — but it’s still a step toward mobile contributions. John Davidow, WBUR.org’s executive editor, shrugged off the issue: “We didn’t think of it as a problem.”

There’s also an alarm clock function that will play WBUR to wake you up, an idea submitted by a listener. And if you’re a WBUR member, the member discount card is taken to a new level with a location-based feature that shows you businesses nearby that will give you a discount. (Nice.) On the content side, the app lets you listen to show archives alongside the usual live streaming. Davidow said he wanted the app to also increase engagement with the audience: The app makes it easy for users to send in a photo or a news tip, for instance. “Mobile is a fantastic platform for radio,” Davidow told me. “It’s built for it.”

June 16 2010

19:30

Knight News Challenge: PRX’s StoryMarket will bring Spot.us-style crowdfunding to public radio

Most of the projects awarded grants in the Knight News Challenge come out on top because they offer something new: they’re innovative, they’re different, they’re unique. One of this year’s crop of winners, though, made a selling point of its similarity to a previous Knight grantee. The Public Radio Exchange’s StoryMarket project will build on — and collaborate with — Spot.us, one of the best known Knight winners, to bring crowdfunding to public radio.

Per Knight’s official announcement of StoryMarket’s $75,000 grant:

Building on the software created by 2008 challenge winner Spot.us, this project will allow anyone to pitch and help pay to produce a story for a local public radio station. When the amount is raised (in small contributions), the station will hire a professional journalist to do the report. The project provides a new way for public radio stations to raise money, produce more local content and engage listeners.

“This has been an idea that PRX has been kicking around for a while,” says Jake Shapiro, PRX’s CEO and the leader of the StoryMarket project. And it’s one that “really takes advantage of the platform that we have in place.” Which makes the project unique…by way of similarity. As Shapiro told me of the project’s proposal: “This would be one of the first ones, as far as I know, that help anchor a collaboration with another promising Knight investment.” (Another of this year’s winners also has a history of intra-KNC collaboration: Tilemapping has worked with past winner Ushahidi.)

The PRX-Spot.us collaboration will be a core component of the StoryMarket project — in particular, Shapiro points out, “at the code level,” where much of the partnership will be focused. The PRX technology team (some ten members strong at the moment, with an additional six or so working on a contract basis) will work with the Spot.us coders to “add value to the investment made in the open-source code base to date — and increase the likelihood that it’s a worthwhile investment.”

That synergy — wheel-reinvention, in reverse — also means that StoryMarket will be insulated in ways that ground-up, from-scratch projects don’t tend to be. “There are risks in all of this,” Shapiro allows, “but some of the things that are typically risks are not ones for us.”

At the user level, in turn, PRX will adopt much of the Spot.us approach to crowdfunding to raise money for its own stories — a significant shift for the public media platform. “The way that PRX had, for the most part, been available was more as an aftermarket for existing work,” Shapiro points out, “where somebody who had stories and had created documentaries would use PRX as an additional distribution path for broadcast and digital.” StoryMarket is an attempt to make PRX an up-front and active participant in the entire production process. “The fundamental driver of it, and the outcome, was to create original, new stories that are important on a local level,” Shapiro says. Only “instead of having the chain wait until you’ve identified, developed, and produced a story, and then look for a media partner” — the Spot.us model, essentially — we’re beginning with media partners.”

The first of those partners? Louisville Public Media in Kentucky — “a very forward-looking, ambitious station in a smaller market in the South, where historically there’s been less investment in this kind of work,” Shapiro says. Not only is the station not among “the usual suspects, which are the major-market stations that we work a lot with” — and not only is there “no shortage of important stories to be told there,” from mountaintop mining to race relations in public schools — but LPM’s size means that its status as a PRX media partner will offer a challenge. In, you know, a good way. A core goal of StoryMarket, as it is with most Knight winners, is scalabilty — and with LPM’s relatively small number of producers, “it’s going to be an interesting test of how much the network effect will kick in,” Shapiro says.

Helping that effect along will be the Public Media Platform, the behemoth digital distribution network launched on Monday. The platform, a collaboration among American Public Media, NPR, PBS, Public Radio International and, yes, PRX, should amplify StoryMarket’s reach. To collaborate with PRX is to collaborate, in effect, with the entire network.

At the same time, though, StoryMarket will also be a test of local news outlets’ ability to generate financial support for individual stories in addition to their broader, brand-based fundraising efforts. With national public programming widely available, stations now “have an even deeper interest in being relevant locally,” Shapiro points out. Competition means that “they’re increasingly wanting to differentiate themselves by making sure they do good local coverage.” And StoryMarket, for its part, will mean that the public has a new way to express what “good local coverage” actually looks like.

18:30

Announcing the 2010 Knight News Challenge winners: Visuals are hot, and businesses are big winners

They started out last year as a crowded field of hopefuls from around the world, each dreaming of a chance to perform under the big lights. Over months, their numbers dwindled as the level of competition rose; each successive round brought new disappointment to those eliminated and new hope to those left in the running. And now, whittled down to an elite few, they’re ready for the global stage.

Okay, I’m giving myself a yellow card: So maybe the World Cup isn’t the perfect metaphor for the Knight News Challenge. But the News Challenge is the closest thing the future-of-news space has to a World Cup, and while this year’s 12 winners — just announced at MIT — won’t be forced to battle each other for global supremacy, they do represent the top of a sizable pyramid of applicants — nearly 2,500 in all. You can judge for yourself which ones are Brazil and Germany and which are New Zealand and North Korea.

I’ve got information on all the winners below, but first a few observations:

Visuals seem to be this year’s theme: lots of projects about things like mapping, data visualization, video editing, and games inspired by editorial cartoons. Just one winner focuses on the business-model end of the equation (Windy Citizen’s real-time ads).

— This year’s new grants total $2.74 million. That’s up from last year’s total of $1.96 million, but still down substantially from the really big checks Knight was writing in the first two years of the News Challenge ($11.7 million in 2007, $5.5 million in 2008). The number of grantees is also up a bit from 2009 but well below earlier years (26 in 2007, 16 in 2008, 9 in 2009, 12 this year).

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Knight’s overall commitment has decreased over time. Many of its grants are distributed over multiple years, so some of those early commitments are still being in force.

— Despite extending this cycle’s application deadline in part to encourage more international applicants, the winners are quite domestic — 11 American winners out of 12. In 2008, there were six international winners, and last year there were two projects that, while technically based in the U.S., were internationally focused — Ushahidi and Mobile Media Toolkit. (You could argue that this year’s One-Eight should count as international, since it’s about covering Afghanistan, but through collaboration with the U.S. military. And while Tilemapping will focus on Washington, D.C., a version of its software was used after the Haiti earthquake.)

That said, the deadline extension was also about reaching out for other kinds of diversity, and that happened in at least one way: Knight reports that nearly half of this year’s winners are private companies, up from 15 percent in 2009. That’s despite Knight’s elimination of a separate category for commercial applicants last cycle.

Below are all the winners — congratulations to one and all, and my sympathies to the thousands eliminated along the way. In the coming days, we’ll have profiles of all of the winners and their projects. In the meantime, for context, you can also read all we wrote about last year’s News Challenge and what we’ve written so far about this cycle.

CityTracking

The winner: Eric Rodenbeck of Stamen Design

The amount: $400,000

The pitch: “To make municipal data easy to understand, CityTracking will allow users to create embeddable data visualizations that are appealing enough to spread virally and that are as easy to share as photos and videos. The dynamic interfaces will be appropriate to each data type, starting with crime and working through 311 calls for service, among others. The creators will use high design standards, making the visuals beautiful as well as useful.”

The Cartoonist

The winner: Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech and Michael Mateas of UC Santa Cruz

The amount: $378,000

The pitch: “To engage readers in the news, this project will create a free tool that produces cartoon-like current event games — the game equivalent of editorial cartoons. The simplified tools will be created with busy journalists and editors in mind, people who have the pulse of their community but don’t have a background in game development. By answering a series of questions about the major actors in a news event and making value judgments about their actions, The Cartoonist will automatically propose game rules and images. The games aim to help the sites draw readers and inspire them to explore the news.”

Local Wiki

The winner: Philip Neustrom and Mike Ivanov of DavisWiki.org

The amount: $350,000

The pitch: “Based on the successful DavisWiki.org in Davis, Calif., this project will create enhanced tools for local wikis, a new form of media that makes it easy for people to learn and share their own unique community knowledge. Members will be able to post articles about anything they like, edit others and upload photos and files. This grant will help create the specialized open-source software that makes the wiki possible and help communities develop, launch and sustain local wiki projects.”

WindyCitizen’s Real Time Ads

The winner: Brad Flora of WindyCitizen.com

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “As a way to help online startups become sustainable, this project will develop an improved software interface to help sites create and sell what are known as real-time ads. These ads are designed to be engaging as they constantly change showing the latest message or post from the advertisers Twitter account, Facebook page or blog. Challenge winner Brad Flora helped pioneer the idea on his Chicago news site, WindyCitizen.com.”

GoMap Riga

The winner: Marcis Rubenis and Kristofs Blaus

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “To inspire people to get involved in their community, this project will create a live, online map with local news and activities. GoMap Riga will pull some content from the Web and place it automatically on the map. Residents will be able to add their own news, pictures and videos while discussing what is happening around them. GoMap Riga will be integrated with the major existing social networks and allow civic participation through mobile technology. The project will be tested in Riga, Latvia, and ultimately be applicable in other cities.”

Order in the Court 2.0

The winner: John Davidow of WBUR

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “To foster greater access to the judicial process, this project will create a laboratory in a Boston courtroom to help establish best practices for digital coverage that can be replicated and adopted throughout the nation. While the legislative and executive branches have incorporated new technologies and social media, the courts still operate under the video and audio recording standards established in the 1970s and ’80s. The courtroom will have a designated area for live blogging via a Wi-Fi network and the ability to live-stream court proceedings to the public. Working in conjunction with the Massachusetts court system, the project will publish the daily docket on the Web and build a knowledge wiki for the public with common legal terms.”

Porch Forum

The winner: Michael Wood-Lewis of Front Porch Forum

The amount: $220,000

The pitch: “To help residents connect with others and their community, this grant will help rebuild and enhance a successful community news site, expand it to more towns and release the software so other organizations, anywhere can use it. The Front Porch Forum, a virtual town hall space, helps residents share and discuss local news, build community and increase engagement. The site, currently serving 25 Vermont towns, will expand to 250.”

One-Eight

The winner: Teru Kuwayama

The amount: $202,000

The pitch: “Broadening the perspectives that surround U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, this project will chronicle a battalion by combining reporting from embedded journalists with user-generated content from the Marines themselves. The troops, recently authorized to use social media while deployed, and their families will be key audiences for the online journal steering, challenging and augmenting the coverage with their feedback. The approach will directly serve the stakeholders and inform the wider public by bringing in on-the-ground views on military issues and the execution of U.S. foreign policy.”

Stroome

The winner: USC Annenberg’s Nonny de la Peña and Tom Grasty

The amount: $200,000

The pitch: “To simplify the production of news video, Stroome will create a virtual video-editing studio. There, correspondents, editors and producers will be able to upload and share content, edit and remix with friends and colleagues — all without using expensive satellite truck technology. The site will launch as eyewitness video — often captured by mobile phones or webcams — is becoming a key component of news coverage, generating demand for supporting tools.”

CitySeed

The winner: Arizona State’s Retha Hill and Cody Shotwell

The amount: $90,000

The pitch: “To inform and engage communities, CitySeed will be a mobile application that allows users to plant the ’seed’ of an idea and share it with others. For example, a person might come across a great spot for a community garden. At that moment, the person can use the CitySeed app to geotag the idea, which links it to an exact location. Others can look at the place-based ideas, debate and hopefully act on them. The project aims to increase the number of people informed about and engaged with their communities by breaking down community issues into bite-size settings.”

StoryMarket

The winner: Jake Shapiro of PRX

The amount: $75,000

The pitch: “Building on the software created by 2008 challenge winner Spot.us, this project will allow anyone to pitch and help pay to produce a story for a local public radio station. When the amount is raised (in small contributions), the station will hire a professional journalist to do the report. The project provides a new way for public radio stations to raise money, produce more local content and engage listeners.”

Tilemapping

The winner: Eric Gundersen of Development Seed

The amount: $74,000

The pitch: “To inspire residents to learn about local issues, Tilemapping will help local media create hyper-local, data-filled maps for their websites and blogs. Journalists will be able to tell more textured stories, while residents will be able to draw connections to their physical communities in new ways. The tools will be tested in Washington, D.C. Ushahidi, a 2009 Knight News Challenge winner, used a prototype after the earthquake in Haiti to create maps used to crowdsource reports on places needing aid.”

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