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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.

14:00

Knight News Challenge: Connecting the world is great, but Front Porch Forum wants to connect neighbors

The Internet connects people around the country and around the world. But what about the people right next door? One of this year’s Knight News Challenge winners, Front Porch Forum, won a $200,000 grant to build on its successes in connecting neighbors in Vermont through a system that is a mixture of message board, listserv, and local newspaper.

Michael Wood-Lewis launched Front Porch Foum in 2000 as a way to connect with the folks in the area around him. He has since expanded to 38 towns, mostly in the last four years. With the Knight grant, he expects to expand across the state, into 250 towns.

“People who live near each other, if they connect, good things happen,” Wood-Lewis told me. Front Porch Forum makes face-to-face interactions easier, he says, and pushes people to buy into their local communities. “We’re talking about the people you’d borrow the proverbial cup of sugar from.”

The results have been positive, he said. Community members who have signed on become more active: they attend local meetings, they’re more likely to talk with neighbors, and they’re more engaged, active locals overall.

Though increasing community and civic engagement are common goals of nonprofit news organizations, Front Porch is actually a for-profit. It draws half of its revenue from local sponsorships, plus subscriptions from municipal entities and other institutions, as well as reader contributions. Wood-Lewis runs the company and employs three other full-time people.

Here’s how it works: Users register with a neighborhood-specific forum. (You can only belong to one, and you can’t post on other community forums.) Posts show up on the forum webpage and get delivered to users via email. The topics range from missing pets to stolen bikes to queries for goods and services. (Anybody know a good plumber?) Posts are not typically edited by Forum staff, but sometimes new headlines are added for ease of use. “It’s a little bit of a lot of things that add up to something different,” Wood-Lewis told me in explaining how he thinks of what they do. It’s not exactly a classifieds service, or a newspaper, but certainly provides elements of both.

For the grant, Wood-Lewis’ goals are threefold: rebuild the underlying software, expand across Vermont, and draw up a plan to expand to communities beyond Vermont. There’s already a waiting list of interested communities. The software project will be a major component of the project, with the end result (as Knight requires) being an open-source product.

I asked Wood-Lewis about how he sees Front Porch Forum fitting with the future of news. While he acknowledges the role local newspapers have traditionally played as community forums, he wouldn’t call his operation a news organization. “Our end-all be-all is not journalism,” he said. “But we are enhancing an audience for journalism,” arguing more engaged community members are more likely to consume local news.

June 21 2010

17:30

Hacks/Hackers, Mozilla team up for Peer-to-Peer course

One of the standing features of Knight’s Future of News and Civic Media conference is an award for collaborations that arise during the conference. And one winner this year was Hacks/Hackers — the journalists-and-programmers Meetup-group-turned-veritable-movement — and Mozilla, the open-source-oriented nonprofit. Together, the two groups will create a course through Peer-to-Peer University, with the aim of collective eduction: the hackers teaching the journos, and vice versa.

“We thought this was a perfect fit with Hacks and Hackers,” says Burt Herman, the group’s founder. “We have journalists teaching technology people about what that is, and the technology people teaching journalists.” The class fits in perfectly with that mission, he told me. “I think everybody is coming more and more to the realization that you need both sides of this to make something that works. It’s about great reporting, great writing, photos, video, content — coupled with amazing technology and innovation to help reporting and to present this to audiences.”

The class will be a six-week commitment, with one hour a week of lectures and one project. It will cover a broad range of topics, and instructors will (tentatively) include NYT interactive guru and Hacks/Hackers honcho Aron Pilhofer, Amanda Hickman (teaching about mapping), and David Cohn (instructing students on online collaboration). “And we’ve talked to a bunch of other Knight News Challenge winners about doing classes each week on data journalism, on online collaboration, on new business models for news,” Herman says. So “we’re looking forward to getting some interesting people…doing some training things. Which people have definitely asked for — on both sides.”

So what’s the ultimate goal — of the course, and of Hacks/Hackers more broadly? “The vision for Hacks and Hackers is to go beyond just Meetups, and to have people collaborating and doing things,” Herman says. (See, for example, last month’s KQED Hackathon, through which developer/journo teams built 12 new iPad apps in a period of 48 hours.) “Maybe people start companies out of these collaborations, maybe this is where new news organizations are born, or ideas that can help feed innovation,” Herman says. “Because it’s sort of outside any one news organization, that means we have the freedom to do what we want to — and that’s really what you need to innovate.”

17:00

Knight News Challenge: How will Marines use new social media rules to tell the story of Afghanistan?

The U.S. Marine Corps lifted its ban on social media tools like Twitter and Facebook earlier this year. One Knight News Challenge Winner, Teru Kuwayama, wants to chronicle what that new policy means, and perhaps even change the way the U.S. receives and consumes news about war.

Kuwayama is a photojournalist who has spent the last nine years photographing Afghanistan as a freelance journalist. (He spent this last year at Stanford as a Knight Fellow.) His idea is an outgrowth of his experiences documenting the war and his frustration with the coverage that results from quick embed stints by professional journalists. The opportunity for Marines to use new tools to share information has the potential to give the public a better understanding of an important story. At the same time, he hopes to set up an infrastructure for reporters to connect better with the military, improving stories before they go out, and giving soldiers a chance at feedback.

I spoke with Kuwayama about his plans for the $202,000 grant. He says he departs for Afghanistan this September, joining the 1st Battalion, Eighth Marines (hence the name of his project, One-Eight) for the duration of their tour, which should last seven months, but could extend up to a year. He’ll rotate in other journalists during the project for shorter periods. He expects those reporters will also produce work for their own outlets. Kuwayama is still working out some questions around his project — like to what extent he’s documenting how the marines are using social media, versus fostering that use, or repackaging their content for the public.

14:00

Knight News Challenge: GoMap Riga won’t make much new, just (hopefully) make things work better

The lines between news, civic engagement, and crowdsourcing blur for one of the 2010 Knight News Challenge winners. A project called GoMap Riga wants to build a more active community (in this case in Riga, Latvia) by combining preexisting local communications — like tweets, Facebook wall posts, and news stories — on an interactive map, putting content in geographic context and fostering local engagement.

Perhaps that sounds more confusing than it should. Imagine a tool that pulls in a variety of content and plots it where it happened — a news story, a tweet, or an idea for a project. It doesn’t matter what it is. A user can also directly post a video, a photo, or text. Then community members can discuss the item within the context of the interactive map. The goal is to bring a community together around ideas, projects, and places by weaving together all of the tools we already use. If the tools are working together, they’ll be better tools, and so will the surrounding community.

“Honestly, we’re not innovating the world of journalism right now,” co-winner Kristofs Blaus told me. “What we’re trying to do is empower these existing things to work better.”

Blaus and his business partner Marcis Rubenis received a $250,000 Knight News Challenge grant to build out this idea. They’re starting in Riga, their home city, and hope to see it spread to other cities.

They stressed that they’re developing this project in response to user requests and feedback; they’ve used a meeting format called DoTalk to run the discussion, taking in ideas. And like several other KNC winners this year, they’ll use technology from a previous KNC winner — in their case, using Adrian Holovaty’s EveryBlock tech to pull in local news content on their interactive map.

Here’s a brief introduction to the project from Blaus and Rubenis:

June 16 2010

19:00

Knight News Challenge: Order in the Court 2.0 wants to welcome the judiciary branch to the digital age

The debate over cameras in the Supreme Court is longstanding these days — but what about technology in courtrooms all over the country? One Knight News Challenge winner this year, Order in the Court 2.0, wants to bring new media to the judiciary.

I spoke with the man behind the idea, John Davidow, executive editor in charge of WBUR.org, the remarkable website for one of Boston’s public radio stations. Davidow said that the idea is to get the third branch of government to travel the same path to digital transparency that the legislative and executive branches have begun to do. Davidow said the court system has, by and large, continued to operate under the same video and audio recording standards it adopted in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The courts have sort of gone further and further way from the public and public access. In the old days, they were built in the center of town,” he told me. “The community was able to walk into the courts and see what was going on. Modern life has done away with that. The bridge that was going in between the courts and the public was the media. The media has just less resources.”

Davidow’s idea, which Knight awarded $250,000, is to use one courthouse as a laboratory, out of which will come a set of best practices and case studies for courtrooms across the country to reference. The test kitchen is the Quincy District Court here in Massachusetts, a courthouse Davidow described as ideal: Its chief judge is open to the idea, and the courthouse has a tradition of dabbling in new technologies. It’s also one of the busiest courthouses in the state, so it should also serve as a good model for even large courthouses.

I asked Davidow about how his idea differs from existing efforts to use new media in courthouses across the county. He explained that the problem is consistency: Decisions about new media decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, not systematically. Some judges make decisions based on space, others on whether a particular technology will disturb the court. The outcome is mixed: Yes, bloggers, you may cover the Scooter Libby trial, but, no Rod Blagojevich, you may not tweet during your trial. Davidow is also concerned about how many courthouses do not use new media themselves, not even making the daily docket available online.

Davidow hopes that a set of standards could help make new media and technologies that foster transparency and openness become just another normal part of the courthouse. One of the most interesting ways he thinks he’ll be able to achieve systematic success is through a broad network of stakeholders, already pieced together. “When I started formulating this, I made an awful lot of calls,” he told me. “I was fortunate enough to to find a conference of chief court information officers. They’re working on this same exact issue. They’re all trying to figure it out nationally.” The Conference of Court Public Information Officers has agreed to release a report at the end of the project, providing a framework for courts to handle new media questions. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judiciary-Media Committee, composed of both journalists and judges, voted unanimously to support this project. Boston University’s School of Communication has volunteered to train “civic journalists” and court personnel. Our friends at Harvard’s Citizen Media Law Project, just down the street from the Lab, have also agreed to help.

Courts move slowly, and Davidow is prepared to face that challenge: “The term deliberation means something,” he joked. But with his test kitchen going, and many stakeholders supporting his effort, he hopes to get courthouses moving in a new media direction.

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