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February 10 2012

18:00

Still shaping the way people think about news innovation? A few reflections on the new KNC 2.0

As someone who probably has spent more time thinking about the Knight News Challenge than anyone outside of Knight Foundation headquarters — doing a dissertation on the subject will do that to you! — I can’t help but follow its evolution, even after my major research ended in 2010. And evolve it has: from an initial focus on citizen journalism and bloggy kinds of initiatives (all the rage circa 2007, right?) to a later emphasis on business models, visualizations, and data-focused projects (like this one) — among a whole host of other projects including news games, SMS tools for the developing world, crowdsourcing applications, and more.

Now, after five years and $27 million in its first incarnation, Knight News Challenge 2.0 has been announced for 2012, emphasizing speed and agility (three contests a year, eight-week turnarounds on entries) and a new topical focus (the first round is focused on leveraging existing networks). While more information will be coming ahead of the February 27 launch, here are three questions to chew on now.

Does the Knight News Challenge still dominate this space?

The short answer is yes (and I’m not just saying that because, full disclosure, the Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Lab). As I’ve argued before, in the news innovation scene, at this crossroads of journalism and technology communities, the KNC has served an agenda-setting kind of function — perhaps not telling news hipsters what to think regarding the future of journalism, but rather telling them what to think about. So while folks might disagree on the Next Big Thing for News, there’s little question that the KNC has helped to shape the substance and culture of the debate and the parameters in which it occurs.

Some evidence for this comes from the contest itself: Whatever theme/trend got funded one year would trigger a wave of repetitive proposals the next. (As Knight said yesterday: “Our concern is that once we describe what we think we might see, we receive proposals crafted to meet our preconception.”)

And yet the longer answer to this question is slightly more nuanced. When the KNC began in 2006, with the first winners named in 2007, it truly was the only game in town — a forum for showing “what news innovation looks like” unlike any other. Nowadays, a flourishing ecosystem of websites (ahem, like this one), aggregators (like MediaGazer), and social media platforms is making the storyline of journalism’s reboot all the more apparent. It’s easier than ever to track who’s trying what, which experiments are working, and so on — and seemingly in real time, as opposed to a once-a-year unveiling. Hence the Knight Foundation’s move to three quick-fire contests a year, “as we try to bring our work closer to Internet speed.”

How should we define the “news” in News Challenge?

One of the striking things I found in my research (discussed in a previous Lab post) was that Knight, in its overall emphasis, has pivoted away from focusing mostly on journalism professionalism (questions like “how do we train/educate better journalists?”) and moved toward a broader concern for “information.” This entails far less regard for who’s doing the creating, filtering, or distributing — rather, it’s more about ensuring that people are informed at the local community level. This shift from journalism to information, reflected in the Knight Foundation’s own transformation and its efforts to shape the field, can be seen, perhaps, like worrying less about doctors (the means) and more about public health (the ends) — even if this pursuit of health outcomes sometimes sidesteps doctors and traditional medicine along the way.

This is not to say that Knight doesn’t care about journalism. Not at all. It still pours millions upon millions of dollars into clearly “newsy” projects — including investigative reporting, the grist of shoe-leather journalism. Rather, this is about Knight trying to rejigger the boundaries of journalism: opening them up to let other fields, actors, and ideas inside.

So, how should you define “news” in your application? My suggestion: broadly.

What will be the defining ethos of KNC 2.0?

This is the big, open, and most interesting question to me. My research on the first two years of KNC 1.0, using a regression analysis, found that contest submissions emphasizing participation and distributed knowledge (like crowdsourcing) were more likely to advance, all things being equal. My followup interviews with KNC winners confirmed this widely shared desire for participation — a feeling that the news process not only could be shared with users, but in fact should be.

I called this an “ethic of participation,” a founding doctrine of news innovation that challenges journalism’s traditional norm of professional control. But perhaps, to some extent, that was a function of the times, during the roughly 2007-2010 heyday of citizen media, with the attendant buzz around user-generated content as the hot early-adopter thing in news — even if news organizations then, as now, struggled to reconcile and incorporate a participatory audience. Even while participation has become more mainstream in journalism, there are still frequent flare-ups, like this week’s flap over breaking news on Twitter, revealing enduring tensions at the “collision of two worlds — when a hierarchical media system in the hands of the few collides with a networked media system open to all,” as Alfred Hermida wrote.

So what about this time around? Perhaps KNC 2.0 will have an underlying emphasis on Big Data, algorithms, news apps, and other things bubbling up at the growing intersection of computer science and journalism. It’s true that Knight is already underwriting a significant push in this area through the (also just-revised) Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project (formerly called the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership — which Nikki Usher and I have written about for the Lab). To what extent is there overlap or synergy here? OpenNews, for 2012, is trying to build on the burgeoning “community around code” in journalism — leveraging the momentum of Hacks/Hackers, NICAR, and ONA with hackfests, code-swapping, and online learning. KNC 2.0, meanwhile, talks about embracing The Hacker Way described by Mark Zuckerberg — but at the same time backs away a bit from its previous emphasis on open source as a prerequisite. It’ll be interesting to see how computational journalism — explained well in this forthcoming paper (PDF here) by Terry Flew et al. in Journalism Practice — figures into KNC 2.0.

Regardless, the Knight News Challenge is worth watching for what it reveals about the way people — journalists and technologists, organizations and individuals, everybody working in this space — talk about and make sense of “news innovation”: what it means, where it’s taking us, and why that matters for the future of journalism.

May 18 2010

16:00

Mediagazer: From zero to big traffic driver in just two short months

Last week we were perusing our Google Analytics report here at the Lab and one data point stood out: A site barely two months old had inched into our top 10 referring sites for the previous month. Checking today, it’s up into our top five, passing up many more traditional traffic drivers.

The site is Mediagazer, the media-focused offshoot of the popular technology site Techmeme, and like its sibling it combines editors and an algorithm to gather the best stories on its subject from around the web. On Monday, Mediagazer debuted a feature called Leaderboard (it came first to Techmeme) which ranks news-about-news sources in terms of their prominence on Mediagazer. (We fare well on it, but I swear that’s not why we’re interested.)

I spoke with the site’s editor Megan McCarthy about how the site became a traffic-driver so quickly. McCarthy credits the site’s addictive quality: People arrive via the online equivalent of word of mouth, like social media, and once they’re there, a hefty (though undisclosed) percentage keep coming back. The site already has a core readership that checks in every day, McCarthy said. Mediagazer refreshes every five minutes, thanks to the algorithm searching the web for new content getting linked by other sites; meanwhile, McCarthy is trolling the web for links the algorithm might not have seen yet and prioritizing the ones it has. On a typical day, Mediagazer links to about 40 stories. (McCarthy would not disclose monthly traffic statistics.)

Mediagazer isn’t entering an empty space; from Romenesko to our own Twitter feed, there are plenty of people sorting through the media news of the day. Mediagazer’s scope is broader than, say, ours, including things like new TV lineups and media criticism we wouldn’t cover. Mediagazer joins the other sites run by Techmeme: political news at Memeorandum, celebrity gossip at WeSmirch, and baseball at BallBug, although those three sites are purely automated with no human intervention.

The site is also active on Twitter, sending out the links it posts, with the tweak of including the personal Twitter handle of the author who wrote the post, as you can see above. (The tweet attribution is automated, but requires a one-time setup process with the help of the human.) McCarthy said they want to let journalists know about Mediagazer — I certainly noticed the @ mentions showing up in my Twitter feed — and they want to give readers another opportunity to drill down into a subject area of interest.

“I want anyone who looks at the site to know, not only what’s going on [in the media industry], but what’s going to happen,” McCarthy said.

The combination of links, frequent updates, and obsessive readers seems to create the kind of place that active tweeters and bloggers would stop by. That target audience is clear in the kind of advertisements Mediagazer serves — they seem to be primarily from companies that provide software services to bloggers. It also probably explains why we’re seeing so many Mediagazer readers coming our way.

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