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February 27 2012

22:09

New Knight News Challenge puts emphasis on pragmatists and builders

Now that the first new round of the Knight News Challenge is up and running there are a couple of things that seem to stand out, the biggest being the emphasis on speed and simplicity.

The speed part is not a surprise, given the fact that the $5 million innovation contest now takes place three times a year, with a gestation period of a little more than three months. (The application period runs from now till St. Patrick’s day. Winners are announced in June.) No, the interesting thing in today’s announcement was the dead simplicity of it all: A finished application will round out to about 450 words. And you can send it via Tumblr. (And, as you can see above, they’re also back with MOAR Michael Maness on the Internets. Also, a bewildered chihuahua.)

It seems like less of a start-up pitch session and more like a call for bids for a general contractor. And that may not be a bad thing.

As we’ve written before, Knight has a clear interest in improving the funding process for these projects. It has as much to do with their desire to get a social — or monetary — return in the investments they are making, as well as their mission to help transform journalism. What Knight is doing now is trying to shake out the best way to do that, and concise and complimentary are the guide words. Here’s John Bracken on the Knight blog:

We’re looking for ideas that build on the rise of these existing network events and tools — that deliver news and information and extend our understanding of the phenomenon. Anyone — businesses, nonprofits, individuals — can apply.

That’s why I come back to the contractor idea (that, or too much HGTV). What Knight is saying, especially with the networks theme, is don’t design us a house, just make a better kitchen. We don’t need architects and entrepreneurs, we want plumbers and engineers. I may be reading too much into the word “build,” but the application seem to emphasize clarity, skill and a focused knowledge, rather than a grand vision for saving journalism.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with entrepreneurs or visionaries, and by no stretch will the eventual winners not be big thinkers. But in streamlining their funding process, diversifying the funding mechanisms (grants, loans or investment capital are now on the table), and hanging the first challenge on the concept of networks, Knight is saying journalism needs people whose creative vision is critical and tempered with pragmatism. There’s no shortage of dreamers and thinkers wanting to tackle the big problems in journalism — and there probably never will be — but Knight appears to be designing a contest that can get builders working on the basics today.

Clock’s ticking. Make sure to read more about the application process before the March 17 deadline.

Disclaimer: The Knight Foundation is a funder of the Nieman Journalism Lab

February 09 2012

22:36

KNC 2.0: The Knight News Challenge revamps to quicken the pace of journalism innovation

Since last year we’ve known the Knight Foundation would be revamping their annual innovation contest to better meet the pace of change in technology and information. After completing its initial five-year run — which saw 12,000 applications and $27 million in funding to journalism and information projects — Knight said they would pull back and examine how they could continue to fund that kind of experimentation in the future.

Today we know a lot more about what that will look like. The biggest change is to the calendar: Instead of one big competition a year, there’ll be three in 2012. The new News Challenge is more topic-focused: Two of this year’s contests will seek projects on specific themes, with the third remaining a catchall. And Knight is going farther than ever before to widen the kinds of people who might apply: removing its requirement to open-source the project’s work and emphasizing it will take appeals from individuals, nonprofits, for-profits, and presumably any organizational structure on land or sea. (You can get an idea of the kind of, er, stylistic freedom they’re preaching in the 1992-fever-dream video above.)

The emphasis is on speed — competitions will last no more than 8-10 weeks each, rather than the October-to-June cycle of some previous iterations. The total amount of money at stake remains about the same as before: a total of $5 million in this first year of the new model, Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president of journalism and media innovation told me.

In the first installment of the new-look News Challenge, which opens Feb. 27 and closes on St. Patrick’s Day, the focus is on networks, a topic that’s purposefully broad. As they explained in the blog post introducing the new challenge:

There are a lot of vibrant networks and platforms, on- and off-line, that can be used to connect us with the news and information we need to make decisions about our lives. This challenge will not fund new networks. Rather, we’re asking you to describe ways you might use existing platforms to drive innovation in media and journalism.

When I asked Maness what that means, he said applicants should focus on how existing systems can be used to deliver information in new ways. Instead of coming to Knight with a pitch for the next Facebook, talk about how your proposal could use it better. “We’re saying there are already robust tools on the internet. Let’s use those,” Maness said. (Sorry, aspiring Zuckerbergs.)

For Knight, the networks that matter aren’t just your Facebooks and Twitters and Pinterests and LinkedIns. There’s also the network of Knight-funded projects, initiatives, and people. (A network that, full disclosure, includes this site, a Knight grantee.) Last year’s class of News Challenge winners included a number of projects that built on early News Challenge winners, and efforts like Knight’s “test kitchen” at Northwestern are aimed in part at assembling and recombining the pieces of other innovative efforts.

Other Knight grantees have long been a source of support and information for News Challenge winners, Maness said. But more broadly, those networks of existing technology and other platforms can be a stepping stone to success, and ultimately sustainability, he said. What Knight is saying, to a point, is your chances of making it increase if you aren’t starting from the ground floor, building something that might not have the momentum to survive once the funding runs out. “If something can grow and fend for itself it can have a broader impact,” Maness said.

By dropping the open-source requirement, Maness said the foundation can better help people on all ends of the spectrum, from early-stage projects to those that are already established. One example: a company that might need a nudge to get to the next level but don’t want to show their code just yet. But Maness said Knight still wants to encourage open-source development because that can help future projects and, on a philosophical level, is good for the web. “Ultimately our goal is social return on what we do, so [a project] has to be something that makes sense to what we’re trying to achieve,” he said.

The overarching message seems to be a desire to cast as wide a net as possible to spur innovation in journalism and community information. By pulling back on past restrictions, while emphasizing things like impact and scalability, Knight is also trying to be a smarter, more agile organization that can ensure a return (even if its not a monetary one) on their investments. In that same way, they also want to leverage the institutions, people, and technology that are already available in the world of journalism — especially those Knight helped lay the groundwork for.

And they want to do it fast — faster than a year at a time. “Over the course of five years, what started as being radical at the time…the speed of the Internet and disruption happened so much faster,” Maness said. “We wanted to focus on making a contest that was faster and more nimble.”

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.

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