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March 30 2012

11:00

The Awesome News Taskforce in Detroit Grows Up

The Awesome News Taskforce Detroit recently had their very first deliberation meeting to choose the winner of their first $1,000 grant. I listened in from my room in Somerville, Mass., 718 miles away.

We've come a long way since my first trip to Detroit in August to sow the seeds for the Awesome News Taskforce project.

On that first trip, I met with as many people doing interesting projects as I could to tell them about our plans, get feedback, and also to learn more about the core issues that shape the city. On the next trip, I interviewed candidates for the Dean of Awesome position and ended up hiring Marshalle Montgomery, a superwoman facilitator, organizer and filmmaker.

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Marshalle and I have worked together since to bring together a passionate, diverse and multi-talented group of trustees to form the core of the Awesome News Taskforce, and I couldn't be more proud of the results. We ended up with a group of 20 trustees who hail from every corner of the metro Detroit area with backgrounds ranging from ethnic media to founding hacker spaces. Over the course of the next month, we're blogging short profiles of all the trustees here -- two of them are up already!

creating an alternative community

The Awesome News Taskforce project is, uniquely, not about making new tech or producing a new type of story. It's about creating an alternative community for people -- journalists and non-journalists alike -- to learn how to shape their own media landscapes together. So our equivalent of that magical moment where your code passes all the tests was the first deliberation, the first time that these individuals who were bound not by professional obligation but by a love of their city came together to discuss what they want to see more of. They discussed the feasibility, impact and implementation of the 45 projects that were submitted in this first cycle.

But in classic Awesome Foundation tradition, they also talked about excitement, joy and wonder. And the best part? I chimed in once or twice, but for the most part they did their own thing.

It's a wonderful feeling for an instigator of a group like this to be obsoleted so quickly!

So what project ended up with the money? It's a secret for now, but we'll be announcing it at the first Awesome News Taskforce Detroit party at the Virgil H. Carr Cultural Center at 6-8 p.m. this Friday. I'll give you a hint, though: It's pretty awesome.

December 28 2011

15:20

Idea Lab: Year in Review 2011

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It's been an eventful year on MediaShift's Idea Lab, marked by mergers, beta releases and site redesigns for the many innovators in digital media. This past year also saw the Knight Foundation announce 16 winners of its News Challenge contest, up from 12 grantees in 2010 -- and the total prize money hit $4.7 million, thanks in part to a $1 million contribution from Google.

A couple of themes that ran big among the winners this year were data and mobile. We saw the rise of the hacker-journalist, and many projects were focused on making sense of the stream of data -- think PANDA, ScraperWiki, OpenBlock Rural, Overview, SwiftRiver and DocumentCloud.

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We also saw new interpretations of journalism, such as NextDrop, a mobile platform that helps people in India find out when water is available; Poderopedia, a crowdsourced database that visualizes the relationships among Chile's elite; and the Awesome Foundation, which not only has an awesome name, but is using mini-grants to give others a chance to start up projects of their own.

Here's a look back at just some of the highlights on Idea Lab in 2011.

Just out of beta

Several Knight News Challenge winners announced considerable strides in their projects. The PANDA project, which aims to make basic data analysis quick and easy for news organizations, pushed out a first, and then a second, alpha, adding a login/registration system, dataset search, and complex query support, among other features. It has also been working to integrate directly with fellow News Challenge winner ScraperWiki. "This is speculative at the moment, but has the potential to make the API useful even to novice developers who might not be entirely comfortable writing shell scripts or cron jobs," explained PANDA's Christopher Groskopf.

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In December, LocalWiki, a 2010 Knight News Challenge winner, announced the first major release of its new LocalWiki software and launched its first focus community, serving Denton, Texas. The LocalWiki project is an ambitious effort to create community-owned, living information repositories that will provide much-needed context behind the people, places, and events that shape our communities.

In addition, SocMap.com, another 2010 Knight News Challenge winner, launched a "tweets" and "places" features on its site, along with plans to debut "local initiatives," "local questions," and a city-planning game in early 2012. And the Cartoonist, which aims to bring newsgames to the masses, showed off a working prototype of the Cartoonist engine for the first time during a demo day hosted by a Georgia Tech research center.

m&a alive and well

There's been no shortage of examples of innovation on Idea Lab, and innovation can, and did this year, lead to acquisitions. Spot.Us, a journalism crowdfunding project that was launched in November of 2008, announced that it was acquired by the Public Insight Network, which is part of American Public Media. "I hope that as Spot.Us and PIN merge, we can continue to push the boundaries in transparency and participation in the process of journalism so that media organizations can better serve the public," Spot.Us founder David Cohn wrote in a post announcing the acquisition.

And earlier in the year, DocumentCloud announced that it had found a long-term home for its project. The startup, which is a catalog of primary source documents and a tool for annotating, organizing and publishing them on the web, merged operations with Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), a non-profit grassroots organization committed to fostering excellence in investigative journalism. "IRE has a long and established history of supporting investigative reporting, and we'll be a proud part of their ongoing work to provide journalists with tools that support their reporting," Amanda Hickman, DocumentCloud's former program director, announced.

hacking away

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The end of September brought with it a four-day hackathon in Berlin organized by Knight-Mozilla, and bringing together programmers and journalists from all over the world. Dan Sinker, who heads up the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership for Mozilla, wrote about the event, which jokingly became known as "Hacktoberfest," and followed up with some reflections on data journalism and opportunities for learning.

Just weeks later, Zeega participated in WFMU's Radiovision Festival, where creative developers and digital storytellers came together for a day of hacking and coding called "Re-Inventing Radio." At the festival, Zeega shared an ultra-early alpha version of its Zeega editor and three projects for people to experiment with.

Brought to you live

In November, we decided to host a live chat on Twitter on the use of SMS and texting technology by journalists, news organizations, radio shows and more. MobileActive's Melissa Ulbricht and Sean McDonald of FrontlineSMS were two Knight News Challenge winners who participated in the live chat, in an effort to explain how services and projects are using SMS to help connect people to important news and information in communities where Internet access is limited.

MobileActive released its Mobile Media Toolkit earlier this year, which provides how-to guides, wireless tools, and case studies on how mobile phones are being used for reporting, news broadcasting, and citizen media.

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awards and accolades

A key lesson learned this year was that bigger doesn't necessarily mean better when it comes to new media. The Tiziano Project beat out both CNN and NPR at the 2011 Online Journalism Awards, taking home the Community Collaboration award for its project 360 Kurdistan -- an immersive, nonlinear platform for exploring the culture of the region from the perspectives of both local and professional journalists.

The 2011 award from the Knight Foundation will help the Tiziano Project further develop the 360 technology into a scalable platform that other organizations can use, according to Jon Vidar, the project's executive director. "We will then curate these future 360s on an interactive map and develop a communication layer that will sit on top, allowing visitors to participate in a universal dialog with our students," he wrote in a post.

And November saw Knight-Mozilla announce its 2011/12 News Technology fellows. ScraperWiki's Nicola Hughes and Dan Schultz, a 2007 Knight News Challenge winner and tech wizard extraordinaire for our MediaShift and Idea Lab sites, were two of the innovators who were selected to participate in helping newsrooms around the world develop prototypes for digitally delivering news and information.

No doubt there will be more fantastic innovations and awards to come in 2012! We're looking forward to sharing them with you here on Idea Lab.

June 27 2011

16:00

More Awesome: News Challenge grantee Awesome Foundation wants to fund journalism at the micro level

There’s something inherently meta about the Awesome Foundation winning a grant from the Knight Foundation in order to…give grants. Also, something kinda awesome.

The Awesome Foundation: News Task Force, a winner of this year’s Knight News Challenge, wants to seed hundreds of projects to encourage new ventures in news and information for communities.

In essence, they’ll be acting as a mini-Knight Foundation, offering up support for journalism entrepreneurship and reinvention, one micro-grant at a time. Using the two-year, $244,000 grant, the Awesome Foundation’s new Institute on Higher Awesome Studies will specifically fund local journalism programs, events, apps, and prototypes.

But the news task force will be an experiment in how best to funding new media projects, as much as an exercise in supporting innovation. New funding models are on Knight’s collective mind these days, with the Knight News Challenge wrapping up and the foundation planning its next steps.

“We can help a foundation like Knight give money away in smaller increments to we can see what’s working and not working,” said Christina Xu, who will be overseeing the news task force project.

Tim Hwang, the founder of the Awesome Foundation, told me their structure, as much as there is one, is designed to build community and find the most effective uses for grants. “The Awesome Foundation proper is not a foundation at all,” Hwang said. “It’s an agreement between groups of 10 people to give money to cool projects.”

The Awesome Foundation model, small grants awarded in a quick fashion, is a departure from how nonprofit institutional support traditionally works in journalism, with multi-year, multi-zero checks. While that method certainly has its merits, the Awesome model, Hwang said, produces quicker results and can show whether a project is feasible. Ideally what the task force will do is combine the best of both worlds, making an Awesome Knight Foundation of sorts.

“One of the things we’re interested in, this project is an interesting experiment in bridging the gap from emerging platforms and foundations,” Hwang said.

Until now the Awesome Foundation’s work has primarily been more general purpose, focusing on geography, with chapters in cities around the U.S. and the world. Xu said following last year’s earthquakes in Haiti, the foundation wanted to find ways to broaden their kind of philanthropy. That took shape in the Institute on Higher Awesome Studies, which, while still being awesome, would try to direct funds to more serious causes. Xu said the News Challenge goals for community information were a good fit with the types of proposals the Awesome Foundation receives.

The task force will first set up shop in Detroit and, following Awesome Foundation protocol, they’ll hire a “Dean of Awesome” who will act as a local administrator. The dean, with help from Knight, will identify 10-15 members of the community coming from media, government, technology or civic groups, who will serve as trustees, the group ultimately responsible for awarding grants. Xu said the project could be expanded in a similar model to cities like New Orleans and Miami. Aside from the cost of a stipend for the local administrator the bulk of the money from Knight would be used for grants.

The most obvious difference between the foundations Awesome and Knight is scale, which is something the news task force will try to use to its advantage as it provides grants. Xu and Hwang said the size of grants and the scope of work will attract an audience that may have gone under Knight’s radar. But the other benefit of scale could be the creation of a farm system for journalism and information ideas. After landing a task force microgrant, finessing a proposal or building a beta, the next possible step could be a larger grant from the Knight Foundation, Xu said.

“In the future, [microgrant winners] could be a great pool to be funded, something the Knight News Challenge might want to fund later on,” she said.

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