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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.

October 27 2010

14:00

Metrics, impact, and business plans: Things to watch for as the Knight News Challenge enters a new cycle

In recent years, it’s been something of a parlor game in future-of-journalism circles to speculate about the $25 million Knight News Challenge: Who’s going to win this year? What are the judges looking for, exactly? And, whoa, how on earth did that finalist get passed up? (On that last question, see CoPress in 2009; e.g., read the comments on this post.)

The buzz and chatter are mostly just idle guesswork, and of course it’s all to be expected when serious money (think: $5 million for MIT, $1 million for EveryBlock) is on the line. (Indeed, there’s an extra $1 million on the table this year, thanks to Google’s donation to journalism innovation announced yesterday.)

So, that’s why this year, the fifth installment of the Knight News Challenge, already feels a little different. In years past, the Knight Foundation has approached the News Challenge with a “hey, we’re not the experts — you tell us what’s innovative” kind of attitude, purposefully leaving the door open to just about any submission, assuming that it met certain basic requirements of geographic community focus, open-source software, and so on. With the exception of some tweaking along the way, the general focus of the News Challenge remained the same: to stimulate innovation in the name of making communities better informed. Simple enough.

But this year, even though the KNC’s general pitch remains the same, applicants will make their submissions in one of four categories: Mobile, Authenticity, Sustainability, or Community. Only the Community category requires a place-based geographical focus, which marks a significant break from previous cycles where all projects had to be tested in a local community. Overall, the categorization scheme lends some direction — even a certain narrowing — of the contest, and it suggests that Knight has learned a few things over the past four years that it’s going to apply in this final go-round, to get a more focused pool of contenders.

And that’s where this post comes in, on the question of lessons learned. At the risk of contributing more baseless speculation to this parlor game, I’d like to share some insights I gained during the past year as I examined the News Challenge — and the Knight Foundation more generally — for my doctoral dissertation at the University of Texas. (I’m now a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota.)

For starters, you can read the full text of my dissertation (“Journalism Innovation and the Ethic of Participation: A Case Study of the Knight Foundation and its News Challenge“) by going here, or by reading the embedded Scribd file below. If you’re looking for the highlights, skip to page 182 and read the last chapter (Participation and the Professions). Quick tip: This is generally a good way to go when trying to interpret academic articles — look for that “discussion and conclusion” section toward the end.

I described some of my key findings in an earlier Lab post. But with regard to the changes in the KNC for 2011, here are several observations from my time studying the Knight Foundation that might fill in some of the context:

Knight cares intensely about evaluation

This is increasingly true of all nonprofit foundations, really — not just the Knight Foundation. But it was striking to see the extent to which the foundation is working to assess the impact and effectiveness of its funding efforts, through an ongoing “deep review” of its mission and goals. A major part of this review: an examination of the Knight News Challenge after its first three cycles (2007-09). This included a massive content analysis of nearly all proposal documents — resulting in a data set that I analyzed as my part of my project (see Chapter 6 of my dissertation) — and interviews, conducted by outside consultants, with many KNC grantees. At one level, there’s the basic assessment of seeing if grantees’ outcomes matched their goals. At another, there is the big question of reach and influence. For nonprofits funding myriad online sites, as Knight does, at least part of that means reviewing web metrics: traffic, unique visitors, etc. All foundations want metrics to justify their investment — and now more than ever.

So, what does this emphasis on evaluation mean for News Challenge applicants this year? Well, it suggests that in a world where user behaviors are easier to track and analyze than ever before, and thus funders of all stripes (for-profit and nonprofit alike) are hungry for good numbers, having a plan for web metrics — for reaching quantifiable and identifiable targets — is probably going to be more important than in previous cycles.

Is this the News Challenge on SEO steroids? Not exactly, but you get the idea. And this gets to the second point, which is…

Is citizen journalism out? Are business models (and the like) in?

There was an interesting quote in recent coverage of KNC changes that got some attention. It was from Jennifer 8. Lee, a Knight consultant and contest reviewer:

We’re not totally into the citizen journalism thing anymore. It has been given its chance to do its thing and kind of didn’t do its thing that well.

Now, Lee was quick to clarify that she was speaking only for herself, and that the KNC is open to citizen media approaches — just not the kind of generic and repetitive pitches that have populated the pool of applicants recently (think: Flip cams for urban youth):

The contest welcomes content or citizen journalism projects. Innovative content or community reporting models can and do get funded…Since innovation is a core value of the contest, traditional content and citizen journalism projects lacking in innovation were generally not looked upon favorably by contest reviewers.

But, nonetheless, this statement is telling because it gets at a key focus of my dissertation: how Knight has dealt with participation in journalism. In my study of the first three years of the News Challenge, I found that the foundation and its KNC winners championed citizen participation in the news process as something that should happen, not merely something that could happen because of new technologies. Participation was portrayed as an ethic of good journalism in the digital age, a foundational piece of journalism innovation.

So, does that square with the notion of we’re not so into citizen journalism anymore? Perhaps there’s a better way to think about this: Knight has already funded lots of citizen media projects, and the evidence — based on my interviews with KNC winners and overall analysis — suggests that many of these sites struggled to build and maintain a base of users. On the one hand, that’s perfectly understandable: Some of these projects were meant to be short-term in duration; Knight knew many of them would fail, because that’s the nature of innovation; and, hey, in the attention economy, it’s tough for any content provider these days, right? Yet, on the other hand, this struggle to get attention — from citizen contributors and audiences alike — was a formidable challenge for many of the early KNC projects, and, well, it just so happened that many of those early projects happened to be citizen media sites. As a result, citizen journalism comes off looking like a failure, even if the motivation behind it was well intentioned and still well regarded in Knight circles.

The lesson here: Going forward, with this ramped-up emphasis on evaluation and impact, and with apparent concerns about citizen journalism’s sustainability, it would seem that Knight wants to see applicants with a clearer path to success, especially in web metrics. Or, perhaps there’s another way to read this: In a media ecosystem awash in sites pushing content — read our blogs! watch our videos! — with less thought about how that content gets subsidized on a regular basis, Knight wants a better business plan. It wants a sustainable model. After all, there’s a reason it hired a director of business consulting.

David Sasaki, of the 2007 KNC winner Rising Voices, might have captured this problem best in this prescient blog post from 2008:

The Knight Foundation is single-handedly making citizen media both more serious and more respected by giving financial support to some of the field’s most innovative thinkers. But is this a sustainable model for the transformation of media? What happens when the News Challenge’s five-year funding period concludes? All of the News Challenge grantee projects are impressive, innovative, and important, but not a single one is turning a profit, nor do they seem poised to any time soon.

What happens to the “news” in News Challenge?

This is a truly intriguing and as-yet-unanswered question going into this final cycle. The five-year funding period Sasaki described is coming to an end. What comes next?

On the one hand, the News Challenge has proved a successful template for Knight’s growing network of prize-philanthropy challenge contests, and it represents the foundation’s most visible link to its historic roots as a “journalism foundation” with close ties to the industry and its concerns. But, as I pointed out previously, Knight is undergoing a shift in emphasis from “news” to “information” as a way of broadening the boundaries of journalism to accomplish innovation with outside help from other fields and philanthropic funders. The most obvious manifestation of this is the Knight Community Information Challenge, which involves partnering with place-based foundations to meet the “information needs” of local communities.

What becomes, then, of the News Challenge? Is there a renewal of some kind — and if so, does it keep the “journalism” tag? Or does the Community Information Challenge suffice in this space? Only time will tell, but the important thing here is to recognize that Knight has an increasingly nuanced view of journalism — one that sidesteps the “baggage” of professional exclusivity and proactively seeks ideas from other fields (say, the tech sector).

David Cohn, whose Spot.Us is one of the best-known KNC success stories, put it recently, in describing startups like Kommons:

As I’ve said before, we may not call it ‘journalism’ in the future, but if it still meets the news and information needs of a community, more power to it.

That, right there, nicely summarizes the feeling of the Knight Foundation: that it cares much more about the ends (i.e., informed communities) than the means (i.e., journalists and traditional news). How that translates into future challenges (or not) is left to be seen.

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.

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