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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 26 2010

17:00

Google donates $5 million for news innovation to Knight Foundation and new international efforts

Google and news organizations have had a rocky time of it. To overdramatize the situation only slightly: Google insists that it cares about journalism as a necessity of our shared democracy; news organizations resent it as a (perceived) key cause of the financial strife that keeps them from fully defending that democracy. Today, though, brings an olive branch — a multi-million-dollar olive branch: Google is announcing that it will donate $5 million to encourage innovation in digital journalism. The grant will come in two parts: $2 million of it will go to the Knight Foundation, the journalism mega-funder — and $3 million will go to fund international news-innovation efforts, via a partnership with an as-yet-unannounced organization.

A peace offering for innovation

“Google has been pretty clear about the fact that we want to do our part to help fulfill the promise of journalism in the digital age,” says Chris Gaither, Google’s senior manager for news industry relations. And while, on the one hand, today’s grant is part of Google’s larger work in philanthropy — as policy, the company commits one percent of its profits and equity toward charitable efforts — it’s also a way for the organization to put some money where its mouth is when it comes to its relations with journalism. “In addition to all the business partnerships and business relationships that we have with news companies,” Gaither told me, “we also wanted to try to encourage innovation at a more grassroots level.”

The $2 million to Knight will be loosely divided: $1 million or so will go toward augmenting the Knight News Challenge, the foundation’s innovation contest, which will divvy up $6 million in grants this cycle instead of the usual $5 million. In its five years of operation, Gaither notes, the News Challenge has supported projects like DocumentCloud and Spot.us — projects that innovate not just the products of journalism, but the process of it — “and we thought it was a really interesting initiative to try to support.” The other $1 million or so will go toward Knight’s broad fund for grant-making, to encourage general innovation in digital journalism. And while Google and Knight, in the conversations leading up to today’s announcement, have discussed their shared goals and interests in the news-innovation space — business models to aid sustainability, new platforms for news, and digital skills training, in particular — ultimately, it’s Knight that will be making the decisions as to who gets funding.

“It’s really quite a wonderful — not just a wonderful endorsement, but a wonderful encouragement,” says Alberto Ibargüen, Knight’s president. “Because they’re not saying, ‘We want you to do X, Y, and Z projects.’ They’re saying, ‘We want you to continue the kind of work you’ve been doing — except do more of it.’”

While the $2 million for Knight will expand the funding of its existing efforts, the details of how the $3 million for international journalism innovation will be spent are still being worked out. Google expects to announce the details of that collaboration early next year. “We’re really eager to do even more internationally than what the Knight News Challenge provides for, so we’re going to be investing the remaining $3 million in journalism projects in other countries,” Gaither says.

The value of collaboration

So, for Google, why go the funding-partnership route, rather than simply funding nonprofits directly — or, for that matter, starting its own News Challenge-y contest? “We really see ourselves as a platform for discovery,” Gaither says, “and it’s important to us that we remain independent. [Google CEO] Eric Schmidt and other executives have made pretty clear over the years that we are not content creators.” Instead, “we have a symbiotic relationship with content creators, where we really help with discovery and monetization and other things,” he notes. Ultimately, “we do our thing, they do their thing.”

And, for that end, Knight was a good match — which is why Google made the overture to the foundation in the first place. “In this particular space, Knight is an expert,” Gaither said. “Knight has already been funding and trying to promote innovation in digital journalism for a while now — so they seemed like a perfect partner to pair up with for this one.” There’s also the fact that the newly articulated focus areas of the News Challenge — mobile, sustainability, authenticity (trust and reputation), and community — match nicely with Google’s broad goals when it comes to information. “We think that organizations of all shapes and sizes can really benefit from the grants that we’ll be providing,” Gaither says. And then there’s the organizations’ shared emphasis on scalability, impact, and open-sourcing. (Knight requires that its News Challenge winners open-source their code and generally make their platforms open and available to the public.) “We really try to encourage people to release things as widely as possible when it’s appropriate for their business,” Gaither notes. “And in this case, we think that’s a cool requirement that Knight has — and it’s something that we wanted to support, as well.”

For Ibargüen, the grant — in addition to providing extra funding, of course — is a validation of one of Knight’s core approaches to grant-making and to, even more broadly, the future of news itself: teamwork. “One of the reasons I’m so pleased by this is that so much of what we’re doing really requires collaboration,” Ibargüen notes. “To have a company like Google volunteer collaboration is not merely gratifying; it also really confirms the way to work.” The news space, he says, “is an area where collaboration really pays dividends. And I’m glad that the folks at Google agree.”

[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab.]

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