Knight News Challenge Reaches Out to Tech, Business Communities with Extended Deadline

With two weeks left in an unexpectedly late deadline, the 2010 Knight News Challenge is still looking for a few (thousand) good ideas to help save journalism.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, sponsor of the 5-year contest which awards up to $5 million a year for innovative news and information projects, surprised many earlier this fall by postponing the 2010 competition’s cut-off date only days ahead of the original October 15 deadline.

The two-month delay, until Dec. 15, raised obvious questions within the journalism community. More than 2,300 proposals were submitted for the 2009 competition, the third year of the Challenge. Were there fewer submissions or fewer good submissions this year leading organizers to have to extend the entry period?

“No,” according to Gary Kebbel, journalism program officer for Knight. At the time the deadline was extended, entries “were running way ahead of where we were the year before,” he said.

Instead, Kebbel explained in an interview before Thanksgiving, the extension had more to do with the foundation’s long-term strategy both for marketing the competition and for encouraging news media innovation.

Knight is a journalism foundation, “so it is really easy to let people in the journalism community know about the Knight News Challenge,” Kebbel said. What has been more difficult is reaching communities, “that can be just as helpful in producing digital tools that help improve communication,” but which are outside of the typical media circles.

The concern is not a new one for Kebbel. In a 2007 interview for E-Media Tidbits he highlighted some of the outreach efforts being planned for the competition’s sophomore year.

“We’ll be doing more marketing to youth and internationally,” he told Amy Gahran at the time. The contest wanted especially to attract more people with a technology background because, “we didn’t get as many proposals from them as we wanted, perhaps because of how we marketed it.”

One result of the youth effort that year was a partnership with MTV and a $500,000 set-aside for contestants under 21 years old.

The decision to extend the contest this year came as a result of the same desire to reach out to new and diverse constituencies, and from a study Knight commissioned with Arabella, an advisory group that specializes in charitable trusts.

Arabella has been a consultant to many other prominent philanthropies, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Kresge Foundation.

According to Kebbel, Arabella reviewed 27 entrepreneurial competitions similar to the Knight News Challenge, and focused closely on 10 that had a news media component.

The study, he said, identified long- and near-term strategies Knight could pursue to reach out to members of the tech and business communities who may have been unaware of the contest in previous years.

“We looked at the short-term plan and realized we could not accomplish that in a week,” Kebbel said, so the deadline was extended.

That short-term plan proposes to target a group of a dozen or so engineering schools, venture capital groups, tech-related non-profits and software development communities and encourage participation in this year’s News Challenge.

The goal of broadening the base of participants is to bring more diversity of ideas, viewpoints and opinions to the projects requesting funding, said Kebbel. Different communities may take the same problem, in this case digital news and information, and “see it from a completely different perspective.”

“We are looking for solutions from anyone anywhere,” remarked Kebbel, stressing that some of the ideas to save journalism may come from people currently outside the news industry.

This initial outreach effort will include Drupal developers, readers of the technology news sites TechCrunch and Boing Boing and technologists affiliated with the annual Pop!Tech leadership conferences.

The first returns on this new strategy are relationships with two other non-profits: the Sunlight Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation.

The common thread between the two groups, and among many of the others Knight is pursuing, is their focus on using digital technologies to inform and enrich people’s lives. Mozilla does this through their community-based, open-source development of Web software, including the Firefox Web browser; Sunlight through the development of digital tools focused on bringing more transparency to government data.

Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, believes that the walls between “traditional” and “digital” media are disappearing and the partnership with Knight is a way for both communities to benefit.

Surman indicated that most of Mozilla’s development community was probably not familiar with the News Challenge but that managing the open, distributed nature of software development is similar to the challenges being faced by journalism organizations.

“What Knight’s asking is the right question: what does vibrant and useful ‘local media’ look like in the Internet era,” Surman said in an e-mail interview. “That’s not about tradition vs. innovation. It’s about evolving the way that local voices are heard — and local sense making happens — as a new mix of professional and community media shakes out for the future.”

At the Sunlight Foundation, the group is practicing open-source database journalism via its Sunlight Labs arm and was a News Challenge contestant in 2007.

Executive Director Ellen Miller said the groups have overlapping interests, including, “getting information in the hands of citizens.”

Sunlight, which runs its own development contest, “Apps for America“, is encouraging its community of developers to also participate in the News Challenge. “We live to serve our community of developers — we don’t own them, we serve them,” Miller said. “And we are doing them a service by both providing them with another contest to compete in, but also a larger one.”

Regardless of where the next big idea comes from, to receive funding projects still must closely adhere to the competition’s guiding principles. They must be digital, they must be open-source and they must be focused on delivering news and information to a specific and geographically local community.

Aside from that, Kebbel says the contest is looking for innovation and experimentation, not necessarily invention. A winning proposal will, “take things that already exist and put them together in new ways to serve new people and new products.”

The form that innovation takes is not the deciding factor he said, be it a new delivery system, new content or a new audience.

They key is that the idea be replicable and scalable in other communities. In the end, Knight is interested in developing not just individual projects but in fostering a culture of experimentation and digital innovation among journalists.

Kebbel said that five years ago the industry was notably not investing significant resources in research and development projects. That failure, he said, is now “biting them in the rear end.”

And while R&D budgets are still not increasing, especially during the current recession, things are changing.

“Fortunately what they are starting to do is look at the research and development being done elsewhere. And, the Knight News Challenge is one of those places,” said Kebbel.

The official deadline for the 2010 contest submissions is Dec 15, but the review of proposals has already begun. Those moving to the next round will be notified by early January 2010, with a full proposal deadline of January 31.

The process will continue through the spring with the selection of 50 finalists and followed by a July 2010 formal announcement of the grant recipients.

Full details on the contest, former winners and current proposals are available on the News Challenge Web site.

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