From crowdfunding to data-driven journalism, four ways the Knight News Challenge is shaping the future

As the Knight News Challenge prepares to announce its fifth group of winners today, we looked back at the previous four years, in which 63 projects received nearly $22 million.

The Knight Foundation has spread that money around, including academic research, software tools, urban hyperlocal reporting and basic information needs in developing countries.

In reviewing the winners, we identified four areas of now-rapid innovation in which News Challenge projects have pushed new approaches for journalism: Crowdfunding, the hacker-journalist, data as news and citizen journalism.

“Our goal is to be important; our goal is to have impact and to make a difference,” Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president for the Knight Foundation, told me.

Of course, when you make dozens of bets on startups, some won’t pay off. Sometimes ideas aren’t as good as they sounded.

And sometimes good ideas — like conveying information through interactive games — are just harder to execute than anticipated. The News Challenge funded five gamification-of-news projects with almost $1 million. There was some success, but a lot of struggle, Newton said.

Even in the difficult cases, Knight and the participants learned valuable lessons, he said. And projects that did work as planned taught other lessons and blazed important trails to where journalism is headed.

Crowdfunded journalism

One of journalism’s most urgent needs is finding new business models and funding methods.

Newspaper advertising revenue has been nearly halved since the News Challenge was announced in 2006. Online advertising has grown, but most news sites are still disappointed by ineffective display ads and low CPMs.

The News Challenge has not funded much in this space — only a few of the first 63 projects focused on ways to fund reporting. However, the projects it did fund may be among its most effective.

In 2008 the News Challenge funded Spot.Us with $340,000 to build a marketplace for people to pool small donations to fund freelance reporting projects.

Spot.Us lets users choose which reporting projects to finance.

“Spot.Us is more important than a lot of people realize, because the innovation is so profound [that] it’s going to take awhile for it to permeate into the system,” Newton said. “It’s a paradigm shift.”

In 2011 the site is still going strong. It claims more than 10,000 contributors and more than 100 publishing partners, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Wired magazine. Spot.Us funds many types of stories, from community news to civil rights and environmental enterprise.

Spot.Us has been followed by other services, like Kickstarter and Emphas.is, adopting the crowdfunding approach. And last year Knight funded a new project based on the Spot.Us platform: PRX Story Exchange, which employs crowdfunding to produce news for public radio stations.

An example of real-time ads from WindyCitizen.com.

Another notable business-side News Challenge project is “real-time ads” from WindyCitizen. Funded with $250,000 in 2010, WindyCitizen is developing software to create and sell dynamic ads that show the latest message from an advertiser’s blog or Facebook or Twitter profile. That service has been branded NowSpots, and the ads will soon be featured on the Chicago Tribune’s homepage.

This is a promising innovation because it opens up a small business advertising market that has been tough for news sites to crack. Small businesses often don’t have the capacity to design ads, and some don’t even have websites where they can direct consumers. But many of them, especially retailers and restaurants, are adopting social media.

The rise of the hacker-journalist

Knight invested in academic centers and training programs that helped give rise to a new job category, the hacker journalist. It’s not a job title so much as an approach to journalism — knowing how to see and tell stories but also know how to solve problems, visualize information and build tools.

Knight’s grant of $639,000 in 2007 created a program at Northwestern University to find people with programming experience and train them in journalism. It produced graduates like Brian Boyer, now in charge of the Chicago Tribune’s news applications team.

That hybrid is now in vogue, with Columbia University announcing a dual-degree program in journalism and computer science last year and NYU offering a new concentration in “computational and digital journalism.”

Another 2007 News Challenge grant helped found the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Its focus is to bring together students of journalism, computer science, design and business so they can learn to launch new products.

“Technologists and journalists had to at least be able to talk to each other if journalists were going to have anything to say about the future of their own profession,” Newton said. “It evolved from being able to talk tech to being fluently bilingual.”

Data-driven local journalism

EveryBlock was one of the first journalism projects to demonstrate that data, organized and filtered, could be a foundation for a local news site.

An EveryBlock page from a Chicago ZIP code.

Knight gave the project $1.1 million in 2007 to aggregate location-based data on crimes, building permits, restaurant inspections, news stories, photos, Yelp reviews and more. With all this data available in one place, people in 16 of the largest U.S. cities can see all the information near them and discuss it with their neighbors.

“EveryBlock was a really important early project in that it demonstrated that the digital age is creating a new definition of who a journalist is, what news is,” Newton said. “We’ve really come a long way from the days when newspaper reporters would head down to city hall and hand-write down the police log, then walk back to the newspaper and type it in on a typewriter … Now that very same thing can be Web-scraped.”

EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty told me that data already was being used in journalism before 2007, but “providing news at the level of city block, nobody had done that before us.”

The site, which msnbc.com purchased in 2009, has evolved beyond an information aggregator into a platform for community discussion, Holovaty said. The slogan used to be, “It’s a news feed for your block,” which suggested a one-way flow of information, he noted. The new slogan is, “We help you make your block a better place.”

The News Challenge funded some other notable local data projects in the years that followed. In 2009, Knight funded a suite of data-visualization tools to help news organizations present local data in interactive ways. The resulting Dataviz.org contains Drupal data-visualization modules for anyone to use.

And in 2010, a News Challenge grant for $400,000 went to CityTracking, a project to create embeddable data visualizations that are appealing enough to spread virally.

Designing systems for citizen journalism

By my count the News Challenge has spent more than $2.8 million on at least nine projects whose main focus was to enable people to report news or data in their communities. They covered major cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, small towns, even Russia and rural India.

Front Porch Forum

Front Porch Forum, a 2010 News Challenge winner, connects residents of hundreds of Vermont towns to share and discuss news. DavisWiki.org in Davis, Calif., makes it easy for people to learn and share community knowledge.

The News Challenge’s citizen journalism projects have been less successful than others by a traditional measure: their ability to scale. But that’s actually an important lesson, Newton said.

“There’s a reason Front Porch Forum is in Vermont, there’s a reason Village Soup is in Maine, there’s a reason DavisWiki is in Davis,” Newton said.

“The thing about citizen media is, it’s all about the citizens — it’s all about the right thing in the right place at the right time, in the right combination for that particular community,” he said. “One size does not fit all.”

The future of the News Challenge

The 2011 awards being announced today are the last of the five-year program that the Knight Foundation board committed to back in 2006. But that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the News Challenge.

“We won’t officially announce the next iteration of the News Challenge anytime soon … [but] we are thinking critically about how to continue to do this and do it better,” said John Bracken, Knight’s director of digital media. “It will not be the last year of this challenge.”

Even during the past couple of years the challenge has evolved. This year, for the first time, entries were limited to four categories: mobile, authenticity, sustainability and community. That’s a sign that the judges are thinking more in advance about which areas need the most investment.

Judges are paying more attention to pitches that are already tested, looking not just for good ideas, but good ideas from people who can get them done.

News Challenge organizers also are seeking non-journalism applicants. Last year, for example, the deadline was extended so Knight could reach out to business and technology sectors.

“It’s been an excellent project,” Newton said, “and as things move forward I think you’ll see it evolving and improving.”

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.