June 18, 2012

The Knight News Challenge is giving more than $1.375 million to six projects that use networks in different ways to solve journalism problems.

Two of the winners announced Monday address issues on opposite ends of the journalism process:

  • The Tor Project will work on tools to help people in dangerous and politically repressive parts of the world publish and communicate safely with sources.
  • Signalnoi.se will enable news sites to track which stories and topics are gaining traction on their websites and their competitors’.

Monday’s announcement marks the completion of the first News Challenge contest since it shifted from an annual contest to three times a year.

Under the old system, nine to 10 months passed between the time that a project was submitted and Knight cut a check. In this cycle, that has been cut to 90 days, said John Bracken, director of the Knight Foundation’s journalism and media innovation grants.

Most of the awardees will have their checks by the end of the week, he said. “That feels right,” he said.

Bracken said the foundation is becoming more comfortable with funding projects that will change direction or refine their focus as they pursue their work. “I will be more worried if projects don’t come back to me in six months” to pivot, he said.

Two of the projects are being funded through the Knight Enterprise Fund, which funds for-profit ventures. “In line with standard venture-capital practices, the funding amounts are not being disclosed,” Knight said in a news release. The $1.375 million figure only accounts for the four projects for which funding levels were disclosed.

Bracken said the Tor Project’s proposal made so much sense to him, he almost felt bad that he hadn’t thought of it already. The Tor Project is behind the Tor Browser, which allows users to use the Web anonymously by separating their identity from their browsing.

That’s valuable in countries that block websites, track users and manipulate Web content. “We’ve been used heavily in China and the Arab Spring to get information out safely,” said Andrew Lewman, executive director of the Tor Project.

With Knight’s money, Tor will improve a tool, called Tails, that enables people to safely and anonymously use public computers. Many people around the world rely on Internet cafes to upload videos because they don’t have high-speed Web access at home, but their use of those computers can be tracked.

By sticking a USB drive into the computer, someone can temporarily load an operating system with word processing, audio and video editing software. When they’re done, they pull out the USB drive and walk away without a trace of what they’ve done.

Tor will use a portion of the Knight grant to provide live support to people in sensitive reporting situations. Someone in Baghdad, for instance, would be able to chat, email or call (at various levels of security) to get help on how to sidestep a county’s Internet controls to publish a story.

Signalnoi.se, another grantee, aims to solve a problem at the other end of the publishing process: figuring out what stories interest people so that news sites can decide what to cover and promote. It’s part of a growing niche of analytics tools that try to help editors make decisions.

Signalnoi.se will track content on a news site and its competitors, displaying data about which stories have the greatest activity on Twitter and Facebook activity. It pays special attention to stories that are surging in popularity, tracking them more closely if it detects an uptick.

The Signalnoi.se dashboard shows a list of stories, their popularity on Twitter and Facebook and whether a story is on the home page. Users can track popularity over a variety of time periods.

“We want to bring social clarity to newsrooms,” said Mohamed Nanabhay, who along with Haroon Meer co-founded the project. “We think there’s a lot of information out there that audiences are providing, that newsrooms don’t see.”

Nanabhay described two ways that journalists could use the tool. The first is to stay on top of what your competitors are doing in real-time. If you see a story that’s taking off and “you think it has editorial merit … you can do it and try to ride the wave of traffic and provide a service to your audience.”

Or perhaps a news site already has published a story that’s relevant to a popular story on a competing site. Signalnoi.se would help editors see that, and they could then decide to push their story on social media and promote it on the home page.

The service also enables editors to drill down into their own content and other websites to see which stories broke out.

Nanabhay emphasized that Signalnoi.se should be used to inform editorial decisions rather than dictate them. When he was at Al Jazeera English (he recently left his job as head of its online operations), he worried about the temptation to chase page views by publishing stories on whatever was popular at the moment.

“That’s something we don’t want,” he said. “It’s one tool that informs editorial judgment. It’s not there to replace an editor or choose stories for him.”

The service is in private beta now; Nanabhay said Signalnoi.se hasn’t disclosed how much the service will cost.

The other four projects:

  • Peepol.tv ($360,000) Enables map-based searches of live mobile video streams of breaking news around the world, using services such as Ustream and TweetCaster.
  • Recovers.org ($340,000) Helps disaster-striken communities quickly launch websites to organize volunteers, solicit donations and organize recovery.
  • Watchup (amount undisclosed) An iPad app that aggregates video news reports into a simple interface.
  • Behavio ($355,000) Uses data collected by phones to track people’s behavior, surroundings and the ways they use their phones. Knight is funding software development and the creation of a toolkit so journalists use these sensors to see trends in community data.

Knight is still accepting applications for the second round, focused on data. The focus of the third one has yet to be announced.

Disclosure: Julie Moos, director of Poynter Online, was a reader for the News Challenge; she is not taking part in any Poynter editorial decisions regarding the contest.

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Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens,…
Steve Myers

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