Preliminary results from our informal Knight News Challenge survey

Infographic by Lauren Rabaino, updated April 18th

In preparation for a roundtable discussion this weekend about the Knight Foundation’s commission on the information needs of communities, a few of us decided to survey past News Challenge grantees. A big thanks to Chris Amico, Will Mitchell, Max Linsky, and Lauren Rabaino for helping out with various parts. We wanted to pull together data like how many of the projects are still active, whether the grantees started their projects before receiving funds, and whether the amount they received was sufficient to achieve their objectives. On a program-wide scale, we wanted to know the percentage breakdown of content vs. education vs. software projects, the average lifespan of a project, and what type of institutions typically received funding. Some of this we were successful in collecting; some, not so much. All of our data is available as a Google Spreadsheet.

Since 2007, the Knight Foundation has awarded about $21.9 million to a total of 63 projects (40 of which responded to our survey). The largest, at $5 million, went to MIT’s Media Lab. The smallest, at $10,000, went to Joe Boydston’s CMS Upload Utility.

Of the 40 respondents:

  • 31 (77.5%) are still actively working on their projects
  • 19 (47.5%) started their projects before applying to the News Challenge
  • 14 (35.0%) said they received sufficient funding, 8 (20.0%) said they didn’t receive enough money to achieve their goals, and 12 (30.0%) didn’t report because they are still working on their projects

According to our classification system, of all 63 projects:

  • 14 (22.2%, $5,214,000) were non-profit, 15 (23.8%, $8,790,400) were schools, and 29 (46.0%, $7,267,100) were for-profits
  • 14 (22.2%, $9,820,500) were startup projects, 22 (34.9%, $7,692,400) expanded an existing project, and 27 (42.9%, $4,431,600) were side projects
  • 27 (42.9%, $5,073,400) focused on content production, 10 (15.9%, $7,606,000) focused on education, and 28 (44.4%, $9,265,100) built software

The following are a collection of responses we received to the survey’s open-ended questions.

1. How were you successful with your project?

“Readers played the games and, we think, gained an increased understanding of these issues and enjoyed themselves doing it. The games remain on our site and continue to attract traffic and interest.”

“Overall, I considered the project success. We designed a new newsroom for The Chronicle, the student paper at Duke University, designed to leverage a long-term view of where media is heading. Beyond that, the goal of the project was also to identify broader lessons that other news organizations could apply.”

“Our code is also open source and has been used by several other projects (goJournalism.ca, YouCommNews.com and others). While these projects have not been wildly successful it has shown that there is a real interest in this model. Other projects like SpotUs.it, YouCapital.It, Emphas.is and others show that there has been a cultural change inviting more crowdfunding projects.”

“At this point we’ve completed the initial integration of PRX Story Exchange with Spot.us via APIs and collaborative coding – which is one of the principal goals of the project. We are just now rolling out the first pilot instance of Story Exchange with Louisville Public Media, and then plan to offer it more broadly in partnership with local public radio stations and producers.”

“Yes, in the sense that we used a suite of free, simple tools to build a site and a forum for online community. No, in the sense that the hoped-for community never coalesced around the tools we’d created.”

“We’ve continued the project well beyond the duration of Knight’s support, seeking other foundation funding and donations from individuals to allow us to support innovative new media efforts in different corners of the developing world.”

“Several stations are now using and contributing to the tools.”

“We got the concept, in it’s most basic form, built! And we did it with some money to spare.”

“Very modest goals were achieved.”

2. What challenges did you face with your project?

“The biggest challenge has been finding people with computer programming skills/backgrounds who are interested in studying journalism.”

“We were discouraged [by the Knight Foundation] from changing our focus from print to digital content while receiving grant funds. As a result, we had to wait until the end of our grant to do what our customers were asking us to do (allow them to publish to eReaders, the Kindle, mobile phones and tablet computers).”

“Time: If I thought the project would take X amount of time, it actually took about 100x.”

“Biggest failure to date is that we simply haven’t succeeded in sparking any sustained, large-scale public involvement/contribution. Exploring why that is and what we can do to change it is where we’re at right now.”

“A media partnership was difficult to forge due to the financial problems facing news companies.”

“Building partnerships with newspapers and publishers has been tough.”

“Learning curve [...] While I am grateful for the initial grant – one thing I’ve found is that the more funds you have, the more you need. Learning to keep your scope under control is tough. No amount of funds is enough to do everything you want. Just ask ProPublica.”

“The students did a terrific job coming up with the [project] concept in a four month time frame, but then the turmoil within the newspaper industry slowed considerably the progress of the [project] launch and contributed to its short duration.”

“The technological capacity of the organizations in Kenya whom we were encouraging to use our tech was lacking and therefore hindered adoption of [our project].”

“Not having programming background has been a real challenge. Not being able to devote two full-time brains to the business and product development had a definite impact.”

“Software built ‘for journalism,’ I’ve found, is rarely as efficient, timely, or useful as software built ‘for users.’”

“Changing content, not enough staff, exploding field.”

“We failed to invest in evaluation, documentation, and communications. We are dealing with a community that is slow to adopt change, and we lacked the resources to encourage them.”

“Insular community in small geographic locale meant focus on controversial topic was conversational non-starter online.”

3. What advice would you give to a younger you starting on the same project?

“Be willing to go a bit bigger.”

“Building partnerships with people in other countries is a really tough process. Track record matters – someone with an innovative idea is worth talking to, but it’s worth seeing whether that person has ever managed a project previously, gotten other efforts off the ground.”

“Don’t hire a tech firm. Interview people for CTO slots, give them an equity stake and name them publicly as a part of the project. Send them out to speak publicly on behalf of the project. Get their skin in the game.”

“If you haven’t met a few of the Knight judges in person prior to applying, you don’t stand a chance of winning. The Knight challenge is a great marketing tool for the Knight Foundation and the newspaper industry. If your project isn’t going to sound awesome in a NYTimes article about this year’s winners, it won’t be picked.”

“Have a clear understanding between editorial and technical staff about what the project should do and the technical limitations, and try to address these in a project design phase before the actual implementation process.”

“Release code frequently. While this isn’t something we necessarily learned in this project, it has been hugely helpful getting our code out there, getting eyes on it, and seeing how people use and react to it – while we’re still actively developing it.”

“Better understand the application process and what reviewers are looking for.”

“Go for a sustainable business idea rather than a grant-gaining idea.”

“Ask for less money up front; insist on the ability to change, morph and pivot like any other business; and create a product that people will pay for in some manner up front versus building something that may or may not attract advertising or investment. If you can create a sustainable and growing business right up front through ‘bootstrapping,’ you don’t need as much funding and you may not need any funding at all.”

“Insist on more support (mentorship, networking, guidance, collaboration) from the Knight Foundation. Many of us felt that some projects were Knight favorites and received exceptional attention. Looking back, I think that I would be more insistent on getting that support for my project.”

“Mobile phone technology is moving faster than you think. Don’t write code for yesterday’s platforms, even if they were the big thing when you started. Voice is in rapid decline, data is king, don’t be fooled that apps are the end game, see what is coming in your context a year or two down the line.”

“If your goal is to kick-start a project, give serious thought to the next step in funding. Partial funding can be worse than no funding. [...] Reach out to KNC staff often. They may not engage with you. [...] Use KNC connections wisely. In my case, who you know is more important that the quality of your code/idea.”

“Don’t be illiterate. When this project started, I really couldn’t code. I could not read the code I was paying for, or assess its quality. Since then, I’ve taken night school courses. My objective is not to become a coder but to become the World’s Worst Programmer — I want to be able to read the code I pay others to write, and I want to be able to fix bugs and add small features to my site without anyone’s assistance or permission.”

4. How did you modify the scope of your project over time (if at all)?

“There are lots of feature ideas we had in the beginning that never came to fruition – we cut them out in order to get something up and out the door [...] There are lots of features twe’ve built since that I hadn’t dreamed up when we first launched.”

“We expanded, both in terms of focus and in terms of diversifying our funding. Basically, KNC allowed us to undertake an experiment, and based on the success of that experiment, we made [the project] a permanent part of our newsroom and have scaled it up.”

5. In your opinion, what are the ways in which the Knight News Challenge has been successful?

“The Challenge has gotten all kinds of submissions. In a very strange way that is a form of success. They have convinced hundreds (thousands) of people to think about innovative ideas. It has been a cultural win for the journalism community. Before the Knight News Challenge – I don’t think there was an institution that really championed experimentation.”

“Knight built a high reputation of the contest right from the start – attracting top players and persons to the project (Sir Tim Berners-Lee etc.) and jury members, too. [...] KNC victory opens doors.”

“The News Challenge attracted technical talent into future-of-news efforts, and got people who, like me, had never applied for a grant or even considered applying for one before.”

“I love the Challenge’s openness to experiment and its willingness to take risks. These are precisely the traits that professional journalism has bred out of its practitioners over the last half-century. We need them and the Challenge has, I think, done a great deal to reinject them into the news bloodstream.”

“Bringing attention to the idea of innovation in news.”

“Great forum to share ideas, meet people, and a unique funding model for edgy ideas that would never get funding elsewhere (certainly true for Africa). A real commitment to journalism, democracy and development that comes through and inspires.”

“The KNC has resulted in some wonderful innovation in media efforts. We benefitted by being introduced to new partners and new ideas. We were able to hire development staff we never could’ve afforded otherwise.”

6. In your opinion, what are the ways does the Knight News Challenge need to be improved?

“Systems needed to be put in place to evaluate the open-source code generated through the News Challenge and identify ways to make it more widely deployed.”

“Capture more systematically the lessons of the challenge winners, and find additional ways to share the results of the projects.”

“Tracking the history of grants and providing the public with some metrics on their success would be a pleasant thing. I’m confident [the Knight Foundation does] this internally.”

“Shorten the application and decision process.”

“It would have been nice to get the $ right away instead of waiting for 4 months to get started.”

“Thus far, I think KNC has fallen a bit short in turning the various grantees into a community that works together and supports each other’s work. Perhaps that’s an unrealistic goal, but it seems like the field would benefit from regular collaboration and engagement between grant recipients.”

“Perhaps introducing grantees to other funders in a way to help sustain projects long-term would be useful.”

“Alone, the News Challenge is just a collection of projects. Taken together with all the people who applied for the News Challenge, you have the makings of a movement. To my knowledge, no effort has been made to keep the people who applied but were not funded together with those who were as an ongoing future-of-news community. A program like the News Challenge has to be careful, otherwise they risk encouraging a few dozen teams and discouraging thousands of others.”

“Knight needs to help News Challenge ideas turn into sustainable institutions.”

“Collaboration needs to be funded. We work in our own project silos. There was never enough attention given to drive collaboration between projects. The annual conference was not sufficient for group learning opportunities. Many of us suffered similar pains in isolation.”

“The News Challenge can improve its logistical support for journalism initiatives that lack professsional business expertise. If we want to support ‘informed, engaged communities’ then we need to recognize that most grassroots, community initiatives won’t be lead by people with conventional ‘corporate’ skills. Every effort should be made to support information operators who have never used a spreadsheet and those who have no idea what an elevator pitch or an executive summary is. It needs to demystify the process and eliminate barriers to entry. Red tape should be viewed as an existential enemy.”

“At times we would have appreciated more feedback and help from people at the Foundation. I was also a big fan of the listserve of recipients that functioned in the early days of the challenge and would like to see that renewed. IdeaLab does not offer the same kind of sharing and informal give and take the listserve did.”

“Though vagueness is useful on Knight’s side, better guidance on an annual basis as to what the News Challenge is truly committed to funding would be helpful for applicants. Some of the questions on the grant application form is confusing. The word limit is a great improvement over the characters limit!”

“The selection process my year was somewhat chaotic, and communication with me as an applicant was confusing — I almost didn’t get my grant because of a miscommunication between the Challenge leaders and me that led to one real misfire of a phone interview. (Happy ending, not complaining, but it was definitely a process breakdown.) [...] After the selection process, I’ve been surprised at the low level of communication with Knight — close to nil. I’m at a relatively advanced stage of my career and happy to dig my own trench; I don’t feel I’ve been hurt by this lack of communication. But if I were younger/less experienced I think it might be disappointing.”

“For each project awarded, include funding for evaluation and recommend someone to do the evaluation work as it takes away from the project focus for the grantee to start doing research and eval.”

“Recoup the innovation lost in projects not selected. Can we help non-winners with their project, outside of cash funding?”

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