Commentary from Lauren Rabaino on our preliminary Knight News Challenge survey results

The following is guest commentary from Lauren Rabaino, one of the collaborators who helped bring our Knight News Challenge survey together.

The Knight Foundation has an important role to play encouraging innovation and experimentation within the news industry — because let’s face it, not many people in news media have that kind of money to throw around these days (KNC has granted about $22 million over the past four years). Knight has a responsibility to the projects they’re funding, the communities that rely on those projects, and the journalism community as a whole to see that their money is put to good use.

What I’ve gleaned from breaking down the numbers, reading the various survey responses and generally observing KNC practices over the past few years is this:

  • Knight appears to “play favorites,” awarding money to people who have applied multiple times or to people they have previously known and met in person. One survey respondent even commented that only the projects that would sound good in a NYT article are selected.
  • After projects are funded, adios! No communication with Knight commences, which shows an incredible lack of accountability and makes it easier for projects to fall by the wayside.
  • There are inefficiencies in the processes related to applying for and obtaining money from Knight.

We can take a hint from one project, TileMapping, that according to their survey response is having “a great experience so far!” This project was already in the process of being actively built before the grant money was attained. TileMapping used the funds for a second iteration of their project, so they had a clearer scope of what they were trying to accomplish and what resources were required to do it.

So many of the respondents who haven’t had such a good time as TileMapping said they changed course because they realized that they:

  1. Just didn’t have the technical capacity
  2. Vastly underestimated the amount of time it would take to build something
  3. Couldn’t get the industry connections or user base to pull off what they desired.

I think many of these problems can be tackled by the solutions Daniel poses, that I need not repeat (shorting funding cycles, milestone-based funding, smaller amounts of money). Related back to TileMapping, projects need to have a clearer plan of execution and sustainability, beyond simple speculation. The Knight News Challenge should be an investment in the future of news, not a gamble.

And while, yes, some projects will most certainly fail, they shouldn’t fail quietly and unacknowledged. There should be clear transparency, enforced through Knight, that requires grantees to explain why projects failed and how future projects can learn from those failures — because what’s the point of experimentation if there are no clear takeaways? Otherwise, it’s just lost time, money and effort. And that’s not how you shape the future of news.


Tracy @ WSB April 19, 2011 Reply

You have one incredibly important line in this, which goes for most of the funders along these lines, not just lines. It’s that the grants should be “an investment, not a gamble.”

Every time I answer this type of survey, that is my central criticism, after a few years in the new-media world, as a bootstrapped success to boot … Money does not seem to be available (or if it is, it’s a well-kept secret) for many of us who already have a track record and either could stand a boost to get to the proverbial Next Level or to try something new on the side … but it seems to flow like rain for people who have an idea (“high concept” as I’m told they say in the movie biz) yet generally no track record.

Obviously, some of those with “idea but no track record” will be the next successes – though I will argue that having to slug your way to success without help certainly toughens you and makes you more likely to survive the long haul! – but how about something specifically for those who have hit the first level of success and want to pitch/fund something that will increase their chance of sustainability and the level to which they serve their customers/community/constituency/whatever?

(FWIW I have applied to KNC twice in the past few years, not related to our ongoing, successful main site, but related to an ongoing small noncommercial side project serving an adjacent community, a project that has tons of potential and scalable lessons-to-be-learned, if, like the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, it could just get some love/care/money beyond what we already put into it. Didn’t pass Level 1 either time. So it’s back to the grindstone!)

Scott B April 19, 2011 Reply

I had hoped to get some support to hire the first full-time employee for my existing, successful hyperlocal news operation (80K uniques/month after one year). It would have been a big boost and would have freed me up to try to innovate a bit more on the business side, which, as a part-time MBA student, I’ve been dying to do.

Alas, Knight seems to be focused on the no-application-in-real-life tech ideas that, as noted above, sound sexy to a middle-aged print reporter. Look back at what they’ve funded and what impact those projects have had, if they’ve even been completed at all. Very little. Knight needs to fund ideas that are going to help sustain journalism, especially local journalism, as a business. Start funding ideas with sound business prospects that address the needs of actual news consumers, not bulls— that sounds cool to middle-aged white men. (Hint: if it involves maps or “data visualization,” it’s probably bulls—).

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