Commentary from Will Mitchell on our preliminary Knight News Challenge survey results

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

Reading through the surveys, it really seems like a lot of the grantees “scaled back” from building software to simply using existing tools or just community organizing. This response was representative:

The technological capacity of the organizations… whom we were encouraging to use our tech was lacking and therefore hindered adoption of [it].

This is a good example of the kind of thing that needs to be worked out prior to applying, or vetted during the application. Sure, no matter how much vetting you do, some projects are going to fail, but the rubric for success can’t be “throw them at the wall and see what sticks.”

I think in the future incarnation of this deal, whatever it is, people need to be more accountable to what they’ve proposed to achieve — not the scaled back “oh shit, this is hard, what can we do with existing tools instead” end product. To me, the word “innovation” connotes a certain focus on new technology. There should be at least one component of the proposal that is a new tool and will be built by the end of the proposal, or else there had better be a really brilliant reason for a proposal that just introduces existing tools into some organization or community.

There’s a ton of emphasis in the application on what you want to achieve and how it will impact a community, but not very much on how, specifically, you’re going to achieve it, and who’s on board to get it done. Compare with Y Combinator where they really make you sweat about the team and the technology, and demonstrate what you’ve already built.

The other thing that is more and more disconcerting to me is the “Knight News Challenge is an experiment” vibe that I get from a lot of the responses. Making it a grand experiment kind of screws up the incentive to stick to your plans, because failure to launch is justified, in retrospect, as an interesting outcome of the experiment. There seems to be a little bit of broken window syndrome (or whatever you would call it) going on. The less accountability people see for the other grantees, the less pressure they may feel to achieve their original goals. This critique isn’t point at any individual: doing this stuff is hard, and scaling back near the deadline often makes sense. But perhaps it makes a little too much sense in the context of the current KNC. Scale the project back during the application phase, so that the grant matches what can realistically be achieved.

I think it would be worthwhile to look at the responses (and concrete results) from “News Games” and “Playing the News.” Two projects about games, both granted around $250k.

One thing that stood out was the outliers in the number of KNC apps submitted. The Ideas Factory submitted 11. MobileActive submitted 48 other applications? Not, say, 4-8? Sup with that?

It seems weird to me that that it’s so hard to find this kind of information News Challenge website. If we’re serious about developing story forms and information repositories that go beyond narrative journalism and hub-and-spoke or blog navigation, we should see some of that in the contest itself.

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