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.

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.

Commentary from Max Linsky on our preliminary Knight News Challenge survey results

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

OK, so we can all agree that Knight is ready to take an evolutionary step, right? It’s time for the thing to hold itself, and its winners, a little more accountable.

Not every project is going to be a success. But reading through the responses, it’s not clear to me that there’s a working definition of what Knight Challenge success is. And couching everything as an “experiment” — both the projects and the Challenge itself  allows that lack of accountability to continue. Call something an experiment and the stakes are removed — it’s a success just for being conducted.

So how do you increase accountability? Incubators like YC and TechStars, which have a leg up because they fund for-profit endeavors with a clear-cut barometer for success, offer a model that Knight could adapt. Some chief differences:

  • The incubators give away far less money.
  • They offer a fixed amount, which lets ideas be judged more easily against each other and discourages pie-in-the-sky endeavors. With only $18k, your project needs to be simple and executable.
  • The incubators focus as much on the founders as on the idea — if you don’t have the skills and passion to make your project a success, you’re likely not getting funded.
  • Post-selection, the incubators offer far more hands-on support.
  • That hands-on support often leads to the initial idea evolving and improving.

The incubators have this in common with Knight: they’re making a bet. The question is how hard you work to improve your odds. And doing that work is tough if you haven’t defined what a win really looks like.

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. Continue reading “Preliminary results from our informal Knight News Challenge survey”

Background information on our survey of Knight News Challenge projects

If you’re reading this post because I, Chris Amico, or one of two other collaborators emailed you this link, congratulations! You’re one of the 64 projects funded since 2007 through the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge contest. These projects have been granted $21.9 million dollars over the last four years, and we’re curious to hear how they ended up.

A bit of background. Next weekend, David Cohn of (not one of the trouble-makers) is bringing a couple dozen of us together for Hardly Strictly Young. It’s at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, sponsored by the Knight Foundation, and will be my first trip to Missouri. Over two full days, we’ll discuss facets of the Knight Foundation’s commission on the information needs of communities. Part of this, or at least what those of us running the survey think, is to help the Knight Foundation learn from the first four years of the News Challenge. It is arguably the most significant effort from news industry actors to inspire innovation within said industry. In other words, it’s been our only hope.

Unfortunately, there’s not much data for us to work with. Yet. The Knight Foundation has all of the winners listed on the News Challenge website, along with their project descriptions and amount granted, but very little information on outcomes. This is where you fit into our crowdsourced reporting project.

We have two sections on our survey form. The first asks for quantitative information on your project, and is intentionally required for you to submit the form. We want to know whether your project is still active, how much of you grant you actually spent, and whether you achieved your stated objectives. These responses will go on the big ol’ spreadsheet of data we’ll eventually release. The second (optional and/or anonymous) section asks for a qualitative perspective on your project, including how it was successful, what challenges you faced, and what you thought of your experience with the News Challenge. These questions are intentionally broad. If you decide to respond anonymously, we won’t publish the remarks with your name (if we choose to publish them).

This data is quite important. Thank you in advance for taking at least a few minutes to respond. To make things fun, we’ll be updating a public list of who has and hasn’t yet responded. So encourage your friends who haven’t yet replied to do so. I’d like to thank On The Media for the creative idea.

Hardly Strictly Young, April 17th to 19th

Hardly Strictly Young, April 17th to 19th. Following the lead of Ryan and Lauren, I three am honored and extremely excited to be included on the VIP guest attendee list for Hardly Strictly Young, a journo-rager roundtable conversation at the Reynolds Journalism Institute in a few weeks. There we’ll discuss the Knight Commission’s report on meeting community information needs and discuss “alternative recommendations.” I’m personally stoked for the opportunity to hang out with amazing people. Maybe we’ll even hear what happened to the Populous Project?