Is the Knight News Challenge finished? Five suggestions for the future

How would you spend $5 million a year?

Yesterday, the ninth set of Knight News Challenge winners were announced. However, rather than the traditional excitement that accompanies one of the world’s largest journalism innovation awards, there was instead an injection of uncertainty brought about by these words: “It may be finished.”

Speaking at the announcement in Cambridge (and here I’m thankful to Joshua Benton’s great Nieman Lab round-up), Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen said, “What have we actually achieved? How have we changed the way people receive their information? How have we affected the existing news community?…They take, I think, comparatively little notice of the things people in this room do.”

Taking stock

“What would you do if you had decided to invest $5 million a year in figuring out how to best get news and information to communities? What would you do?”

Here are five quick suggestions on how the Knight News Challenge could move forward.

1. Emphasise discovery

Ibargüen’s question could perhaps be the wrong one. Perhaps it shouldn’t be the job of the News Challenge to find ways to get news out to people. Perhaps it should be to find better ways to get news. Discovery, rather than dissemination?

The most succesful Knight News Challenge projects are those that have focused on helping journalists do their jobs better. ScraperWiki, Overview, PANDA and Ushahidi are a few of my favourites. What’s the link? They’re all about research, search, archiving, data and visualising connections. All required by journalists, every day.

The next step for the challenge (and I think this has already begun with the latest round of awards) could then be to allow communitites to begin this discovery and aid journalists by unearthing potential stories.

2. Money, money, money

Is enough focus being placed on revenue models, on innovations that are helping newsrooms become sustainable? And, should all the entries require detailed income and scalability plans? I’ve recently been working with Ashoka and this element is greatly emphasised. Without scale, there is less chance of success (and acceptance from the journalist community at large). Are enough safeguards being put into build businesses.

When grant-winner Behavio was acquired by Google, many saw this as a failure. Should it be percieved as such? Spin-offs and start-ups could be the answer to newsroom sustainability.

3. Open to ideas and collaboration

2012’s News Challenge saw the open source requirement for the programme dropped. It was still encouraged, but this decision caused much debate. One of the key issues in newsrooms at the moment is technological silos; organisations working in isolation on very similar projects, at great cost.

News organisations don’t just compete with each other any more. They’re competing with the internet at large. Therefore, it makes sense for them to relinquish some of the traditional secrecy that cloaks the profession and open up to working with each other. Knight should encourage them to open up and not reinvent the wheel. The first question before awarding a grant should always be, does something like this already exist? When built, how can other people engage, connect and extend? Open source makes all this easier.

4. Don’t reinvent the wheel

DocumentCloud is one of the Knight News Challenges success stories. It’s also a two-times winner. Coincidence?

Perhaps more multiple awards could be made, or more mature projects should be awarded development grants. To paraphrase Wolfgang Blau at last week’s GEN Summit, newsrooms are not lacking in visions. It’s the execution that they need support with. Does innovation have to start with an entirely clean slate everytime, or can we stand on the shoulders of giants?

5. Go global

While I understand the U.S. focus of the challenge, it’s time to go global. FrontlineSMS, NextDrop, and Ushahidi show that this approach can work.

I lead Citizen Desk, an African News Innovation Challenge winner based in Maputo, and it’s clear to me that a huge amount of innovation is happening in the global south. The need is greater, the legacies are fewer and the risk is smaller. The next world-class mobile, data and networking projects will come from sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent or Latin America.

I’m interested to see what the Knight Foundation come up with next. It’s vital that they are transparent about their ideas for the future. Innovation requires failure, so a critical review of the impact and success of previous challenges would be really interesting. In the meantime, take a detailed look at the next round of exciting winners.

Written by

Work between technology and journalism. @Ashoka adviser. #hhber initiator. Formerly at @Sourcefabric & @transmediale.

Updated July 1, 2013