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June 18, 2009, 12:05 p.m.

Gary Kebbel on the Knight News Challenge: Repetitive ideas, tougher judges hurt some applicants

I had a chance yesterday afternoon to talk with Gary Kebbel, the journalism program director at the Knight Foundation and, thus, the administrator of the Knight News Challenge, which announced its newest set of winners yesterday. (News Challenge winners new and old are meeting at MIT this week.)

I asked him why there were fewer winners this year than in the past two cycles:

…I think the judges are getting tougher. I think also competition is more difficult each year because you’ve got other years to look back on and say, “Well, you know, we did that. Or this is real close to something we’ve done.” So I think it gets more difficult every year for one thing. The judges have a very exacting standard…I think that one thing that happens is people look at what won the previous year and decide, “Well, obviously that’s the kind of thing they’re looking for — I should do that.” And that’s exactly the wrong thing to do in a contest seeking experimentation and innovation.

Overall, applications were down about 20 percent from last year, but he attributed that to the elimination of a commercial wing of the contest he said had not worked out well; in the contest’s remaining open-source competition, applications were up. Who does Gary wish were applying to the News Challenge in larger numbers? He mentions computer science departments, architects, and people from Asian countries. And we also talk about the reasoning behind the News Challenge’s requirement that all applications be tied to a specific geographic area — a requirement which has frustrated a few applicants.

Along with talking about this year’s contest, we also talked more generally about how the winnowing-down process works for applicants. (This year’s went from 2,323 applications to about 260 semifinalists to 69 finalists to nine winners.) That should provide some good background for anyone thinking of applying when applications open up again in September. Watch the video above, or read the full transcript below.

Gary Kebbel: I’m Gary Kebbel and I am the journalism program director at the Knight Foundation. But in particular I work with the Knight News Challenge.

Josh Benton: Where we are here at the unveiling of the third round of winners. I think our viewers will understand how the News Challenge process, broadly speaking, works. But how is this year different from previous years that you’ve gone thought the Challenge process?

Gary: That’s a good question, because this being the third year, we saw different sorts of things. I think that one of the types of things we saw this year — a lot more mobile, a lot more mobile projects. But also we saw a lot more projects that were taking current products, current processes, and applying them in a new way or putting them together in a new way to provide new content to people. So rather than saying “I’m going to create this new thing, and we’ll figure out how it’s used and we’ll deal with that,” these are people who are saying, “I’m going to take a blog, I’m going to take a wiki, I’m going to take a mashup, and I’m going to apply it in a new way for a new purpose to deliver different types of information to a new audience.”

Josh: And I think Alberto was saying earlier, the difference between invention and innovation — is that…

Gary: That’s exactly what we’re talking about.

Josh: There were nine winners selected this year, down significantly in number from the last two years. Is there a particular reason as to why fewer winners this time around?

Gary: No particular reason, other than I think the judges are getting tougher. I think also competition is more difficult each year because you’ve got other years to look back on and say, “Well, you know, we did that. Or this is real close to something we’ve done.” So I think it gets more difficult every year for one thing. The judges have a very exacting standard — they’re looking for projects that are digital, that deliver public information to people in a specific geographic area that help inform communities — and that people are willing to do it all open source.

Josh: So would you say that there are projects that did not get selected this year that might have been selected in previous years — as you said the judges have gotten a little bit tougher?

Gary: I can only guess. I don’t really know. But, I think that one thing that happens is people look at what won the previous year and decide, “Well, obviously that’s the kind of thing they’re looking for — I should do that.” And that’s exactly the wrong thing to do in a contest seeking experimentation and innovation.

Josh: Were application higher, lower than previous years this year? More applicants overall?

Gary: The total number of application was 2,323. We cut one of the categories out this year, which was a commercial category that wasn’t really working for us. That said, that eliminated a lot of the applicants, but in the open source category the number of applicants grew.

Josh: Ok. How many applicants where there last year? Do you remember? Overall?

Gary: Just right around 3,000. Total.

Josh: And can you walk through what the process was like? Let’s say that I submitted an idea on midnight of November 1. What was the process that went though for the people who were announced today as the nine winners? How many, what stages did they go through?

Gary: That idea — which was basically about answering like three questions or so — was read by a group of judges who’re called reviewers. And they would look at it and say either, “No, this doesn’t match — there are like four basic criteria you have to have and if it doesn’t have those, we can say no to this one.” So they would do that, and then they would look at others and say, “You know, this is pretty interesting — we ought to investigate this a little more.” And we would have two reviewers working on these, so they would get each other’s opinions and pull it all together. So they would then say, “Okay, we want to ask this group to submit a full proposal to us. We want to learn more about this idea — we want them to do more work on it and answer more questions.”

So that took 2,323 applicants down to approximately a little over 260 or so who were asked to submit a full proposal. And then those were all read, and those were bring down to 69. And that 69, we brought in a new group of reviewers to look at those and say: “Okay, you’re going to be the final cut — these are the ones that made it from application stage to proposal stage to submitting the budget and now you, you’re new group. What do you think?” And then they spend the day talking about it, and hashing out is this good, new, interesting, not interesting, not new, whatever. And then they make final recommendations to Knight Foundation.

Josh: For applicants who got some ways into a process but didn’t make the final cut — I know it’s hard to generalize, but are there specific things that separated the ones — the nine on stage today from the next tier down? You know, if someone just missed and they’re looking for advice on kinds of things that they might need to do if they’re want to apply again next year. Is there any advice you can offer them?

Gary: First I would say when it gets down to that final 69, or whatever that final group is, that number — they’re all good. They’re all interesting, they all qualify. And then it’s just the further refining discussion of: what’s the potential, what’s the sustainability, what’s the capacity of the individual or organization to make this happen. You start looking at other questions. But by that time, they’re all good. In fact so good, that we’re asking other foundations to look at that final 69, to see there’s anything there that they’re interested in funding.

Josh: I know the Knight Foundation has been very generous in having other venues — other routes to funding for journalism initiatives. We have the investigative reporting initiative just announced a few days ago, the community grants that went out in January to MinnPost and others. Would you say that the role of the News Challenge in Knight’s overall journalism giving has changed from what it was a couple of years ago?

Gary: No, I don’t think so. I mean, what the News Challenge did is it said to us and to the world: We don’t know the answers. We’re going to ask the world what are the answers to this problem. Here’s a problem: information flow to communities. And we don’t know the answers except that we see that the news ecosystem is in trouble. So, what are we going to do about it? It’s a very open process that is seeking experimentation and innovation. And it’s still doing that, and it’s still encouraging others to do that. But the nice thing about it is that by having staked that out, the Knight Foundation can say: “And in this other program, or initiative that we are doing, we’re going to focus on investigative journalism, or we’re going to focus on working with community foundations to fund information needs in their community.”

Josh: You mentioned the criteria that the initial screeners look for in those initial applications, and one of the ones that sometimes raises the most question is the need for it to be tied to a locality. I know there are a lot of people that have complained, frankly, that — “Boy, I’ve got an idea that isn’t tied to Topeka, it doesn’t fit within the confines of that contest.” Can you talk about the reasoning behind that? And also they were a few on the stage today — what is the locality for DocumentCloud? It seems like there’s some fudginess about how local some of the winners might be.

Gary: Well, the idea with the requirement for local is that the project be tested in a locality. Therefore, Gotham Gazette is part of DocumentCloud and is very specifically testing this in New York City. And then it must be replicable to other communities. The idea behind it is that these aren’t just information and news projects for the sake of news information. But the sake is more important: It’s how information functions in a democracy, and how a democracy needs information to be optimal. Well, when you look at that, our democracy is geographic. We don’t elect virtual presidents, we don’t pay virtual taxes, and we have school boards and we have geographic districts and areas for our members of House of Representatives. So information and geography are still very closely tied to the way this democracy works.

Josh: In the way that the community information needs project that Knight is also involved in advocates. Having gone though the cycle — well, I guess you’re not really through the cycle, because there is plenty of work to do with the folks who won — but do you have anything different planned for the fourth cycle of the Knight News Challenge? Anything you’re going to do differently?

Gary: Well, we don’t know yet. I mean we are going to start meeting about it next week and we’ll see how it goes and how it develops.

Josh: No rest for the weary.

Gary: It’s still going to be the same basic contest with the same basic criteria of geography, community, open source, digital innovation. But do we add a different or other focus? Do we market it differently? We’re always looking at: Are we reaching the right people in the marketing? What I would love — I would love more entries from Japan and Korea and China. I would love more entries from computer science schools or from architects, visualizing data, visualizing information. So I think there is still a lot of people that we can make aware of that — they have skills that help all of us learn more or more easily digest information.

Josh: Okay, great. Thank you very much.

Gary: Thank you.

POSTED     June 18, 2009, 12:05 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2009
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