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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Knight News Challenge announces a (smaller) slate of winners for 2009

(See a larger map of the winners here.)

The winners of the 2009 Knight News Challenge have been announced, about seven and a half months after the initial deadline for entries last November. The envelope, please:

DocumentCloud, $719,500 for a ProPublica/New York Times effort to open up the documents reporters and advocates use in their work. (Read more in Zach’s post.)

Media Bugs, $335,000 to Scott Rosenberg’s idea to create an open process for correcting news coverage, a la the bug trackers that software projects use. (Read more in Zach’s post.)

Councilpedia, $250,000 to Gotham Gazette to build a user-contributed wiki on New York’s city council members. (Read more in Michael’s post.)

Data Visualization, $243,600 to the Jefferson Institute and Aaron Presnall to build cheap and easy tools for visualizing data sets. (Read more in Ben’s post.)

Mobile Media Toolkit, $200,000 to MobileActive and Katrin Verclas to build tools to make media creation on cell phones easier. (Read more in my post.)

The Daily Phoenix, $90,000 to Aleksandra Chojnacka and Adam Klawonn to build a news product around Phoenix’s new light-rail system. (Read more in Michael’s post.)

Crowdsourcing Crisis Information, $70,000 to Ushahidi to further develop its system for allowing citizen reports of events by cell phone. (Read more in Jessica’s post.)

Virtual Street Corners, $40,000 to John Ewing to create a way for citizen-created video newscasts to be shared between two Boston neighborhoods. (Read more in Lois’ post.)

CMS Upload Utility, $10,000 to the McNaughton Newspaper Group to build a tool to make it easier for small newspapers to move their content online. (Read more in Lois’ post.)

We’ll be profiling the winners in other pieces over the next few days. Zach and I are at the MIT conference where the winners are being announced, so we’ll have more to come.

Are there any trends to be found? Cell phones continue to be a focus; so does finding creative ways to use the knowledge of non-journalists to do better journalism. There are some great ideas on that list that I’ll be excited to see the results of; personally, I’ve got soft spots for DocumentCloud, Councilpedia, and Ushahidi.

But the most obvious trend is a decline in the number of winners and the amount they’re given. In 2007, the News Challenge funded 26 projects at a total of $11.7 million. In 2008, it funded 16 new projects at $5.5 million. And this year, it’s nine new projects at a little under $2 million.

Knight rightfully points out that several projects funded in ’07 and ’08 were designed to be paid over multiple years, so total Knight outlay this year for News Challenge projects — new and ongoing — will total about $5.1 million. Considering that the News Challenge was originally announced as a $25 million investment over five years, that seems to be about on pace.

But the buzz for months in future-of-journalism circles has been that the News Challenge hadn’t generated as many ideas to get excited about as in previous years. I certainly don’t think that’s a comment on Knight, which went out of its way this year to encourage more and better applications and has (admirably) continued to fund a lot of journalism projects through the economic downturn. But does it mean something larger that, for the largest and most high-profile source of grants to experimental news startups, there seems to be a shortage of great ideas to go around?

Are more of those great ideas finding V.C. funding, or money from some other grant program? Has most of the low-hanging fruit already been picked? Has Knight’s increased dedication to other journalism funding mechanisms drawn away some of the projects that otherwise would have gone through the News Challenge?

And some of the ideas that did advance far into the News Challenge process — while totally admirable and funding-worthy — seemed to have only a tenuous connection to what we’ve traditionally known as journalism. I would have expected the declining state of the industry to lead to more great funding-worthy ideas — as more folks are forced to think about new ways of doing journalism (and making a living) — not fewer.

So while we celebrate these new projects and Knight’s generosity toward them, it’s worth stopping to think about why the list of great projects to fund isn’t a lot longer — and what you can do to add to it.

                                   
What to read next
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Mark Coddington    April 18, 2014
Plus: The pushback against Vox and The Intercept, Twitter’s data buy, and the rest of this week’s news and tech must-reads.
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  • http://www.collegemediainnovation.org/blog Bryan Murley

    “But the buzz for months in future-of-journalism circles has been that the News Challenge hadn’t generated as many ideas to get excited about as in previous years.”

    Ask them why CoPress wasn’t funded.

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  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    That’s a really good question, Bryan. CoPress is the most obvious missing potential winner, from the ones I knew about, at least. I’ll try to ask someone here.

  • Bill

    It seems unlikely that there are fewer good ideas out there. With journalism facing the challenges and changes that it is facing a rise in creativity and originality is both absolutely necessary and, I suspect, inevitable. It may be, however, as you unintentionally point out at the end that more and more projects are expanding the boundaries of journalism proper to such an extent that the criteria of the grants can no longer recognize their work as pertaining to journalism. It may be that our most fundamental understandings of what journalism is must undergo some basic changes. There are some great interviews with top journalists concerning these issues at http://www.ourblook.com/component/option,com_sectionex/Itemid,200076/id,8/view,category/#catid69

  • Knighted

    Bryan, my sympathies go out to you. I do think it’s pretty weak sauce that the NYTimes even applied, much less siphoned of $700,000 from the award pot for their project, when they have the money already and are simply choosing to spend it on other things. If this project is too low of a priority for the Times to pay for it, maybe the funding should go to someone for whom their project is a priority.

    I have no idea why they didn’t pick your CoPress effort, but I wonder whether the problems facing college news rooms are really all that big a deal at the end of the day. When you have a choice between funding an effort that promises to wire up or connect an African village and one that promises to make it easier for upper middle class americans to write stories about their classmates…well, that’s probably an easy decision for the journalists on the panel to make.

    You may have a solid business on your hands, just maybe not a project that will catch the eye of this particular crowd. Who knows. Good luck to you!

  • Knighted

    Other questions for the Knight peeps:

    1. Is the Gotham Gazette’s local wiki idea SO good that it deserved to become the first and only repeat winner in the only program that funds journalism startups? Were the other ideas really so bad that the committee felt justified in giving a quarter of a million dollars to a program that’s already received that much? What happened to the first grant anyway? How successful could it have been if they were back asking for money again?

    2. What’s the real scoop with the ASU project? Did they simply have a solid idea at the right price point? I know ASU has been trying to position itself as a destination for new media journalists and a thought leader in the “field.” Was this award a paeon to their efforts? Did the school play a part in helping these two? I ask because its curious that their ASU alumni ties would be so prominently mentioned in the coverage of them I’ve seen today. Who cares where they went to school….other than ASU?

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    I should clarify something about the NYT. DocumentCloud will not be in any way “owned” by the NYT. It’s going to be open source, and the NYT’s main relationship to the project is letting Aron and Ben spend some time working on it despite being full-time NYT employees. The Times will be a member of DocumentCloud, but so will be TPM and other news orgs. So I think to say the NYT is somehow profiting from Knight’s largess is unfair.

    Also, I asked Gary Kebbel of Knight why CoPress wasn’t chosen. He said (reasonably, I think) that he couldn’t discuss that with me, but said he would be happy to talk with someone from CoPress about it.

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  • Knighted

    Joshua,

    Thanks for the details re: NYTimes. I don’t see why these organizations couldn’t have pooled their money to build this if it’s so important to them, but what’s done is done.

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  • http://westseattleblog.com Tracy @ WSB

    Instead of always looking for new ideas – how about a shift in focus, or at least a sideline, for helping semi-established “new ideas” get to the next level?

    Our successful neighborhood-news service evolved in a way that gave us no chance to ever put it forward as a proposal – it grew out of a conventional “blog” – but while we are doing quite well with what we do now, there are so many other things I would like to add, to expand to … but they require capital … 3 to 6 months of a developer’s time, perhaps, for example.

    While programs like this are always barking after the next shiny new idea to race down the track, I propose there is something to learn from some of us out here who blundered into success … and something to be gained by offering some help.

    Since we’re not creating fancy new techy tools to share with the world, we don’t get the zillion-dollar VC attention, but I suggest there could be value to helping some of us who “are” doing something grow, rather than bestowing all the attention and cash onto the next group of people who “might” be able to do something.

    Just a thought of what might be worth considering, if the pool of these bright shiny new ideas is truly shrinking.

  • karhec
  • http://www.danielbachhuber.com/ Daniel

    Re: decision about CoPress, that link is actually to our first round application. Our application (and organization) evolved significantly in the period of time between the November deadline and when we were told of the decision at the beginning of June.

    Daniel Bachhuber, Executive Director, CoPress

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  • Bonnie Bucqueroux

    The knock on the Knight Challenge is that it focuses more on the bottle than the wine – always looking for a glitzy new tech tool rather than a unique concept. Yet the history of grant-funded online innovation has not been all the promising. Funders put a bundle into OurMedia, which promised to allow me to upload video. But it was a dud. Once the commercial venture YouTube became available, OurMedia was dead in the water. I know plenty of online startups that once looked to the Knight Challenge as a potential funder, but they soon realized that the bias was toward new geek tools. If I am wrong, please assure me that applying would be worth my time.

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