It was with considerable irony that I found myself last week missing much of the action surrounding the announcement of the latest winners of the Knight News Challenge, all because I was scrambling to put the finishing touches on a dissertation about…the Knight News Challenge.
Now that the dissertation is finished (at least temporarily, in the hands of my committee members), I’ve had a chance to reflect on how this fourth class of winners fits into the overall picture that has developed from the Knight News Challenge. This contest matters because, far and away, it’s the most prominent innovation effort of its kind in the future-of-journalism space. And so, in some sense, the News Challenge has an agenda-setting impact on the rest of the field at large, emphasizing certain trends over others and altogether giving shape to what we think of as “news innovation.”
But to understand the News Challenge in full, we have to step back and consider the organization behind it — the nonprofit John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the leading funder of journalism training for years and now the biggest philanthropic supporter of news-related startups and experiments. This, of course, is especially true in the nonprofit news sector: Just pick your favorite news upstart (Voice of San Diego, Texas Tribune, et al.), and chances are it has a good share of Knight funding. [Including this website — full disclosure, the Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab. —Josh]
So, the question that prompted my dissertation was simply this: With all this investment and influence in journalism innovation, what is the Knight Foundation trying to accomplish? (We can put this another way. Mark Dowie, in his 2002 investigation of nonprofit foundations, said, “If foundations are indeed ‘America’s passing gear,’ we need to ask what, or whom, they are passing, and where are they taking the country?” In our case, if Knight is akin to journalism’s passing gear, how — and toward what future — is it attempting to drive the field?)
The short answer is that Knight has sought to innovate journalism in part by stepping away from it, by making a strategic shift from “journalism” to “information.” This broadening of boundaries has created crucial space for innovators — from inside and outside journalism — to set forth a reformed view of what journalism is and ought to be. Chief among these new ethics is the emerging ethic of participation — the sense that journalism not only can be participatory, but indeed should be, and that something is missing if the public isn’t involved. In this sense, the foundation and its innovators, in rhetoric and action, are working to bring change to the rather ossified occupational ideology of journalism, or this professional culture that has developed much of its authority around the idea that it has gatekeeping control over what passes as “news.”
Now let me try to explain the longer answer. First, I came at this case study of the Knight Foundation and the Knight News Challenge from a number of angles: interviews with foundation leaders and more than a dozen KNC winners (namely, the ones who seemed to want to build a news organization/platform with their funding); an analysis of hundreds upon hundreds of pages of documents, such as foundation reports and News Challenge applications; and even some statistical analysis using a large body of data gathered on KNC applications from the first three years (the 2007, 2008 and 2009 contest cycles). There isn’t space in a single post to summarize my findings from each of these areas, but elsewhere I presented some early results on the KNC, and you can contact me if you’re interested in the final dissertation come July.
For now, I’ll touch on the big picture: how the Knight Foundation and its News Challenge have evolved in recent years.
The Knight Foundation has long been a leading supporter of journalism education, and for much of the 1990s and early 2000s did this through the endowment of chaired professorships at journalism schools around the country. But after Alberto Ibargüen took over as foundation president and CEO in 2005, Knight began to realize that, as Ibargüen has said, it shouldn’t be in the business of teaching best practices for jobs that might not exist in the future.
Around the same time, Ibargüen and Knight became attracted to philanthropy’s growing use of challenge contests and other means of tapping into the “wisdom of the crowds” to find solutions to problems. If the “problem” for journalism in an era of digital disruption was the need to find new or refurbished models through which journalism’s core functions and societal benefits could be achieved — to “meet the information needs of communities,” in the foundation’s common refrain — then Knight was making a break from its past in turning away from faith in industry expertise and toward an acknowledgement that the solutions may well come from the aggregate expertise of a participatory crowd of contributors.
The Knight News Challenge was born in 2006 in this context: as a contest attempting to tackle a big professional problem (the shrinking of newspapers in many communities) by purposefully looking beyond the profession alone, seeking to engage a whole range of people — techies, entrepreneurs, activists, etc. — and their ideas that might shake up journalism. This crowdsourcing strategy is seen both in the nature of the contest — which is open to all — and in the actual content of the proposals that have been funded, many of which have a crowd-focused component of distributed participation (from Spot.Us in 2008 to Ushahidi in 2009 to GoMap Riga and Tilemapping in 2010).
These connected assumptions — that neither Knight nor the news industry had the solutions to its “informed communities” problem, but that answers could come through participation from distributed crowds that were newly connected online — led Knight to conclude that it should give up control over some facets of its philanthropy, as it did with its challenge contests, first the Knight News Challenge and more recently with the likes of Knight Community Information Challenge and Knight Arts Challenge.
What’s more, the foundation chose to give up control over maintaining journalism’s professional boundaries of exclusion — of defining journalism by one’s professional status — thus rhetorically opening the gates to greater participation from audiences. This was no small shift. Professionals, by nature, seek to be autonomous from outside influence, and so an acknowledgment of one’s lack of expertise or lack of control is a serious departure from the professional paradigm. Nevertheless, Ibargüen’s logic — of openness, of distributed control, of crowd wisdom and collective engagement — is more in tune with the digital media environment and its participatory culture. And, in this sense, his logic may reflect the Knight Foundation’s adaptation to the situation — its own way of “figuring out the flow” (Ibargüen’s words) and leveraging the momentum to accomplish its purposes.
All of this works to “open up” journalism in a way that allows something like crowd participation — which is still mostly at the margins of mainstream journalism — to become not only palatable but indeed truly valuable, a very ethic of good practice, in a rebooted formulation of journalism. This, in fact, is the general perspective of the KNC winners I interviewed, and is one of the core themes I explore further in the dissertation.
In more recent times, the Knight Foundation has undergone a further evolution from “journalism” to “information,” both in rhetoric and practice. First, remember again that Knight’s ultimate goal is helping people get the information they need to function in (local) democracy. Historically, it was the newspaper that took care of providing that crucial information, and so the News Challenge was an effort to work on the problem of declining news at the community level.
But, as the News Challenge developed over time, Knight staff began to wonder if they were unduly focused on the “means” of informed communities — on the troubled journalism profession — and instead should be giving more emphasis to understanding and promoting the “outcomes” of informed communities, with less regard to how those outcomes were achieved. It’s kind of like being less concerned about the well-being of doctors and more concerned about public health, whether or not doctors are the ones doing the healing. As Ibargüen told me in an interview:
If you’re being agnostic about the form [i.e., digital delivery], shouldn’t you really focus on the end result? [Emphasis mine.] That is, stop trying to figure out how to fix current media and instead ask the question, “What does a community in a democracy need? What kind of information does it need in order to function well within a democracy? Where are we now, and what public policy can you support that will get us from where we are now to where we ought to be?”
In other words: Worry less about journalism and more about quality information, however it gets gathered and distributed. This line of thinking led to the formation of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. This high-level commission produced a report that was among the major future-of-journalism treatises to emerge in 2009. While journalism does receive fairly substantial treatment in the report, Amy Gahran was “struck by how little [the report] had to say about how professional journalists and mainstream news organizations fit into the future of civic media.”
Even more, the Knight Foundation appears to have realized that it can have a broader impact in philanthropy and society to the extent it downplays “journalism,” a term that, like it or not, comes with the baggage of stereotypes and a professional identity complex. “Information,” by contrast, has no particular ideology, and therefore can be malleably shaped to suit the circumstances. By invoking “information” and “information needs,” the Knight Foundation has been able to communicate to and connect with a range of fields, foundations, and corporations in a way “that we almost certainly would never have done before,” Ibargüen said. Because “information” is an empty vessel, open to interpretation, it has enabled Knight to speak the language of other fields, even as it seeks to advance the interests of its own. As Ibargüen told me:
One of the lessons for me is that when I used to talk about this as journalism, I’d get the great glazing of the eyes, as people would say, “Get over yourself, you’re just not that important, you know!” And now I know to say, “OK, this matters, this is at the center of almost anything. You tell me your subject, and I’ll tell you how information matters.” [Emphasis mine.]
This journalism-to-information shift can be seen in how the News Challenge has developed. My own examination of winners over the years suggests that projects have become less and less about “producing journalism” and increasingly about “supporting information,” some of which might be considered journalism in a traditional sense. And this gets us to the big existential question: What is journalism, anyway? In a world where the boundaries (rhetorical and structural) around news gathering, filtering, and distributing are becoming increasingly hard to detect, when does information become journalism? It is in this soup of uncertainty and confusion that the Knight Foundation has sought to bring profession-wide change: opening the boundaries of journalism and its own philanthropy to the logic of crowd wisdom, and using its position as a boundary-spanning agent, straddling several fields, as a means of bringing fresh ideas into a field that sorely needs them.