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Oct. 27, 2010, 10 a.m.

Metrics, impact, and business plans: Things to watch for as the Knight News Challenge enters a new cycle

In recent years, it’s been something of a parlor game in future-of-journalism circles to speculate about the $25 million Knight News Challenge: Who’s going to win this year? What are the judges looking for, exactly? And, whoa, how on earth did that finalist get passed up? (On that last question, see CoPress in 2009; e.g., read the comments on this post.)

The buzz and chatter are mostly just idle guesswork, and of course it’s all to be expected when serious money (think: $5 million for MIT, $1 million for EveryBlock) is on the line. (Indeed, there’s an extra $1 million on the table this year, thanks to Google’s donation to journalism innovation announced yesterday.)

So, that’s why this year, the fifth installment of the Knight News Challenge, already feels a little different. In years past, the Knight Foundation has approached the News Challenge with a “hey, we’re not the experts — you tell us what’s innovative” kind of attitude, purposefully leaving the door open to just about any submission, assuming that it met certain basic requirements of geographic community focus, open-source software, and so on. With the exception of some tweaking along the way, the general focus of the News Challenge remained the same: to stimulate innovation in the name of making communities better informed. Simple enough.

But this year, even though the KNC’s general pitch remains the same, applicants will make their submissions in one of four categories: Mobile, Authenticity, Sustainability, or Community. Only the Community category requires a place-based geographical focus, which marks a significant break from previous cycles where all projects had to be tested in a local community. Overall, the categorization scheme lends some direction — even a certain narrowing — of the contest, and it suggests that Knight has learned a few things over the past four years that it’s going to apply in this final go-round, to get a more focused pool of contenders.

And that’s where this post comes in, on the question of lessons learned. At the risk of contributing more baseless speculation to this parlor game, I’d like to share some insights I gained during the past year as I examined the News Challenge — and the Knight Foundation more generally — for my doctoral dissertation at the University of Texas. (I’m now a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota.)

For starters, you can read the full text of my dissertation (“Journalism Innovation and the Ethic of Participation: A Case Study of the Knight Foundation and its News Challenge“) by going here, or by reading the embedded Scribd file below. If you’re looking for the highlights, skip to page 182 and read the last chapter (Participation and the Professions). Quick tip: This is generally a good way to go when trying to interpret academic articles — look for that “discussion and conclusion” section toward the end.

I described some of my key findings in an earlier Lab post. But with regard to the changes in the KNC for 2011, here are several observations from my time studying the Knight Foundation that might fill in some of the context:

Knight cares intensely about evaluation

This is increasingly true of all nonprofit foundations, really — not just the Knight Foundation. But it was striking to see the extent to which the foundation is working to assess the impact and effectiveness of its funding efforts, through an ongoing “deep review” of its mission and goals. A major part of this review: an examination of the Knight News Challenge after its first three cycles (2007-09). This included a massive content analysis of nearly all proposal documents — resulting in a data set that I analyzed as my part of my project (see Chapter 6 of my dissertation) — and interviews, conducted by outside consultants, with many KNC grantees. At one level, there’s the basic assessment of seeing if grantees’ outcomes matched their goals. At another, there is the big question of reach and influence. For nonprofits funding myriad online sites, as Knight does, at least part of that means reviewing web metrics: traffic, unique visitors, etc. All foundations want metrics to justify their investment — and now more than ever.

So, what does this emphasis on evaluation mean for News Challenge applicants this year? Well, it suggests that in a world where user behaviors are easier to track and analyze than ever before, and thus funders of all stripes (for-profit and nonprofit alike) are hungry for good numbers, having a plan for web metrics — for reaching quantifiable and identifiable targets — is probably going to be more important than in previous cycles.

Is this the News Challenge on SEO steroids? Not exactly, but you get the idea. And this gets to the second point, which is…

Is citizen journalism out? Are business models (and the like) in?

There was an interesting quote in recent coverage of KNC changes that got some attention. It was from Jennifer 8. Lee, a Knight consultant and contest reviewer:

We’re not totally into the citizen journalism thing anymore. It has been given its chance to do its thing and kind of didn’t do its thing that well.

Now, Lee was quick to clarify that she was speaking only for herself, and that the KNC is open to citizen media approaches — just not the kind of generic and repetitive pitches that have populated the pool of applicants recently (think: Flip cams for urban youth):

The contest welcomes content or citizen journalism projects. Innovative content or community reporting models can and do get funded…Since innovation is a core value of the contest, traditional content and citizen journalism projects lacking in innovation were generally not looked upon favorably by contest reviewers.

But, nonetheless, this statement is telling because it gets at a key focus of my dissertation: how Knight has dealt with participation in journalism. In my study of the first three years of the News Challenge, I found that the foundation and its KNC winners championed citizen participation in the news process as something that should happen, not merely something that could happen because of new technologies. Participation was portrayed as an ethic of good journalism in the digital age, a foundational piece of journalism innovation.

So, does that square with the notion of we’re not so into citizen journalism anymore? Perhaps there’s a better way to think about this: Knight has already funded lots of citizen media projects, and the evidence — based on my interviews with KNC winners and overall analysis — suggests that many of these sites struggled to build and maintain a base of users. On the one hand, that’s perfectly understandable: Some of these projects were meant to be short-term in duration; Knight knew many of them would fail, because that’s the nature of innovation; and, hey, in the attention economy, it’s tough for any content provider these days, right? Yet, on the other hand, this struggle to get attention — from citizen contributors and audiences alike — was a formidable challenge for many of the early KNC projects, and, well, it just so happened that many of those early projects happened to be citizen media sites. As a result, citizen journalism comes off looking like a failure, even if the motivation behind it was well intentioned and still well regarded in Knight circles.

The lesson here: Going forward, with this ramped-up emphasis on evaluation and impact, and with apparent concerns about citizen journalism’s sustainability, it would seem that Knight wants to see applicants with a clearer path to success, especially in web metrics. Or, perhaps there’s another way to read this: In a media ecosystem awash in sites pushing content — read our blogs! watch our videos! — with less thought about how that content gets subsidized on a regular basis, Knight wants a better business plan. It wants a sustainable model. After all, there’s a reason it hired a director of business consulting.

David Sasaki, of the 2007 KNC winner Rising Voices, might have captured this problem best in this prescient blog post from 2008:

The Knight Foundation is single-handedly making citizen media both more serious and more respected by giving financial support to some of the field’s most innovative thinkers. But is this a sustainable model for the transformation of media? What happens when the News Challenge’s five-year funding period concludes? All of the News Challenge grantee projects are impressive, innovative, and important, but not a single one is turning a profit, nor do they seem poised to any time soon.

What happens to the “news” in News Challenge?

This is a truly intriguing and as-yet-unanswered question going into this final cycle. The five-year funding period Sasaki described is coming to an end. What comes next?

On the one hand, the News Challenge has proved a successful template for Knight’s growing network of prize-philanthropy challenge contests, and it represents the foundation’s most visible link to its historic roots as a “journalism foundation” with close ties to the industry and its concerns. But, as I pointed out previously, Knight is undergoing a shift in emphasis from “news” to “information” as a way of broadening the boundaries of journalism to accomplish innovation with outside help from other fields and philanthropic funders. The most obvious manifestation of this is the Knight Community Information Challenge, which involves partnering with place-based foundations to meet the “information needs” of local communities.

What becomes, then, of the News Challenge? Is there a renewal of some kind — and if so, does it keep the “journalism” tag? Or does the Community Information Challenge suffice in this space? Only time will tell, but the important thing here is to recognize that Knight has an increasingly nuanced view of journalism — one that sidesteps the “baggage” of professional exclusivity and proactively seeks ideas from other fields (say, the tech sector).

David Cohn, whose Spot.Us is one of the best-known KNC success stories, put it recently, in describing startups like Kommons:

As I’ve said before, we may not call it ‘journalism’ in the future, but if it still meets the news and information needs of a community, more power to it.

That, right there, nicely summarizes the feeling of the Knight Foundation: that it cares much more about the ends (i.e., informed communities) than the means (i.e., journalists and traditional news). How that translates into future challenges (or not) is left to be seen.

[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab.]

POSTED     Oct. 27, 2010, 10 a.m.
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