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Nieman Journalism Lab
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More Awesome: News Challenge grantee Awesome Foundation wants to fund journalism at the micro level

There’s something inherently meta about the Awesome Foundation winning a grant from the Knight Foundation in order to…give grants. Also, something kinda awesome.

The Awesome Foundation: News Task Force, a winner of this year’s Knight News Challenge, wants to seed hundreds of projects to encourage new ventures in news and information for communities.

In essence, they’ll be acting as a mini-Knight Foundation, offering up support for journalism entrepreneurship and reinvention, one micro-grant at a time. Using the two-year, $244,000 grant, the Awesome Foundation’s new Institute on Higher Awesome Studies will specifically fund local journalism programs, events, apps, and prototypes.

But the news task force will be an experiment in how best to funding new media projects, as much as an exercise in supporting innovation. New funding models are on Knight’s collective mind these days, with the Knight News Challenge wrapping up and the foundation planning its next steps.

“We can help a foundation like Knight give money away in smaller increments to we can see what’s working and not working,” said Christina Xu, who will be overseeing the news task force project.

Tim Hwang, the founder of the Awesome Foundation, told me their structure, as much as there is one, is designed to build community and find the most effective uses for grants. “The Awesome Foundation proper is not a foundation at all,” Hwang said. “It’s an agreement between groups of 10 people to give money to cool projects.”

The Awesome Foundation model, small grants awarded in a quick fashion, is a departure from how nonprofit institutional support traditionally works in journalism, with multi-year, multi-zero checks. While that method certainly has its merits, the Awesome model, Hwang said, produces quicker results and can show whether a project is feasible. Ideally what the task force will do is combine the best of both worlds, making an Awesome Knight Foundation of sorts.

“One of the things we’re interested in, this project is an interesting experiment in bridging the gap from emerging platforms and foundations,” Hwang said.

Until now the Awesome Foundation’s work has primarily been more general purpose, focusing on geography, with chapters in cities around the U.S. and the world. Xu said following last year’s earthquakes in Haiti, the foundation wanted to find ways to broaden their kind of philanthropy. That took shape in the Institute on Higher Awesome Studies, which, while still being awesome, would try to direct funds to more serious causes. Xu said the News Challenge goals for community information were a good fit with the types of proposals the Awesome Foundation receives.

The task force will first set up shop in Detroit and, following Awesome Foundation protocol, they’ll hire a “Dean of Awesome” who will act as a local administrator. The dean, with help from Knight, will identify 10-15 members of the community coming from media, government, technology or civic groups, who will serve as trustees, the group ultimately responsible for awarding grants. Xu said the project could be expanded in a similar model to cities like New Orleans and Miami. Aside from the cost of a stipend for the local administrator the bulk of the money from Knight would be used for grants.

The most obvious difference between the foundations Awesome and Knight is scale, which is something the news task force will try to use to its advantage as it provides grants. Xu and Hwang said the size of grants and the scope of work will attract an audience that may have gone under Knight’s radar. But the other benefit of scale could be the creation of a farm system for journalism and information ideas. After landing a task force microgrant, finessing a proposal or building a beta, the next possible step could be a larger grant from the Knight Foundation, Xu said.

“In the future, [microgrant winners] could be a great pool to be funded, something the Knight News Challenge might want to fund later on,” she said.

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  • Robin Sloan

    Any word on why the Awesome Foundation (which is, indeed, awesome) chose Detroit? I think the city and region are a tough environment for news on any scale. (And I say this w/ a little perspective, as a child of the Detroit suburbs.)

    There’s a nice paean to Detroit on the Awesome Studies blog——but I’m not seeing any special insights into SE Michigan news culture there.

    I guess maybe I should reframe this as a bigger question, applicable to a lot of different things that get discussed here at the Lab: if/when a local news project fails, how do we know if the problem was w/ the mechanics of the project… or the particulars of the community?

  • Justin Ellis

    Robin – When I talked with Christina and Tim they said one of the reasons was the frustration with some – in traditional media and otherwise – with how Detroit was being depicted by others, basically the whole “ruins porn” idea. But they also said that the conditions there, with the News and Free Press, as well as the economy in general, made it ripe for experimenting with news. I got the sense they had done some initial work to see if there was a community of people interested in news and information projects and it was receptive.
    As for your bigger question, that is a good one. Knight, as well as some who have received their funding, is doing reports on how projects have fared

    While I’m not sure if anyone has looked at the specifics of whether projects succeed or fail based on mechanics vs. local conditions, I can tell you it’s something we’ve talked about and are interested in. The recent FCC report on local news sites has spurred a lot of discussion

  • Andrew Whitacre

    Justin, that’s pretty similar to why MIT’s Center for Civic Media has looked for ways to work in Detroit (particularly through our Hero Reports project, which we’re still trying to officially launch in Detroit).

    It’s a city whose residents feel inaccurately portrayed, and it’s a city, like many in the midwest, that has a vibrant civic culture.

    Robin, when projects fail, it’s *always* the mechanics of the project. :) One of the miracles of newspapers’ logistical and financial mechanics is how well they worked in so many different communities for so long. But newspapers the exception. For something like Hero Reports, we’ve had to redesign it for each community…in NYC, it was all web-based; in Juarez, it’s mostly postcard- and radio-based; in Detroit, the plan is to go through community groups.

  • mike whatley wa4d

    Why do these organizations always set up first in places like Detroit or Haiti.  Everyone that can is leaving Detroit (it’s not worth saving) and Haiti  has been a sink hole for US dollars for decades.  Cities and nations incapable of helping themselves don’t deserve coverage.  I predict the “Awesome” foundation will have no more impact on these failed regions than any other news organization.  The utopian sounding  Awesome foundation is unrealistic and has a naive mission. If this group  exists in 2 years, I’ll reconsider my view.  mike/pasadena, ca

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