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A Y Combinator for public media: PRX, Knight launch a $2.5 million accelerator

Public media is taking a cue from Silicon Valley, embracing risk and rapidly funding disruptive, short-term projects.

A new Public Media Accelerator, funded by $2.5 million from the Knight Foundation, will rapidly fund disruptive ideas in public media, PRX announced today.

Public Media Accelerator logoThe final details are still being worked out, but the accelerator is modeled on successful startup-focused initiatives like TechStars and Y Combinator. Technologists and digital storytellers will compete for cash to build their ideas. Winners will come to Cambridge for intensive, 12-week development cycles, under the guidance of mentors with deep experience in the field, all culminating in a demo day and the chance to win additional rounds of funding.

“In the digital domain we’re not setting the pace for innovation in the same way we did in the broadcast world,” said Jake Shapiro, the executive director of PRX. The accelerator is welcoming both nonprofit and for-profit ventures, unusual for public media. Shapiro said he wants to attract top talent, people who might never consider the field otherwise.

Last week, writing for Idea Lab, Shapiro said he observed a “worrisome gap” between coders and storytellers, estimating that fewer than 100 of the 15,000 people in public broadcasting are developers :

As public broadcasting goes through its own turbulent transition to a new Internet and mobile world, the technology talent gap is a risk that looms large. Yes, there are many other challenges…But the twin coins of the new digital realm are code and design, and with a few notable exceptions, public media is seriously lacking in both.

A shortage of innovation is not unique to public media, he told me. Nonprofits suffer constraints on financing ideas to scale, a lack of risk capital, and a lack of investment in deep R&D and technology, Shapiro said. The accelerator “gives license to risk in a more intentional way, and we definitely need more of that.”

The Public Media Accelerator is also another sign the Knight Foundation is taking cues from Silicon Valley’s startup culture. Knight will retain a financial stake in for-profit ventures that receive seed money, moving away from its traditional role as pure philanthropist. Earlier this year, Knight launched a venture-capital enterprise fund. And in October, senior adviser Eric Newton said the annual Knight News Challenge, a five-year experiment, will speed up to three times per year, starting in 2012.

“As we’ve started funding more smaller entities and startups, that model makes a lot more sense for us,” said Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president of journalism and media innovation. “That model allows us to go smaller, faster, more nimble.”

Even the program came together fast: Shapiro approached Maness and Knight’s John Bracken with the idea in July. Board approval came in September, and the project will formally get underway at SXSW Interactive in March.

So if for-profits are making public media and funders are buying stakes in startups, is it “public media” anymore? What is public media, anyway?

“It’s about intent and values and goals and impact,” Shapiro said. “I’ve been in endless philosophical conversations about ‘what is public media’ over the years, and in some cases there are examples of pub media that are completely outside our field. I think on good days The Daily Show is public media…I think Wikipedia is public media. I’d rather just claim them than have to reinvent them,” he said, half-joking.

The Public Media Accelerator immediately begins searching for a director to administer the fund and an advisory board. Shapiro, Manness, and Bracken will remain as advisers.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    July 22, 2014
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