Since last year we’ve known the Knight Foundation would be revamping their annual innovation contest to better meet the pace of change in technology and information. After completing its initial five-year run — which saw 12,000 applications and $27 million in funding to journalism and information projects — Knight said they would pull back and examine how they could continue to fund that kind of experimentation in the future.
Today we know a lot more about what that will look like. The biggest change is to the calendar: Instead of one big competition a year, there’ll be three in 2012. The new News Challenge is more topic-focused: Two of this year’s contests will seek projects on specific themes, with the third remaining a catchall. And Knight is going farther than ever before to widen the kinds of people who might apply: removing its requirement to open-source the project’s work and emphasizing it will take appeals from individuals, nonprofits, for-profits, and presumably any organizational structure on land or sea. (You can get an idea of the kind of, er, stylistic freedom they’re preaching in the 1992-fever-dream video above.)
The emphasis is on speed — competitions will last no more than 8-10 weeks each, rather than the October-to-June cycle of some previous iterations. The total amount of money at stake remains about the same as before: a total of $5 million in this first year of the new model, Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president of journalism and media innovation told me.
In the first installment of the new-look News Challenge, which opens Feb. 27 and closes on St. Patrick’s Day, the focus is on networks, a topic that’s purposefully broad. As they explained in the blog post introducing the new challenge:
There are a lot of vibrant networks and platforms, on- and off-line, that can be used to connect us with the news and information we need to make decisions about our lives. This challenge will not fund new networks. Rather, we’re asking you to describe ways you might use existing platforms to drive innovation in media and journalism.
When I asked Maness what that means, he said applicants should focus on how existing systems can be used to deliver information in new ways. Instead of coming to Knight with a pitch for the next Facebook, talk about how your proposal could use it better. “We’re saying there are already robust tools on the internet. Let’s use those,” Maness said. (Sorry, aspiring Zuckerbergs.)
For Knight, the networks that matter aren’t just your Facebooks and Twitters and Pinterests and LinkedIns. There’s also the network of Knight-funded projects, initiatives, and people. (A network that, full disclosure, includes this site, a Knight grantee.) Last year’s class of News Challenge winners included a number of projects that built on early News Challenge winners, and efforts like Knight’s “test kitchen” at Northwestern are aimed in part at assembling and recombining the pieces of other innovative efforts.
Other Knight grantees have long been a source of support and information for News Challenge winners, Maness said. But more broadly, those networks of existing technology and other platforms can be a stepping stone to success, and ultimately sustainability, he said. What Knight is saying, to a point, is your chances of making it increase if you aren’t starting from the ground floor, building something that might not have the momentum to survive once the funding runs out. “If something can grow and fend for itself it can have a broader impact,” Maness said.
By dropping the open-source requirement, Maness said the foundation can better help people on all ends of the spectrum, from early-stage projects to those that are already established. One example: a company that might need a nudge to get to the next level but don’t want to show their code just yet. But Maness said Knight still wants to encourage open-source development because that can help future projects and, on a philosophical level, is good for the web. “Ultimately our goal is social return on what we do, so [a project] has to be something that makes sense to what we’re trying to achieve,” he said.
The overarching message seems to be a desire to cast as wide a net as possible to spur innovation in journalism and community information. By pulling back on past restrictions, while emphasizing things like impact and scalability, Knight is also trying to be a smarter, more agile organization that can ensure a return (even if its not a monetary one) on their investments. In that same way, they also want to leverage the institutions, people, and technology that are already available in the world of journalism — especially those Knight helped lay the groundwork for.
And they want to do it fast — faster than a year at a time. “Over the course of five years, what started as being radical at the time…the speed of the Internet and disruption happened so much faster,” Maness said. “We wanted to focus on making a contest that was faster and more nimble.”
Disclaimer: The Knight Foundation is a funder of the Nieman Journalism Lab