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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

New Knight News Challenge puts emphasis on pragmatists and builders

The first round of the new challenge is open and the (short) applications call for creativity and conciseness.

Now that the first new round of the Knight News Challenge is up and running there are a couple of things that seem to stand out, the biggest being the emphasis on speed and simplicity.

The speed part is not a surprise, given the fact that the $5 million innovation contest now takes place three times a year, with a gestation period of a little more than three months. (The application period runs from now till St. Patrick’s day. Winners are announced in June.) No, the interesting thing in today’s announcement was the dead simplicity of it all: A finished application will round out to about 450 words. And you can send it via Tumblr. (And, as you can see above, they’re also back with MOAR Michael Maness on the Internets. Also, a bewildered chihuahua.)

It seems like less of a start-up pitch session and more like a call for bids for a general contractor. And that may not be a bad thing.

As we’ve written before, Knight has a clear interest in improving the funding process for these projects. It has as much to do with their desire to get a social — or monetary — return in the investments they are making, as well as their mission to help transform journalism. What Knight is doing now is trying to shake out the best way to do that, and concise and complimentary are the guide words. Here’s John Bracken on the Knight blog:

We’re looking for ideas that build on the rise of these existing network events and tools — that deliver news and information and extend our understanding of the phenomenon. Anyone — businesses, nonprofits, individuals — can apply.

That’s why I come back to the contractor idea (that, or too much HGTV). What Knight is saying, especially with the networks theme, is don’t design us a house, just make a better kitchen. We don’t need architects and entrepreneurs, we want plumbers and engineers. I may be reading too much into the word “build,” but the application seem to emphasize clarity, skill and a focused knowledge, rather than a grand vision for saving journalism.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with entrepreneurs or visionaries, and by no stretch will the eventual winners not be big thinkers. But in streamlining their funding process, diversifying the funding mechanisms (grants, loans or investment capital are now on the table), and hanging the first challenge on the concept of networks, Knight is saying journalism needs people whose creative vision is critical and tempered with pragmatism. There’s no shortage of dreamers and thinkers wanting to tackle the big problems in journalism — and there probably never will be — but Knight appears to be designing a contest that can get builders working on the basics today.

Clock’s ticking. Make sure to read more about the application process before the March 17 deadline.

Disclaimer: The Knight Foundation is a funder of the Nieman Journalism Lab

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  • john bracken

    Justin, thanks for this—some quick reactions.
    First, re the biggest being the emphasis on speed and simplicity: totally
    I want to push back a bit on the “pragmatists” framing, though.
    Yes, we’re looking for projects that will put points on the board. As you
    suggest, we’re also counting on “dreamers and thinkers” to apply. Contractors
    are welcome, but so are “architects and entrepreneurs.
    And they have 19 days until the contest closes, so think fast.  

  • Justin Ellis

    John – Thanks for the feedback! As I said in the post, I don’t think the dreamers of dreams will be discouraged and won’t apply, rather that the new look of the contest, and the framing of this first round, puts a focus on skill and working within/on top of existing systems. To some extent that requires a different kind of thinking, one that to me is more practical. But again, as I said, it’s creative vision tempered with critical thinking.
    There are certainly no shortage of big thinkers and would be entrepreneurs, and I don’t think any of them are discouraged from applying!

  • john bracken

    To close the loop: met this aft with folks involved in early stages of current web giant. They described the innovator who made the company possible as a “pragmatist.” (Also called him “savant.”) So maybe I need to be more open to the term….

  • Anonymous

    So they now need interpreters?