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Sept. 6, 2012, 6:47 p.m.
Business Models

What we know now: Reevaluating the 2009 Knight News Challenge

Some projects, like DocumentCloud and Ushahidi, were widely adopted in the media. Others stumbled due to technical problems or resistance from partners.

It’s been six years since the Knight Foundation launched the Knight News Challenge. It’s very different today than it was then, and the foundation’s been good about retracing its steps along the way and seeing what worked and what didn’t.

Today they released a report card of sorts, looking specifically at the 2009 class of News Challenge winners. That was the class that included projects like DocumentCloud, Ushahidi, MediaBugs, and Councilpedia. (It was also the first News Challenge class we covered here at Nieman Lab, if you want to see how we wrote about them back then.) The 41-page report, prepared by Arabella Advisors, looks at each of the projects, how they were implemented, and what lessons were learned in the process. (You can read the whole report here.)

Of the nine 2009 winners, the ones the report rates most highly are DocumentCloud, the Jefferson Institute’s Data Visualization tools, and Ushahidi. It rates Mobile Media Toolkit as just one tier down, at a level Knight calls “Maintaining” (“projects are active at a level consistent with the original scope of their News Challenge project”). One other winner, Virtual Street Corners, was always intended to have a limited lifespan.

But the other four didn’t work out quite as well, having declined in activity level or closed up shop altogether. CMS Upload Utility, Councilpedia, and MediaBugs have all moved into “Active at a lower level” status, Knight says (“the level of use has decreased and is limited compared with the original scope of their project”). And one, City Circles (née The Daily Phoenix), didn’t get very far at all (“projects are no longer actively being worked on, and faltered as a result of design flaws or implementation and adoption challenges”).

Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president for journalism and media innovation, told me Thursday that the review of past work was part of the process of improving the foundation’s efforts to fund innovation. (Knight did a similar review of the 2007 and 2008 winners.) “The nice thing with the News Challenge is that it’s almost a laboratory for ourselves,” he said.

Build code, build a following

The News Challenge asks that projects not just use open source tools, but also release the software they create to the public. Of the 2009 winners, DocumentCloud, Ushahidi, and Data Visualization stood out for how widely their code has been embraced. In particular, the report says those projects found favor because they persistently released updates rather than waiting for a finished product. They also released code that could be used outside of their specific app. On DocumentCloud, the report says:

The organization made a conscious decision at the start of the project that it would release its source code in smaller, usable modules along the way to full product completion, rather than as one set of code released at the end of the product development cycle. To date, in addition to the main DocumentCloud application, eight standalone components have been released to the public.

The report also finds that projects fared better if they had institutional support to draw on, either internal or external. The Data Visualization project, which is based at the Jefferson Institute, received additional funding from places like the Open Society Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The Mobile Media Toolkit, received money from the U.S. Agency for International Development to create a version of its mobile reporting tool set for media in developing countries. Last year, DocumentCloud found a permanent home at Investigative Reporters and Editors, and it had initial backing from The New York Times and ProPublica. As the report put it: “Winning projects that were hosted within an existing institutional base were often able to more easily draw on the mix of talent and resources they needed to seed and grow their ideas without incurring significant costs.”

When a project stumbles

One of the strengths of DocumentCloud and Ushahidi was a clearly identified goal that sought to address specific problems, whether that was organizing and annotating documents or the need for a tool that lets citizens collect and map information with SMS or Twitter. The report notes that some projects faltered because they didn’t have a clear goal or specific audience in mind. CityCircles, which initially planned to develop a website providing news for commuters on the Phoenix light rail system, later retooled to develop a mobile app. The original site failed to gain significant traffic, according to the Knight report, which prompted the team to try the app approach. But it was too late:

While the project tried to be nimble and adapt to the changing tech landscape by launching its own mobile app in July, it had already exhausted most of its budget and resources in developing its web version, which left little room for mobile app development and marketing.

Where some projects were embraced by media organizations, others faced resistance that would ultimately starve their efforts. Knight awarded $335,000 to MediaBugs, a tool designed to supplement news sites correction reporting by allowing the public to document errors, using software’s bug reporting tools as a model. Despite catching some high-profile errors, the project never caught on. As the report notes: “To date MediaBugs has struggled to gain traction among news organizations with limited adoption of its error correcting service. As of March 2012, 162 bugs had been filed on the site, at an average of seven a month.”

Scott Rosenberg, the creator of the project, told me he knew getting newsrooms to sign off on MediaBugs would be their biggest hurdle. “I assumed from the very beginning, from the application for the grant, that this would be a tough problem,” he said. “I had no illusions this would be a piece of cake, that we would release the thing into the wild and editors would adopt it.”

Many news outlets pointed to the fact they already had error reporting processes, while others said improving corrections was not their top priority. “We were trying to make the case this was an urgent issue and the urgency was not embraced,” he said. “It wasn’t embraced by news leaders and editors, who, in fairness, have a lot of problems they are dealing with right now.”

Still, Rosenberg said he thinks the MediaBugs approach is viable, particularly because the new guard of web-native media companies are more open to transparency and engaging with readership. “It’s not a technical problem,” he said. “It’s a social issue of whether journalism and news organizations are willing to open up a process they are more comfortable to leave closed.”

Lessons for Knight

The report doesn’t spare Knight when it comes to providing lessons on the News Challenge process. Specifically, News Challenge winners said they wanted more communication from Knight, as well as better assistance in areas like marketing and networking with others who could help projects succeed. Maness said they know from past contests that some winners need more help ramping up their project, whether it’s bringing on additional staff or developing a sustainable business model. If a News Challenge winner spends six months to a year struggling with those issues, it will likely set back their project, he said.

Going forward, Maness said, Knight plans to be more clear about the help it can provide for projects and the network of resources winners have at their fingertips. “We recognize the model we have needs to be more consultative, and should give a greater scope of support than just financial,” he said.

Full disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a past funder of the Nieman Journalism Lab, although not through the Knight News Challenge.

POSTED     Sept. 6, 2012, 6:47 p.m.
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