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Feb. 27, 2014, 9 a.m.
Aggregation & Discovery
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The new Knight News Challenge focuses on strengthening the free and open Internet

Knight, along with the Mozilla and Ford foundations, will award $2.75 million for ideas that can “strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation.”

The Knight Foundation wants to delay the death of the Internet as we know it — at least for a little while longer.

Today Knight is launching the latest installment of its Knight News Challenge, and this round will focus on a subject on many minds these days: how best to support a free and open Internet. Specifically, Knight is asking people how they would answer this question: “How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation?” Those who come up with a good answer — or at least an idea that can pass muster with Knight’s experts and advisers — will get a share of $2.75 million.

Knight has funded the contest for media innovation since 2007 and awarded more than $37 million over that span. This time around, Knight is partnering with Ford Foundation and Mozilla to administer the News Challenge. The contest is open to anyone, with a simple application form on newschallenge.org, with a deadline of March 18. Winners of the News Challenge will be announced at the annual MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference this June.

With the FCC attempting to rewrite its open Internet rules after having them struck down by a federal appeals judge, and the pending merger of cable companies Comcast and Time Warner (not to mention Netflix brokering a deal for better service on Comcast broadband network), there has been growing concern about the future of the Internet from consumer advocates and other technology watchers. (Not to mention those three letters N, S, and A and attendant concerns about surveillance and privacy.)

“We see the Internet as a really important resource for expression, for learning, for journalism, for connecting to one another as neighbors in the community — we want to make that stronger,” said John Bracken, Knight’s director of journalism and media innovation.

With the events of the past few weeks, the News Challenge might seem particularly timely, but Bracken said protecting the free flow of information has been among Knight’s main concerns for years. He pointed to the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, a collaboration with the Aspen Institute that aimed to “maximize the availability and flow of credible local information” and “enhance access and capacity to use the new tools of knowledge and exchange.”

Bracken said recent events will only add more urgency to the News Challenge. “Clearly it’s a topic on a lot of people’s minds,” he said. “It’ll be exciting to see what it yields in terms of ideas and broadening our idea of the topic.”

In the most recent round of the News Challenge, which focused on health, applicants were asked to answer the question “How can we harness data and information for the health of communities?” The latest round offers a similarly open-ended question on the subject of the Internet. Bracken said that was done be design to try to spur as many new ideas as possible. (Knight is again using IDEO’s OI Engine to channel ideas through the contest.)

Making the ask appealing is one part of the equation; another is taking an active approach to finding people to apply. One of the reasons Knight partnered with Mozilla and Ford is to tie into their networks. In the Venn diagram the three organizations share, Internet openness and democratic access to information slots nicely into the middle. Knight and Mozilla already collaborate on the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews.

“We want to expand the network of people we’re reaching. You look at the Internet and open web and building useful tools, and Mozilla and their community come to mind,” Bracken said.

Bringing partners into the News Challenge is only the latest tweak Knight has made to the competition in the last several years as it re-evaluates the way it funds innovation in journalism. Since 2012, the News Challenge has been broken up from one annual call into smaller, shorter, themed contests. But the long-term future of the News Challenge remains under examination. (As Knight president and CEO Alberto Ibargüen said at the MIT-Knight Civic Media conference last year: “It may be finished. It may be that, as a device for doing something, it may be that we’ve gone as far as we can take it.”)

Bracken said they’re still re-tooling the competition, as well as expanding the funding opportunities for new projects through other programs like the Knight Prototype Fund. “We want to constantly extend the network of people we work with, and one way to do that is collaborating on a new News Challenge,” Bracken said.

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

Image by Roo Reynolds used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 27, 2014, 9 a.m.
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