Innovating philanthropy while innovating media: thoughts from the Knight News Challenge review

Reposted from the original on The Knight Foundation Blog.

Raina Kumra, CEO of Juggernaut and co-director of innovation for the BBG (along with Robert Bole), was one of 19 readers who helped decide which of the 52 projects moved to the next round of the Knight News Challenge on networks. Here, she provides her thoughts on trends that emerged from the entries considered.

Knight’s News Challenge is one of the few events in the foundation world that I can think of that makes foundation funds accessible to real people with big and small ideas. This was my first time as a reviewer for the News Challenge (its sixth one to date) and I walked away with an appreciation for each of the ideas put forth, as well as the design of the challenge itself.

rainaThis challenge had over 1,000 submissions. That’s an indication alone that there are few mechanisms in the foundation world that are as widely publicized and instantly accessible for those looking at apps that help media help people. The reviewers were made up of an impressive and diverse group of journalists and other media-centric folk including: Olivia Ma from YouTube, Ethan Zuckerman from MIT’s Center for Civic Media and Harvard’s Berkman Center and Dan Greene from the Gates Foundation to name a few. Lucky for us, the Knight team along with another group of advisors whittled down the entries to about 50 for us to review before the full day session began.

Since the focus of this round of the challenge was networks, a variety of themes emerged from the proposals we reviewed:

·      Truth and Verification were big. Many entries proposed solutions to a long standing and increasingly relevant issue with digital sources and distribution.

·      Another more mature problem that many newsrooms need to tackle is that of the social media dashboard, and there were a slew of entries on that topic. Many of these ideas were well developed, and some had great commercial potential.

·      There were some solid entries looking at sensor based networks and automated data gathering for the news, and for community monitoring of public services or the environment. All very cool and so good to see the arduino being referenced so heavily in so many pitches.

·      Countering homophily was another frequent and interesting topic this year, and there were some great suggestions on how to make news less biased and the curation of news more balanced.

·      A few entries approached the theme of networks in the more traditional way: looking at demographic slices of people i.e. women, environmentalists, or residents of a single city and pitching tools that help strengthen these networks, to collaborate and communicate more effectively.

Working at an international media agency, I am on the constant hunt for projects that can be deployed globally – but there were so many compelling, hyper-local entries that it was really refreshing to think about single community impact without its potential for scale. With my consultant hat on though, I could see so many new startup ideas having their first walk down the aisle. Nascent teams and seedlings of relevant and useful ideas that could eventually grow to scale were given an early debut. There are few arenas for ideas – outside of Kickstarter and the crowdfunding platforms that followed it – that offer pre-flight funding and support like the News Challenge does for ideas that don’t necessarily fit into a typical grant framework.

Knight Foundation also designed the News Challenge to be a feeder for other types of capital and funding, including small and large investments, which I think is smart since philanthropy can only go so far on its own. The News Challenge seems to be a really interesting feeder to some of Knight’s successful investments such as Snag Films, Next Drop and Front Porch Forum.

The News Challenge also informs other aspects of Knight’s journalism grantmaking. Projects like Voice of San Diego, and The Texas Tribune, although not News Challenge winners themselves, were funded in part because in the second year of its challenge, Knight saw a large amount of entries proposing community news sites. Although the projects weren’t innovative enough to fund through the challenge, the foundation felt there was a definite need for them in local communities and decided to find the most promising models to support.

After a day and a half chatting with my fellow reviewers, I’m even more certain the solutions that newsrooms need won’t be coming from the newsrooms themselves. The News Challenge’s meta theme of networks has provided a smart first funnel for innovation in news and philanthropy, by creating opportunities for news consumers, thinkers, tweakers and hackers to help media evolve.