Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Clear writing at foundations: An issue we won’t give up on

July 23, 2012, 3:15 p.m., Posted by Eric Newton


At Knight Foundation, we believe clear writing makes our work more effective. If you have ever seen a sentence promising that one of our grantees will “leverage the stakeholder infrastructure” you know exactly what I mean. If no one can understand us, if we can’t even understand ourselves, how are we going to help communities become more informed and engaged? On our website is a guide for press release writing, an explanation of the readability standard we use, the Flesch score, and, below, an opinion piece I wrote on the subject for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Clear writing doesn’t have to be a chore. It can be fun: the picture in this blog is of me leading a “game show” seminar for the staff called Jargon Jeopardy.

For Foundations, Clearer Writing Means Wiser Grant Making

by Eric Newton

Clarity matters. That seems obvious. Yet in our nation’s capital, when the Sunlight Foundation this spring released a study measuring how well lawmakers communicate, we learned even clarity can be controversial.

Sunlight found that members of Congress have made a big leap these past seven years in their ability to talk clearly. You would think all would jump for joy. We want open government: Clear talk is more accessible than jargon. But no. Sunlight’s news release—and most of the news-media coverage—took a different tack. They asked: “Is Congress getting dumber or just more plainspoken?”

That’s just wrong, and it brings into focus a big issue for foundations.

Too often, we fall into the trap of believing complex communication equals intelligence. Fancy words mean you’re smart; simple words mean you’re dumb. Because my foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, was founded by two of America’s leading newspapermen, we think about this topic a lot and we believe the opposite is true. You have to be smart to convey difficult subjects in clear, understandable prose. If you can do it, your work will be more effective.

To measure Congress, Sunlight used something called the Flesch score. Rudolf Flesch, author of Why Johnnie Can’t Read—and What You Can Do About It, created this measure of readability. The higher your Flesh score, the more understandable you are. The clearer you are, the more people you can reach. Let’s test the Flesch score of a classic children’s song:

Three blind mice
Three blind mice
See how they run
See how they run
They all ran after the farmer’s wife
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife
Have you ever see such a sight in your life
As three blind mice?


Funding for five new media innovation projects announced at #awesummit

July 23, 2012, 1:57 p.m., Posted by John Bracken

Today in Boston, Knight is sponsoring Awesome Summit: Connect, an Awesome Foundation conference focused on rethinking and democratizing philanthropy. (You can follow the conversation via the Center for Civic Media’s blog and on Twitter via #awesummit.)

We became a part of the Awesome Foundation community last year, when we funded the creation of the Awesome Foundation News Taskforce, starting with a project to support media innovation in Detroit.

Today, we announced five new projects with the same theme of media innovation:

SuperPAC App, Jennifer Hollett and Dan Siegel 
SuperPAC App, a project that grew from the MIT Media Lab, is building an app that allows users to quickly capture audio from an ad that's playing on TV or online and fingerprint it. The app then delivers the user information about the ad, including what organization paid for it, where the ad is running and information about the organization funding it. Users can share, comment on and interact with news about the ad.

TheLi.stRachel Sklar (pictured left) & Glynnis MacNicol
Rachel Sklar, creator of Change the Ratio (a project aimed at increasing the presence and success of women in technology and entrepreneurship), is taking her community of leading women to the next level. Sklar and MacNicol are launching, a hub for women in technology that includes a subscription listserve and discussion community, free content and resources for women in the field, and events and convenings on the topic. Knight Foundation is supporting’s work to engage more women in innovation and technology, and to support their rise and success in the space.

These three projects will receive support through our new prototype fund, which offers $50,000 or less to test promising media innovation projects:  

Human rights funders consider mobile media projects

July 23, 2012, 9:33 a.m., Posted by Amy Starlight Lawrence

Funders working to safeguard human rights have a wealth of opportunity in new mobile media tools. They got a glimpse of several of them recently in New York at the Paley Center during the annual meeting of the International Human Rights Funders Group.

Andrew Puddephatt, of Global Partners & Associates set the stage for why the digital age has made mobile media integral – both through opportunities and risks – to the human rights field.

Three hands-on demonstrations provided participants with an opportunity to see how mobile technology is currently being used to advance accountability and advocacy for human rights: 

  1. Yvonne MacPherson from BBC Media Action brought hand-held card sets that interact with mobile phones to allow health workers to better communicate with individuals in their communities. Using pictures on the cards and recorded voice messages by a doctor on the phone – these tools help the health workers explain situations to the people they are trying to help.
  2. Rob Baker from Ushahidi showed the group its water mapping tool and explored the ways this platform could be used in different contexts by human rights funders and grantees.
  3. Sean Bonner from Safecast put Geiger counters, that measure radiation levels,  in the hands of participants and explained why the tool worked to map radiation safe – and unsafe zones – in Japan. He talked about the implications and opportunities of using these types of initiatives in pre- and post-disaster zones.