Knight News Challenge

What we learned

In 2010 and 2011, the Knight News Challenge supported a diverse set of media innovations—from a platform to help local newsrooms use and analyze municipal data to a tool to help journalists make sense of vast amounts of social media activity.

Here's what we learned:

2010 Winner profiles

2011 Winner profiles

Executive summary

Disruption and innovation have become regular features of the news and media landscape. Social media feeds and newsreaders are replacing printed words and pages. Ordinary citizens with smartphones and Twitter or Instagram accounts increasingly stand in for trained reporters. Hacker journalists—wearing the hats of both journalist and coder—crunch massive data sets to find the insights buried within, as major news media organizations struggle simply to keep up with the crowdsourced pace of social media.

That’s where the Knight News Challenge comes in. Launched in September 2006 by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the News Challenge invests in people who are testing new ideas for engaging citizens with news and information. It is an open contest designed to accelerate innovation in the ways that we create, consume, and share news and information by developing new ideas to reach more people more effectively. In each round of the News Challenge, Knight Foundation trustees approve the winners as recommended by Knight staff, with the advice of outside advisers. Since its inception, the Knight News Challenge has provided more than $37 million to fund 111 projects in the United States and around the world.

In 2010 and 2011, the Knight News Challenge supported a diverse set of media innovations—from a platform to help local newsrooms use and analyze municipal data to a tool to help journalists make sense of vast amounts of social media activity. In Vermont, 2010 News Challenge Winner Front Porch Forum uses an online platform to strengthen the sense of offline community in towns and cities across the state. When Hurricane Irene produced record flooding in 2011, Vermonters used the platform to organize community response and to connect towns in need with volunteer help. Across the world, in Indonesia, palm oil farmers use FrontlineSMS—a 2011 News Challenge winner that uses mobile technology to share and disseminate community information—to organize collective efforts to challenge encroachments on their rights by big palm oil corporations.

Knight Foundation hired evaluation firm Arabella Advisors to explore the innovations and impact of these winners. Arabella reviewed grant materials, analyzed Web metrics and social media data, surveyed the winners, and interviewed both winners and key informants in the field. Through that research Knight discerned lessons about what contributes to a successful media innovation. These include the lessons learned listed above.

The Knight News Challenge has evolved significantly since its inception. Knight continues to review the challenge and learn from the winners to help news and information industries navigate the disruption in traditional strategies and uncover new models of sustainability. In the pages that follow we provide additional detail on these lessons, ideas and insights—as well as on the progress of each of the winners of the Knight News Challenge from 2010 and 2011.

Lesson one

Measure success based on how funding improves the field, not just on the adoption or impact of individual projects

The best barometer of success isn’t the outcome of individual projects but the effects projects may have on their sectors or industries. Funders should focus on building the capacity of innovators as leaders in their fields or strengthening their network of supporters and collaborators for long-term impact—regardless of the sustainability of particular projects.

For example, in developing The State Decoded, a 2011 winner, Waldo Jaquith hoped to build upon work in Virginia to make state laws more readable and accessible to citizens. The goal was to create a platform that could be adapted to state codes across the country. In doing so, Jaquith became a leader in the open government field. His success is attributable to several factors. An active community of users supports The State Decoded, and the platform has been adapted for use in a number of states and municipalities across the country. But Jaquith also set very clear goals for the project, and most importantly, he stuck with his original timeline. He outlined a clear beginning, middle and end for his involvement in The State Decoded, and eventually handed off its development to the community of open government activists and hackers. This has contributed to Jaquith’s leadership within that community. He continues to use his prominence to advocate for greater governmental transparency. As his involvement in The State Decoded was concluding, Jaquith launched—with Knight Foundation support—the U.S. Open Data Institute, which replicates a British effort to encourage governments and businesses to adopt open data standards as a way to promote economic growth, innovation and social change, demonstrating his ongoing leadership in the open government field.

Investments in leadership sometimes pay off significantly even when products are not particularly successful or widely adopted. Brian Boyer developed PANDA as a set of Web-based tools that could serve as a newsroom’s data library. As conceived, PANDA would help journalists import, search, share and work collaboratively with large public data sets. Although PANDA has received praise for its technical sophistication and its usability, newsrooms have not adopted it as widely as hoped. The underwhelming adoption rate is partly attributable to the fact that Boyer and his project team were not able to dedicate themselves full time to developing and marketing PANDA. However, as he developed PANDA, Boyer’s stature in data journalism rose. Based on his work at The Chicago Tribune—and, presently, in his role as news applications editor at NPR—Boyer became a leader in the field, someone who could help bridge traditional journalism with the more technically sophisticated aspects of data analysis and visualization. Today, PANDA is no longer in active development, and by conventional measures, it failed the test of sustainability. But the project strengthened Boyer’s position as a leader and advocate in the field of data journalism—an outcome with potentially farther-reaching implications than that of a single tool, even if the tool had been widely adopted.

Lesson two

Target users with "a need you can feel"

Many News Challenge winners develop innovative tools or approaches that target journalists, their employers and other media organizations, but selling innovations to news organizations is extremely difficult because they may lack the money and time to spend on innovative projects or the technical capacity to take full advantage of new tools. The innovation may also be entering a market guarded by institutions that may be resistant to change. Fundamentally, unless an innovation addresses a pressing need, journalists and news organizations will not adopt it. In fact, innovators need to anticipate resistance, and create development and marketing plans that address it. Innovators may need to diversify their user bases beyond journalists and news organizations to promote wider adoption and project sustainability.

In many cases, media organizations—especially in small or medium markets—lack not just the need for innovative tools, but also the resources and capacity to support ambitious technology development. One of the 2011 News Challenge winners, Zeega, aimed to build a platform that enabled local news organizations to create multimedia stories about their own communities. By developing an easy way to combine video clips, audio clips and images from a variety of sources, Zeega would make it easier for news organizations to tell stories in different and compelling ways. Initially, the project team provided consulting services to local media organizations to help them produce customized multimedia experiences with the Zeega tool. But they quickly found that providing custom consulting drained limited staff time and resources and detracted from their ability to develop Zeega as a product that could have appeal to a general audience. The local news organizations that Zeega had identified as its target users were not willing to pay for the tool. Zeega ultimately changed both its product and its business model. Zeega’s leaders now view the target audience as the wider tech-savvy population equipped with smartphones and tablets.

In other cases, a real need for a new tool might exist, but the barriers to its adoption might simply outweigh that need. This is especially true in data-driven journalism. ScraperWiki, for example, a 2011 News Challenge winner, received funding to adapt its tool to help journalists collect, store and publish data from across the Internet. But the project team found that news organizations were either unwilling to pay for the tool or that the learning curve was too steep. ScraperWiki has since developed a more user-friendly version of its tool, but adoption rates among journalists remain below expectations, and ScraperWiki is still dependent upon non-media corporate customers to support development costs.

Lesson three

Be open to the idea that your project may appeal to a different audience than you imagined

In some cases, a project’s ultimate audience or user base can differ dramatically from that for which it was originally conceived or designed. Several 2010 News Challenge winners made significant changes to help their projects gain traction. While developing their respective tools, the project teams behind Stroome and Game-O-Matic tried to broaden their original audiences from journalists and editors to include citizen journalists and casual users. CityTracking moved in an opposite direction: Finding that journalists were too broad of an audience, it now focuses on serving the need of more technically proficient developers.

Overview, a tool to help journalists visualize patterns within large sets of documents, also faced a choice about whether to continue serving its intended audience or to shift to a new model. However, the project leaders also had to weigh their own values about what they hoped to achieve within their own innovation, even if those values might steer them away from models that made more financial sense. From the outset, Overview’s target audience was journalists, and its mission was to empower them to tell stories that might otherwise remain hidden in large, inaccessible or disorganized document sets. As the tool was being developed, Overview received an increasing amount of interest from potential customers in finance, business consulting and the legal profession. Pursuing these clients, however, would have required a shift of emphasis, a shift of resources, and a shift in organizational structure. The project team considered reincorporating Overview as a for-profit venture, but they kept coming back to the same conclusion: Although they might be able to develop a for-profit venture to attract funding to finance additional development costs, this would necessitate a shift away from their original target users—journalists. The Overview team determined that they didn’t want to become “just another startup.” They wanted to focus on their original social-driven mission and their original users.

Lesson four

Spend the time to get the user interface right

User interface can play a major role in determining whether a media innovation is actually adopted by its audience—an interface that’s fun to use or saves the user’s time can make the difference between a tool that’s used and one that gathers dust. Among the innovations developed by News Challenge winners, the most effective interfaces frequently have been those that appear simple or straightforward. But such user-facing simplicity is hard to build. The user interface of Front Porch Forum, for example, was deliberately designed to be clean and straightforward, unadorned with extraneous features. Although it is an online tool, Front Porch Forum’s end goal is to strengthen the sense of offline community in Vermont towns and cities. The project team has designed the site’s features and functionality around this social formula by keeping the interface deliberately sparse. This allows users to get what they need from the site and build their offline community, while discouraging them from spending “all day in front of a computer.”

If media innovators aspire for wide adoption of their tools, they cannot overlook the development of an effective user interface; it’s often more important than the features or functionality of the tool itself. Indeed, according to Ian Bogost of Game-O-Matic, developing features and functionality may represent 80 to 90 percent of the effort in developing an innovative media tool. But that last 10 to 20 percent entails developing usability and polish, and that’s often the hardest part of bringing a tool to market. Given the fast pace of innovation in the media marketplace, News Challenge winners may only have one opportunity to release their tool for wide use.

Lesson five

Provide substantial support to grantees beyond money, such as creating a cohort of peers and providing access to influential networks

Many 2011 News Challenge winners expressed a desire for a greater degree of support in building strong and resilient project teams with the skills necessary to develop and scale their innovations; in developing effective marketing strategies to find new users; and in planning for sustainability beyond the period of the News Challenge grant. While Knight may be capable of providing some of this support, access to its networks of thought leaders and advisers can be invaluable for grantees negotiating these issues.

Just as important to the News Challenge winners, however, was the expertise of other winners. The 2011 winners reported that the opportunities to interact directly with fellow News Challenge winners—such as events held in Cambridge, Mass., Palo Alto, Calif., and Miami—proved to be extremely valuable, especially sharing information with projects that were either in different stages or had experienced similar challenges. Several winners expressed the desire for additional opportunities to interact with, and learn from, their fellow News Challenge winners. The opportunities that were most valuable were the in-person events in which winners could build connections with one another, and discover new connections with winners working in seemingly different arenas.

The value of these in-person convenings of News Challenge winners extends beyond individual cohorts. The 2011 winners valued their interactions with News Challenge winners from other years, and would have welcomed greater opportunities to nurture those relationships. Winners said they were more likely to seek support and advice from other winners via e-mail and other means if they first met in person and developed some degree of familiarity.

Lesson six

Anticipate resistance to innovation and the disruption it will cause, and plan around it

Whether it takes the form of a new product or tool to empower citizen journalists or a new process to engage consumers of news and information, a media innovation often enters a space that is already occupied by time-tested methods and approaches, and one that often is guarded by institutions that may be resistant to change. These institutions may not react kindly to new innovations invading their space, because the innovation disrupts their normal course of operations. Innovators need to anticipate this resistance, and create development and marketing plans that reckon with it.

The 2010 News Challenge winners were no strangers to resistance. OpenCourt, for example, sought to change the way that citizens of Massachusetts were connected to their judicial system by live-streaming court proceedings and trials in Quincy. But this represented a fairly radical change in how the court system in Quincy interacted with the media and with citizens at large, and OpenCourt faced numerous lawsuits that attempted to prevent it from streaming trial footage. Ultimately, OpenCourt prevailed on appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, setting the precedent that OpenCourt—or other innovators in Massachusetts—could install cameras in courtrooms and broadcast their proceedings on the Internet. It succeeded in part because John Davidow, the project director, anticipated the strong institutional resistance he would face, prepared for it and had the support to persevere in the face of litigation and delays. Perhaps most importantly, the project had the benefit of an established home—Boston University—which paid for OpenCourt’s legal expenses as it fended off resistance.

Basetrack represents another example of a News Challenge project that sought to shake up institutional norms. In its effort to create an online, social media reporting network, it embedded a team of reporters and photojournalists with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment during its deployment to Afghanistan. The military has strict rules governing how journalists can embed with deployed units in combat zones, and it was no small achievement that the project was able to embed with the Marine unit in the first place. Only a few months after deployment, however, the Marines asked Basetrack to cease its project, due principally to concerns that the project’s location-based reporting was revealing sensitive information about the position of U.S. forces. If the Marines were uncomfortable with the location data that Basetrack was providing, however, they could have worked with the project to remove the potentially dangerous information. But fundamentally, the military was extremely wary about unconventional efforts to report news from the battlefields and there was a limit to how far Basetrack could push the military’s standard practices regarding journalists.

Lesson seven

Identify the elements of a project that require full-time staff and those that can be entrusted to volunteers—and invest resources accordingly

Many projects plan at the outset to rely upon a dedicated user community to refine and promote an innovation, and upon vocal evangelists to drive wider adoption of their tools. In many cases, user communities and evangelists can become indispensable (and inexpensive) cornerstones of a project, especially when a project is dependent upon open source development. But without a core group of paid staff with the skills, the time, and the incentive to devote themselves full time to a project, development of a tool can suffer. Certain important elements of a project—such as product promotion and content creation—can be outsourced in some cases to users, evangelists and the open source community. But other critical elements—such as core software development, business development and fundraising—should generally be entrusted to dedicated, paid project staff.

When it comes to staff, passion alone is not sufficient—full-time commitment is often necessary, along with the money to make that a reality. The Tiziano Project, for example, won 2011 News Challenge funding to develop and refine its proprietary storytelling platform into StoriesFrom, which would combine user-generated content with content from professional journalists to tell news stories in more compelling ways. Relying on the strong reputation of its existing platform and on the enthusiasm of the founders, the project team experienced initial success in terms of developing partnerships and launched its platform ahead of schedule. But it quickly faced challenges related to its staffing model. Prior to winning the News Challenge, the Tiziano Project team consisted of highly motivated volunteers. The team dedicated a portion of its News Challenge award to paying for a full-time project manager and to providing part-time compensation for other team members. But this ultimately proved to be a significant underinvestment. The part-time team members lost the sense of commitment and excitement they had possessed as pure volunteers, while not being compensated to a degree sufficient to capture their full attention and energy. In addition, the team did not invest in staff dedicated to fundraising or business development. They had assumed that once the initial partnerships were forged, users would find StoriesFrom, use the platform and organically raise the visibility of the platform. As it happened, without a full-time staff member dedicated to business development and partnership management, momentum behind the project quickly slowed. The initial enthusiasm that users and partners expressed for the project faded as well, and without the investment in full-time staff to carry the work forward, the project faltered.

Lesson eight

Recognize the benefits and challenges of open source code

The requirement that News Challenge winners use open source code and publicly release any code they create has definite advantages. It encourages iteration and improvement, and it can magnify the impact of the winners’ work. DocumentCloud—which first won the News Challenge in 2009—produced Backbone.js, an open source JavaScript library that has since become a fundamental and widely used component for building Web-based applications, and in the words of one key observer, has proven “sufficient to justify the entire cost of the News Challenge.” But the open source requirement is not an absolute good, especially for News Challenge projects that include the scaling of an existing product or tool and that already have an established method for code development and dissemination. Front Porch Forum, a 2010 winner, represented such a case, with the project team reporting that the open source requirement was a drain on valuable time and resources, and that it provided little—if any—value to the project.

It is also important to consider where the benefits of open source accrue. In some cases, the News Challenge winners themselves benefit from using and sharing open source code. In other cases, it is the wider community of developers that benefits most. It is entirely conceivable that the winner might bear the cost of developing open source code, without receiving an equivalent or offsetting benefit, which might accrue to someone else entirely. It is important to consider such implications on a winner-by-winner basis, and to be flexible with grant terms and conditions to create an arrangement that will be most supportive of innovators’ efforts. The open source requirement could also be improved and implemented in a way that grants more flexibility in the types of open source licenses that winners can use.

Past reports

This report is the fourth in a series of studies tracking the progress of Knight News Challenge winners since 2007. Other reports include:

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