A deeper look at the News Challenge application questions

Journalism / Article

We’re just a few days away from the deadline in the Knight News Challenge on mobile (noon EST Monday, Sept. 10). Below, Ted Han, project lead for two-time Knight News Challenge winner DocumentCloud, writes about the nature of the application process and highlights things to keep in mind as applicants fill out their proposals.

In the span of about three weeks, 881 entries were written and submitted to the News Challenge on data. A number that large is impressive, especially on the heels of the challenge on networks, which garnered some 1,100 entries. If these numbers are the start of a trend, it says good things about the robustness and vibrancy of the News Challenge community and the News Challenge, which is ultimately only successful as its community.

For the third round of the challenge, on mobile, Knight Foundation is hoping again to host the community and shape the tone and context for our participation through the application they design for each News Challenge. It’s worth talking about the form that applications for the News Challenge have taken this year to get a better sense of how entrants can better prepare their submissions.

The application for Knight News Challenge: Mobile, much like the questions for the data and networks round, consists of a few short questions. Those who follow the world of tech entrepreneurship may notice a similarity to the process that some angel investors use. Investors such as Y Combinator have written at some length about their selection process and rational (even going so far as to publish examples such as DropBox’s successful application).And while the specifics of their applications and goals are distinct from the News Challenge’s, their general advice is sound: write clearlybe specifichelp the reader understand your project.

What applications like the News Challenge’s or Y Combinator’s are designed to do is to cut to the core of an idea. Software developers often discuss the notion of a minimum viable product (MVP), or in plainer terms, the smallest system that must be built in order to satisfy the basic needs of your users. MVPs are important to spirit of software entrepreneurship, as they serve as the basis from which an entrepreneur can test the viability of the basic proposition a product is built around. An MVP serves as an invitation to begin a dialog between an entrepreneur and the users they seek to engage.

The goal of the News Challenge application is similar in spirit to the idea of the MVP – an introduction that extracts the core of an idea. It’s important to appreciate the extent of this spirit. For example, minimum viable products are often far more minimal than the general public would assume, or remember. The iPhone launched without the ability copy or paste text. It took two full iOS releases before the feature was added despite clamoring from users. The viability of the iPhone certainly didn’t suffer for lack of a feature that many assumed to be fundamental to the computing experience.

So, when reading or writing a submission to the News Challenge, keep the idea of the MVP in mind. Ask what the value proposition is for each submission. What need does the submitter identify? What does the submitter intend to build to address that need? How do they intend to build it?

And while we don’t yet know which of the submissions to the data round will win, the submissions by most of the News Challenge Networks award recipients are available to reflect upon (and here are links to submissions from Recovers.orgWatchupPeepol.tv, and Behavio (formerly FUNF)). With the caveat to be cautious about inferring too much from six projects out of 1,100, it’s possible to note that a few patterns emerge amongst the winning submissions.

Aside from the fact that all of the submissions hew to Y Combinator’s advice above, readers may note that each submission (including the two privately submitted for Tor, and SignalNoi.se) were written with existing prototypes or MVPs – some which had established user bases. All of the winning submissions have two or more founders. And three of the six recipients provide explicitly civic motivations for their projects.

For those unfamiliar with Knight Foundation’s mission, the presence of civically motivated projects is particularly worth highlighting. The projects chosen to receive News Challenge funds, as well as the challenge’s application process demonstrate its interest in fostering a shared civic sphere from which others can benefit, regardless of whether they are inside or outside of the News Challenge community. The fact that the vast majority of submissions are visible publicly, and more importantly that others read them (as can be seen by the “likes,” reblogs and comments on Twitter about submissions), is a particular interesting feature of the News Challenge, and one which I hope others will take advantage of now and in the future.