Our best innovations are still ahead of us

On June 13, 2012 Syracuse University honored Knight Foundation for its i-3 award for impact, innovation and influence in the journalism field. Knight’s President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen received the award on behalf of the foundation at the sixth annual Mirror Awards ceremony in New York. The follow are his remarks from the ceremony.

Thank you, George, for honoring Knight Foundation and the vision of its founders, Jack and Jim Knight. 

I’m proud to receive this from you … and, incidentally, delighted that you’re back in the Knight Studios at the Newseum, hosting ABC’s This Week every Sunday morning.

Thanks as well to Syracuse University. We know and admire the Newhouse School and dean Lorraine Branham. Our Knight Chair in political reporting, Charlotte Grimes is there, as is Dan Pacheco, past grantee of ours and your professor of innovation. 

Thank you all for being here and, in particular, Arianna Huffington and Craig Newmark for coming out to support us today. As president of a foundation that champions “informed and engaged communities,”  I’ve admired the way Arianna has built HuffPo into a true “engagement engine” — and Craig has done as much to create a sense of place and community as anyone I know.

Today’s award recognizes Knight’s work in journalism and media innovation, work we do with many partners, including some who are with us today, like the Associated Press, the New York Times, Columbia Journalism School, City University of NY, WNYC – all valued collaborators in the creation or study of new digital and social media tools and techniques. They are seated today with Eric Newton, who started many of our best journalism projects and who now, as senior adviser at Knight Foundation, is a trusted colleague who deserves a great deal of the credit for this award.

As much as Eric and I appreciate this distinction, we also think our best innovations are still ahead of us. If the cutting edge is good, the bleeding edge is better. That’s where we want to be and we’ve structured our team and leadership to ensure we keep pushing.

Our new head of journalism and media innovation is Michael Maness, the former corporate vice president for innovation at Gannett. He’s joined by new media director John Bracken, a media innovation pioneer from the MacArthur Foundation.

 At the board level, we’ve added three new trustees who will help guide and push us into the media future: Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab, John Palfrey of the Harvard Law School and Berkman Center, and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who recently purchased and is now publisher of The New Republic.  

Honestly, I can’t think of a better way to ensure that we stay focused and alert to change than by bringing together minds like these.

To stay closer to the real cycle of innovation, we’re now offering three Knight News Challenges per year, rather than just one.  And we’ve decided to focus each of the contests on a topic. When we announce our first batch of winners next week at MIT, for example, all will be working on projects dealing with the concept of Networks. 

This year’s second news challenge is open right now.  The theme is Data.  We’re looking for ideas at the intersection of innovation, information and community that specifically focus on data.  If you have an idea, look us up on line and

We’ve also started a rapid prototyping program, giving smaller grants for quick projects that demonstrate concepts. The idea is that in digital space, it is cheaper and more efficient to build and test, perhaps fail – but quickly, learn — and try again.

Another new area for us is commercial investment. Our Knight Enterprise Fund invests money directly from our endowment in for-profit start-ups aligned with our mission. These investments complement our grants program, particularly as all news organizations seek online sustainability.

Look at our grants and you’ll see collaborations and partnerships that wouldn’t have seemed possible just a few years ago. If you look you’ll see Mozilla putting techs into newsrooms.  Dozens of online, non-profit news organizations delivering local news.  YouTube and the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco launching an investigative reporting channel. Google giving us money to invest in media innovation. We deal with ProPublica one minute and Kickstarter the next. Community foundations from Alaska to Puerto Rico sponsoring grassroots news and information projects. Top journalism schools modernizing curriculum in collaboration with the Carnegie Corporation. A new media incubator with Drexel University’s engineering school promoting entrepreneurship being tested at the Philadelphia Inquirer’s

The thread that unites these projects is the “creative destruction” of traditional media in the digital age. Destroy to build.  The goal is not our satisfaction or security; it is informed and engaged communities. 

This is not work for the faint of heart. We accept the challenge. And when we see others take it on, as Newhouse has with the digital Times-Picayune in New Orleans, we pay attention to their work with interest, optimism and high expectations.

When I came to Knight Foundation seven years ago, I found our biggest challenge was letting go – letting go of the idea that because we had history and were the leading journalism funder, we knew the answers.  We had to accept and announce that we did not.  We had to accept, with everyone else, that we were at the dawn of a new age, where technology would change not only habits and practices but also values and norms. To contribute, to succeed in that world, we had to find an institutional open mind.

The Newhouse School i-3 Award is recognition that we’ve made some strides in the direction of an open mind — and we take it also as a challenge because there is so much more to do.

Thank you very much.