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Gary Kebbel on the Knight News Challenge

Gary Kebbel, the journalism program officer for the Knight Foundation, has a tough job. He has to give away a lot of money… which tends to be much tougher than you’d think. He’s in charge of the Knight News Challenge, a project to fund innovation in digital journalism, which is supporting the Rising Voices project at Global Voices, as well as other Knight projects focused on the future of journalism. Gary’s in an excellent place to search for what’s new in news, as he’s been on the cutting edge of digital journalism for most of his career – he was the founding editor of usatoday.com and newsweek.com, and was director of AOL News.

His talk at Berkman looks at the logic, the history and the future of the News Challenge. The Knight foundation, he tells us, is based on the belief that “A good publisher can help identify the community to itself.” But newspapers are losing circulation, losing advertisers and failing to get young readers – what will happen to this community information function?

The “defining mantra” of the program is “Serving the information needs of communities in a democracy.” The “community” aspect of that phrase is important – the grantmaking focuses on specific communities in specific areas, which is an invitation for some critics to say, “You don’t understand the web – it’s all about virtual communities.” Kebbel responds, “I don’t vote virtually… Geography is crucial to the way we all function.”

The goal of the project is to help the news industry change – it’s “not a newspaper preservation act.” It’s possible that newspapers will adopt the new models and technologies introduced, but that’s not a guarantee. But Kebbel is concerned that the creators of technology for newsgathering and reporting may not share the values critical to good journalism: ethics, free speech, separation of content from advertising, separation of news and opinion. “If journalists are not engaged in creation of these tools, and the tools are created by techies who don’t know or care about these things, that gives us pause.”

The goal is the survival of a community information resource, not the survival of newspapers as we know them. “If newspapers die, that’s one thing – if the information function in a community dies, that’s a terrible thing.”

He offers an overview of some of the grants made in last year’s News Challenge and the logic for issuing them. Several grants cluster around the idea of “hoping to learn something new”:

– A grant to MTV to support youth journalists, covering US elections via mobile media, with a hope of delivering content “on the platform young people are most comfortable with.”
MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media, a collaboration between the Media Lab and the Comparative Media Studies department to study the information needs of communities and, in some cases, creating products to serve them
– Arizona State University’s Digital Innovation lab and Entrepreneurship Lab, designed to turn interesting new media ideas into functional products

Another set of grants seeks to lead the journalistic field:
– Supporting the Chi-town Daily News in deploying a citizen reporter to each of Chicago’s 80 neighborhoods, trained by a community organizer. This raises questions of how you find, train and retain community reporters.
Every Block, a project by Adrian Holovaty, designed to organize huge databases of civic information around location, so you can find out critical information based on your physical location
– Three grants focused on games, used to explain ongoing stories. Will game designers be able to create templates that newspapers might use in the future for coverage of breaking stories?

A third set of grants are designed to serve the journalistic profession:
– The Citizen Media Law Project, also based at the Berkman Center, which tracks lawsuits involving citizen media and threats to citizen media
Rising Voices, which gives microgrants to “expand storytelling capability and citizen involvement in parts of the world that don’t have it”.
– Village Soup, which is building a free CMS designed to be a “newspaper in a box” which supports advertising, administration, and is “easier to load that Drupal.”
– Northwestern University, to offer nine scholarships to computer science students to get masters’ degrees in journalism.

The 2006 Challenge received 1600 applications – this year’s content received 3000, which are still being read. The participation is far more international than last year – 40% of applications came from outside the US, while 15% were received from outside the US in 2006. Knight used international PR firms and MTV to try to reach audiences around the world, especially youth audiences, since this year’s contest has reserved $500,000 of its $5 million prize fund for grants to “young creators”, innovators under 25 years old.

People submitting applications also had the option of making those applications open, reviewable by the general public. 40% of people chose this option, and grants averaged two comments apiece – a few applicants took advantage of the option to resubmit their grants based on comments received.

Reviewing the applications received thus far, Gary reveals this dissapointment and excitement. “Evidently a lot of people didn’t understand what we meant by ‘innovative’ – people looked at last year’s winners and applied their models to another content area.” Innovative news ideas have included applications for Facebook and creative uses of GPS, including annotation of public spaces.

Some of the issues that have come up were unpredictable. If Knight funds an application which had a good deal of input in the open process, does the intellectual property belong exclusively to the idea’s main author, or does the commenter have a stake. (The sense, so far, is that the initial author “owns” the idea.) What happens when a 16-year old gets funded? Are their parents funded? What if there’s a conflict between a child and a parent?

In the question and answer session, I asked a question about Knight’s funding in the international space. I criticized the News Challenge when we received our grant (never a great idea!) for their strong US focus – Global Voices was the only international recipient in the first round of grants, and we are, at present, a US-housed organization. Gary points out that Knight hasn’t done a ton of international funding, and that they’ve got concerns about monitoring overseas grants. The Challenge has set a hard standard for innovation – they’re not interested in funding something that’s “innovative in its country”; the goal is to fund projects that are objectively innovative. This may rule out some worthwhile projects from developing nations. It’s possible that Knight may partner with international funders in the future to make it more possible to support interesting projects from outside the US.

2 thoughts on “Gary Kebbel on the Knight News Challenge”

  1. This was interesting Ethan. I would like to point out that what we are able to implement in the developing world is often innovative to our countries and communities but could seem “old hat” to those in the “first world”. Its also interesting to note that developing world innovation is often a hybrid of all sorts or different tactics/methodologies because we often have unique environmental, governmental (etc) challenges to address.

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