Knight Blog

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

Announcing the Knight News Challenge: Networks

Feb. 9, 2012, 12:29 p.m., Posted by John Bracken

Note: To apply for the News Challenge, and read our FAQ, visit NewsChallenge.org.

Today we’re announcing a revamped Knight News Challenge. As illustrated by Michael Maness in the video above (and discussed in various places previously) we are evolving the challenge to be more nimble and more focused. We’ve expanded and narrowed the challenge this year, and are creating three opportunities for innovators to participate - each with a distinct area of focus.

Our first News Challenge, on networks, will open for applications on Feb. 27 and close on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. We will launch a second contest later in the spring as an open competition, looking for new ideas broadly. A third contest will be devoted to a topic to be determined later. Each will last 8 to 10 weeks, beginning to end, as we try to bring our work closer to Internet speed. First-round winners will be announced in June.

For this year’s first Knight News Challenge, we intend to harness the momentum from people thinking about and building networks. In the course of our work, we often come across proposals to “build a Facebook that connects X and Y.” We want to move away from that. There are a lot of vibrant networks and platforms, on- and off-line, that can be used to connect us with the news and information we need to make decisions about our lives. This challenge will not fund new networks. Rather, we’re asking you to describe ways you might use existing platforms to drive innovation in media and journalism.

One of our challenges is finding a way to describe what motivates our thinking without being prescriptive. Our concern is that once we describe what we think we might see, we receive proposals crafted to meet our preconception. That’s not why we run the contest. We want to uncover ideas, and innovators, that we don’t have or know - not to receive proposals to build out our ideas. While we might anticipate the types of projects that a contest on networks could generate, when we announce the winners of the contest at MIT on June 18, we expect most of them will be things that we would have never imagined.

With that caveat, here are five things that have gone into our decision to craft a contest on the theme of the network:

  • @andycarvin  @acarvin: At last year’s MIT Knight Civic Media Conference, Andy Carvin was a focal point of a lot of conversation - as was the case in many places on the Internet following his coverage of the Arab Spring. We talked less about Andy Carvin the person, dog owner, father and NPR Senior Strategist. Rather, we explored the metaphor of Andy, a one-man aggregation vehicle, someone who successfully leveraged a network to tell stories and engage communities. Andy did not go off and build a new platform to aggregate news from the Middle East and North Africa - he leveraged an existing one.
  • What we’ve learned: We shared lessons from the first two years of the News Challenge last summer and are preparing reports on the 2009 and 2010 winners for release later this year. One conclusion from that report was that projects that brought with them their own networks were better placed for success than were those starting off on their own.
  • The Hacker Way. We are not venture capitalists. We look for social return first and foremost. But we’re also not in the business of supporting projects just because they are well-intentioned. We value impact. Perhaps that’s why Mark Zuckerberg's letter in Facebook's S-1 filing resonated with me.  

    "Hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done...The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete….Hackers try to build the best services over the long term by quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once."


    That iterative approach is something we’re trying to build here at Knight Foundation. We don’t have “done is better than perfect” painted on our walls. (We do have “Reductions in patterns of use is always innovation” on one of our whiteboards.) But in re-crafting the News Challenge to run three times this year, we are trying to emulate Zuckerberg’s exhortation to “always keep shipping.”

  • Network Theory: Albert-László Barabási gave one of the featured talks at last fall’s Networks Understanding Networks conference at MIT. He is credited with being one of the authors of preferential attachment, a key part of network theory. A fundamental aspect of preferential attachment is the notion that networks need to expand to survive.  Barabási describes preferential attachment as a “hypothesis that highly connected nodes increase their connectivity faster than their less connected peers.”
  • Walking the talk: In running the contest, we’re going to try live up to the challenge of leveraging networks. To that end, we are going to host the platform on Tumblr.


So, that’s our challenge. Beginning Feb. 27, we’ll look for you to tell us how you would leverage existing networks to create new ways for conveying news. Then in June we’ll help to make real the best ideas.

Choose how to get news and tips about applying for the Knight News Challenge:

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By John Bracken, director/journalism and media innovation at Knight Foundation.