Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news at the New York Times, was one of the 19 readers for the 2012 Knight News Challenge projects moving on to the next round. Here, he provides his thoughts on the entries the committee considered.
The folks at Knight asked me to jot down a few thoughts about some of the common themes and interesting trends that emerged from this year's crop of News Challenge applicants -- a task that ended up being a lot harder than I thought it would be.
Going back over the 50-plus entries the committee considered to move forward in the challenge, it finally dawned on me that the one unifying theme of this year's challenge is that there was no unifying theme.
Applicants were entrepreneurs, academics and technologists, pitching projects that touched every imaginable form of digital communications I could have imagined. Remote sensors? Drones? Mesh networks? I can only hope jet pack journalism isn't far behind. As in the past, there were very few applications overall -- and only a handful of folks heading into the final round -- emanating from "traditional" newsrooms. And even those proposals were more about getting information directly into the hands of citizens than they were about improving the toolset available to working journalists.
In short, the News Challenge has changed quite a bit since 2009 when my project, DocumentCloud, was fortunate enough to win a grant. Now, it is less about the future of newsrooms, and more about the future of news. It is less about who is providing the critical news and information people need, and more about how.
For the record, I think this is a very good thing.
You could see this beginning with the 2011 crop of winners, which included organizations that (I'll admit) I raised an eyebrow to at first. But only at first. For example, the nonprofit NextDrop won a grant to create an SMS-based service to notify residents in Hubli, Karnataka, India when water is available. But if you are living in a part of the world where fresh water is available for only a few hours at a time, and a simple SMS network could save hours of frustration waiting for the next delivery -- that's news.
Looking at this year's crop of finalists, I think it's safe to say we're seeing the definition of news and journalism interpreted even more broadly than before. And needless to say, I am very much looking forward to seeing which of these projects make it through.