The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Each time we launch the News Challenge, we get asked again and again: “How can I make my News Challenge application stand out? What kinds of things do reviewers look for in my proposal?” Considering we receive thousands of applications a year, those are both good things to think about.
So we thought we’d ask one of our News Challenge reviewers Kio Stark, a published author and current teacher at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Stark brings more than 15 years of experience in the field of interactive marketing.
Below, Stark gives us an inside look as to how reviewers assess proposals and what they’re looking for in each application. She gives suggestions of things to keep in mind when writing and submitting a project, including specifics like what can turn reviewers on or off to ideas.
What advice would you give to applicants for this round of the News Challenge on mobile?
Kio Stark: Think about this as telling a story. You want the reviewers to be able to really imagine and understand what you’re doing. Clarity is your primary directive—and clarity isn’t easy. Try to use really concrete examples of how people will use what you’re making, how you know they need it and why you think it’s a great idea.
How can interested applicants make their submissions stand out?
K.S.: The first thing that always jumps out at me is when the applicants are passionate about what they’re doing, so try to make sure that comes through. Showing reviewers that you’re very clear about what you’re doing and how you’re going to do it is critical. Even if what you’re doing is an experiment! We want to see that you’re really serving a need you know exists.
What was it like to be an adviser for the most recent round of the News Challenge on data? What surprised you?
K.S.: I love seeing how creative people are thinking about things that can be done now that couldn’t be done before. I was surprised by how generous the review process was. Our goal was to find great projects and think about how we might be able to help them succeed.
Are there specific things that draw advisers to certain projects? Or shy away from them?
K.S.: I saw a lot of love for projects that are already connected to the communities they’re trying to engage and show that the applicants really understand their users. I saw reviewers get excited about weird experiments. If it’s a great idea that may or may not actually solve the problem it’s trying to solve, we want to see if it’s possible! One of my own initial filters is whether or not the applicants can describe their project in a compelling way in one sentence. That shows me they’ve really thought about what they’re doing from all the angles and have talked to a lot of people about what they’re doing. The other thing I like to think about is not just what’s the stated goal, but how might users hack this and use it differently, for their own purposes. Hackability makes good technology and there's a lot of energy for open source projects, because reviewers believe that a larger community will benefit.
On the other hand, there are often projects that sound really cool and stay in the mix as it gets down to fewer and fewer projects, and then we look at it again and someone says, wait, I can’t actually imagine how anyone would use this. If we can’t figure out a scenario in which a person or group would really use it, that’s a big strike. That’s something to think about as you write your application. Make sure we’ll be able to answer that question when we think about your project.
Your teaching focuses on relational technology and social dynamics between individuals. How are those affected by the field of mobile technology?
K.S.: I’m fascinated by how people relate to each other with technology in between them and also how they relate to technology itself. Mobile means we’re always keeping company with our devices and with each other. That is radically changing everything about our connections, especially in the private realm. There are arguments out there that our ability to maintain intimate connections is being hurt by our devices, and that connections via device work against our ability to be present in a face to face context, in important social and emotional ways. But I don’t think it’s that simple. Mediated connections can work both for and against intimacy, depending on the situation, how they’re used and the personalities of the people involved.