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

Jan 25, 2013

#newschallenge: seven issues for the future

Posted by John Bracken

Above: Michelle Lee (l) and Serena Wales (r) with Textizen, a News Challenge: Mobile winner. Photo credit: Molly J. Smith. 

On Jan. 10 I joined staff from about 20 foundations at the MacArthur Foundation to compare notes on philanthropic prize competitions in a gathering organized by The Case Foundation, The Joyce Foundation and MacArthur Foundation.

We kicked off the meeting by sharing lessons, concerns, victories and funny stories. Based on that discussion, I pulled together a presentation of seven issues that we’ve been wrestling with on the News Challenge over the last year.

1. Community is hard: Several News Challenge winners have told me that they nearly didn’t apply, as they didn’t consider themselves “newsy” enough. That makes me wonder how many other potential winners have not applied out of a misplaced concern that they don’t think they fit what we’re trying to do. To counteract that, we’ve found it helps to talk to people in person, not just online, about the contest. Last year at SXSW we met at least two teams who later applied and won the News Challenge on Networks during an event at the Driskill Hotel.

2. The networkConnie Yowell of MacArthur Foundation emphasized that the Digital and Media Learning challenges work because they’re part of a larger community of innovators. I’m not sure that we’ve succeeded at building a community of media innovators that exists outside of the News Challenge. We may be getting there, but we haven’t yet had a way to leverage our community towards a full exchange of ideas. We’re counting that our new contest platform will facilitate ideation and the exchange of ideas. We can only fund a handful of projects, but our hope moving forward is to build a News Challenge in which people don’t stop at the application phase, but continue conversations and collaborations between projects.

3. Scale: A couple of people in the meeting mentioned that they struggle with how much to give. To encourage entrepreneurship, one said, they want to give enough to enable a project to get off the ground, but not so much as to assuage the need to innovate. Last year, we created a Prototype Fund in part as a way to address this issue. We’ve made about a dozen investments so far. When we assess our 2013 work in a few years, I suspect we’ll find that the projects initiated through the Prototype Fund will have had a greater long-term impact than those funded through the News Challenge. One side effect is that we route the more nascent projects into Prototypes instead of the News Challenge, perhaps taking some of the edginess out of the contest. Ultimately, however, our commitment is not to the News Challenge; it’s to identify the ideas and teams most likely to advance our mission to inform and engage communities.

4. Themes: Last year was the first time that we ran the contest with themes (Networks, Data and Mobile – we announced the winners of the latter last week) instead of running a contest open to any media innovation idea. In adopting themes, our intent was to put a spotlight on topics we see as important. A second goal for 2012 was to run the contests more quickly - each lasted only eight to ten weeks from beginning to end.

Our early assessment is that, overall, that worked. We’ve decided, however, that we didn’t fully take advantage of the themes.  Once the networks contest ended, we jumped both feet into running the data contest, and then onto mobile. In order to increase our opportunity for driving conversations about themes, we’ve decided to run the News Challenge just twice this year.

A common theme I heard in the Chicago meeting was the balance between describing the goals of a challenge without being prescriptive about what we *want* to see. Our reluctance to specify what we’re looking for can be frustrating. As we craft the News Challenge on Open Government we hope to attract a broad set of ideas and applicants. Our concern is that if we mention specific aims or opportunities we’ll get proposals targeting just what we describe. If we knew what we wanted we wouldn't run a challenge. (None of the eight projects we announced in Phoenix, Ariz. last week were ideas we had in mind when we announced the mobile contest.)

5. Assessing proposals: One of the highlights of our year is when we convene a group to advise us on the News Challenge, as we did three times last year. In 2012, we reduced the time spent reviewing individual applications, and added time to discuss broader issues. We’ve also invited advisors to join us when we interview the finalists and connect them to projects as appropriate. This year we’re to going tighten that feedback circle and build in a way for those advisors to have their questions answered by applicants earlier in the process.  We are also mindful that we are not running a proposal contest - sometimes the best ideas and teams do not generate the best proposals. (We refer to them as advisors, not judges, because that’s what they are - we weigh their opinions closely, but at the end of the day we, Knight staff, make recommendations to the Knight trustees.)

6. From funding to facilitating: Our work does not end when we mail a check. The opposite is true - we’re spending more time and energy supporting our partners. They don’t all need our help, but increasingly we’re considering “coachability” as we assess proposals: “Is this a team and an idea that would benefit from what Knight and our network have to offer?” We strive to be intentional about the challenges that social entrepreneurs confront and how we can help them overcome them. We’re also looking at various ways we can help some of them once their News Challenge funding ends.

7. Openness: Historically,  philanthropy has been an opaque practice. Communications departments, where they existed, were tasked with keeping foundation processes under wraps, not sharing them. When Knight kicked off the first News Challenge in 2007, it was with a sense of openness and some humility. We’re still betting there are better ideas outside of our office than we can come up with on our own and believe that sharing is better than hiding.

I based these seven lessons on our experience running the News Challenge. (We assessed the 2007-08  winners and the 2009 winners and have an overview of the 2009 contest.) Later this year, my colleague Mayur Patel will be sharing lessons on Knight’s experiences with other philanthropic contests like our Knight Arts Challenge, the Knight Community Information Challenge and Black Male Engagement - the latest iteration of which launched this week - as well as an assessment of the 2010 News Challenge winners.

One thing the funders in Chicago agreed on is that challenges are the means, not the end. For us at Knight, the minute the News Challenge stops being a useful tool for achieving our mission we’ll develop new ones. I’m also confident that in the future, other funders are likely to adopt such practices.

In the meantime, the next Knight News Challenge, on tools for Open Government, will launch next month. We plan to leverage the networks, code, and lessons we’ve developed while working investing in this space over the last few years. More details will be available next week.

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

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