What we know now: Reevaluating the 2009 Knight News Challenge

By Justin Ellis

It’s been six years since the Knight Foundation launched the Knight News Challenge. It’s very different today than it was then, and the foundation’s been good about retracing its steps along the way and seeing what worked and what didn’t.

Today they released a report card of sorts, looking specifically at the 2009 class of News Challenge winners. That was the class that included projects like DocumentCloud, Ushahidi, MediaBugs, and Councilpedia. (It was also the first News Challenge class we covered here at Nieman Lab, if you want to see how we wrote about them back then.) The 41-page report, prepared by Arabella Advisors, looks at each of the projects, how they were implemented, and what lessons were learned in the process. (You can read the whole report here.)

Of the nine 2009 winners, the ones the report rates most highly are DocumentCloud, the Jefferson Institute’s Data Visualization tools, and Ushahidi. It rates Mobile Media Toolkit as just one tier down, at a level Knight calls “Maintaining” (“projects are active at a level consistent with the original scope of their News Challenge project”). One other winner, Virtual Street Corners, was always intended to have a limited lifespan.

But the other four didn’t work out quite as well, having declined in activity level or closed up shop altogether. CMS Upload Utility, Councilpedia, and MediaBugs have all moved into “Active at a lower level” status, Knight says (“the level of use has decreased and is limited compared with the original scope of their project”). And one, City Circles (née The Daily Phoenix), didn’t get very far at all (“projects are no longer actively being worked on, and faltered as a result of design flaws or implementation and adoption challenges”).

Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president for journalism and media innovation, told me Thursday that the review of past work was part of the process of improving the foundation’s efforts to fund innovation. (Knight did a similar review of the 2007 and 2008 winners.) “The nice thing with the News Challenge is that it’s almost a laboratory for ourselves,” he said.

Build code, build a following

The News Challenge asks that projects not just use open source tools, but also release the software they create to the public. Of the 2009 winners, DocumentCloud, Ushahidi, and Data Visualization stood out for how widely their code has been embraced. In particular, the report says those projects found favor because they persistently released updates rather than waiting for a finished

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About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.