An Interim Review of the Knight News Challenge

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Assessing the Early Winners, 2007-2008
Author Organization
LFA Group: Learning for Action
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Media Innovation


Download The Main Report

Knight News Challenge Year 1 and 2 Cross-Cutting Report.pdf (PDF)

Detailed Cluster Reports:

• Public Media Cluster

• News Games Cluster

• Local News Projects Cluster

• Citizen Media Cluster

• Innovative Tools Cluster

• Mobile News Platforms Cluster

• Field Building Cluster

Infographic Mashup
 Infographic (same as slide share)

The Knight News Challenge is a five-year media innovation contest designed to reward new ideas for gathering, sharing and using local news and information. Knight Foundation launched the contest in September 2006, at a time when the news industry was in great flux, as part of an effort to encourage greater experimentation in the field of journalism and media. To date, Knight Foundation has pledged nearly $22 million to four sets of annual contest winners in the search for bold community news and media experiments.

The News Challenge has three application rules. Projects must: 1) use innovative open-source digital technology; 2) distribute news in the public interest; and 3) be tested in a local community. The selection process was deliberately very broad as part of an effort to stimulate innovation in local media ecosystems and disruptive changes in philanthropic support of journalism. One important assumption underlies the challenge: innovation can come from anywhere: both new and established enterprises, the commercial and nonprofit sectors, as well as individuals.

Media innovation is fluid, characterized by an ever-changing stream of new technologies, ideas and products. Though the scene is shifting at an increasingly rapid rate, lessons learned still matter. In fact, they are crucial in helping to see the bigger picture. Thus, efforts to openly share interim results can be important. This report provides findings from the work of LFA Group: Learning for Action, an independent evaluation and strategy consulting firm.

This interim assessment focuses on the first two years of Knight News Challenge winners, 2007 and 2008, because sufficient time has elapsed since those grants were awarded for early measures of effectiveness and impact to be evaluated. During this period, Knight Foundation committed a total of $17 million to 31 winners across a range of project types and recipients.1 This interim report covers the key topics of grantee outcomes and effectiveness, the challenges they have faced and key areas of learning to be gleaned regarding media innovation. The review provides an analysis of each winner’s progress to date; in many cases, individual projects are still evolving as they continue to impact their targeted field and communities. The assessment contains insights that we hope funders, organizations, and individuals working on the future of news and information will find valuable.

The interim assessment comprises a cross-cutting overview as well as a series of seven cluster reports on different groups of 2007-2008 winners. These clusters have been created for analysis purposes only; they were not categories in the Knight News Challenge competition. We have grouped winners together, after the fact, to facilitate understanding of impact and to highlight key lessons that are actionable and relevant to others in the field.

The clusters are based on platform type and the approach winners employed, rather than by the types of targeted project outcomes.

This cross-cutting overview report includes:

I. and II. Profiles of Early Winners – providing a description of 2007-08 contest winners, their current project status and use of open source code.

III. Lessons Learned – summarizing the cross-cutting themes surfaced when examining project successes and challenges.

It is important to note that this interim assessment is part of an ongoing multi-year evaluation of the Knight News Challenge. In addition to this retrospective on early contest winners, Knight Foundation is partnering with Blueprint RD, an evaluation and strategy firm, to track the continuing progress of 2009, 2010 and soon to be announced 2011 winners (Appendix III contains a list of 2009 and 2010 winners). Part of this work involves helping winners improve their ability to measure their project outcomes. The findings from this formative evaluation also will be shared on a regular basis as results are gathered and analyzed.

Evaluating the Contest and “Innovation” LFA Group conducted research for this interim assessment in the spring of 2011. The methods for gathering data included:

• Review of project reports, including prior information collected by Blueprint RD consulting

• Review of project web sites and other available materials

• Key informant interviews with select winners, project partners and users, and field experts (see Appendix IV)

• Facilitated review and structured reflection with Knight Foundation staff

The contest has resulted in a range of impacts on the organizations that were awarded grants, the communities served by grantee projects, Knight Foundation, and the broad field of media and journalism. Each project and cluster of grantees can therefore be examined from many different perspectives.

From the perspective of Knight Foundation, the News Challenge as a whole has effected field-wide practices and behavior, created an important pipeline for foundation funding, injected positive energy into the sector, and helped shift focus onto particularly innovative strategies. This independent assessment, commissioned by Knight Foundation, focuses specifically on the outcomes of early individual News Challenge winners and the impact they each have had on the field and communities served by their projects. Funding innovation means embracing a level of risk that is arguably beyond the typical comfort-level threshold within philanthropy. With increased risk, however, comes the potential for significant returns, if even among a small percentage of investments. What rate of success might a funder reasonably expect supporting projects in the social sector? What are the implications for evaluating innovation in the social sector? What factors contribute to or detract from success? This assessment provides a starting point for discussing these questions.

One implication – indeed, a challenge – of evaluating innovative work in the social sector regards the need for respectful language for discussing what worked well and what did not. As Knight Foundation notes, these were experiments; results were never guaranteed. In this review, the LFA Group team examined the projects in terms of the outcomes they have achieved in their targeted communities, their influence on the field of journalism and media, as well as their contribution to learning. This framework is offered in the spirit of advancing a positive and constructive dialogue regarding the efforts of those who undertake innovative projects such as those funded through the Knight News Challenge.

Projects discussed in this publication

Mobile Media Toolkit

To advance the use of mobile technology to produce and distribute news and information

Chi-Town Daily News

To expand the local reporting capacity of Chi-Town Daily News and provide a viable alternate local news site

Community Radio in India

To use the latest software and computer-based FM transmitters to reduce the cost of creating rural radio stations

Reporting On

To create a social networking tool to help reporters use one another as resources, to identify trends and to add context to their own work

Community News Network

To create a new kind of college newspaper by involving award-winning journalists in the creation of an open-source software platform

Denver Open Media

To create free open-source software to enable Public Access Television stations to better serve and engage communities

Freedom Fone

To create an economical way for poor people to use cell phones to create and gather information in forms difficult for authoritarian governments to control


To enable individuals to create narrowly targeted, local niche publications with local advertising


To create an easy to use software package to help public radio stations create web sites

Sochi Reporter

To test the latest social networking and user-generated-content tools in a small Russian town about to host the Olympics


To create a micro-payment system to fund investigative news reports

Transparent Journalism

To help search engines better distinguish between well-reported journalism and everything else on the Internet

Video Volunteers

To train 100 Community Video Producers, and expand a media distribution network for 300 villages in India

Boulder Carbon Tax Tracker

To create a citizen/professional journalism project using innovative web tools and citizen journalism practices to track Boulder's implementation of a carbon tax

Citizen Media Law Project

To create a 50-state database that will contain legal actions against citizen journalists, as well as state-specific legal guides

Digital News 'Incubators'

To create "incubators" at seven academic institutions to foster creative thinking about solutions to digital news problems

NY News Games

To use "news games" to tell stories and engage a nonprofit news organization's audience.

Oakland Jazz Scene Game

To complete the development and public launch of the game "Saving 7th Street: The Oakland Jazz & Blues Clubs"


To make it easier for people to find hyperlocal news and information about their city or neighborhood through promotion of "universal geotagging" in blogs

Playing the News

To create a flexible-format reality-based newsgame that focuses on community issues

Center for Future Civic Media

To create new community news products in a major national center with MIT's Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies program

Chi-Town Daily News

To create a new, low-cost model for training citizen journalist in every neighborhood of a major city to contribute to a citywide news site


To create, test and release open-source software that links databases to allow citizens of a large city to learn (and act on) civic information about their neighborhood or block

Rising voices

To extend the successful Global Voices project to people from additional communities worldwide


To create an open-source version of VillageSoup’s successful community news software, combining professional journalism, blogs, citizen journalism, online advertising and “reverse publishing” from online to print.

Goals: “Turning independent weekly newspaper companies and entrepreneurs into an imposing, lively, worldwide creative energy that is competitive with media company chains.”

About our Media Innovation focus area

We support projects that seek to improve how we create, share and use information essential to communities by providing early-stage funding for experimentation and growth.

About our Grant assessments methodology

As part of our grant-making process, we work with grantees to establish how to measure and track their projects.  We also partner with grantees and others to conduct third-party evaluations.