Knight News Challenge offers millions for online news innovation

Have you been kicking around an idea for a new community news website? The Knight Foundation has a few million reasons why you ought to give it a go.

The Knight Foundation is putting up $25 million over the next five years to encourage journalists and Web developers to find new ways to use the Internet to help improve the quality of life in geographic communities. The Knight Brothers 21st Century News Challenge will award up to $5 million this year “to fund new ideas, prototypes, products and leadership initiatives that use innovative news methods to help citizens better connect within their communities.”

Anyone can apply: individual journalists, news companies, hackers with a dream. The deadline for submitting a letter of inquiry is December 1.

Gary Kebbel is the Journalism Initiatives Program Officer for the Knight Foundation. He spoke on the phone with OJR about the Challenge.

OJR: What kind of thinking, or action, are you hoping to encourage with this initiative?

Kebbel: I think a lot of what we think of as not getting traction is research and development in the news industry. We want to help spur that. But we’re also looking at non-news industry companies that are doing research and development and creating new products. But they’re not necessarily being created by people who have news values and principles and ethics. We want to make sure that we can help those in the news industry with the values of seeking the fair, accurate, contextual search for truth and to help them develop new products that help them stay strong.

Sort of a genesis for this was looking around and realizing that there was a time period when the publisher of a paper – and we’re saying, particularly the publisher of a Knight newspaper – was the glue of the community. In the way that, they not only were good citizens, they participated in community life. But by presenting the news, they helped identify problems, and they helped bring people together for common solutions. Now, as people transfer their news seeking or information seeking to cyberspace, who is doing in cyberspace what a Knight publisher used to do in real space? Who is performing that function of bringing the community together, and helping them solve problems? And improve their lives? So, with those sort of questions in mind, and in the idea that we felt that the news industry needed some help, we created this news challenge.

OJR: One of the distinguishing characteristics of online publishing that we’ve seen at this point, is that there are a lot of vibrant communities out there. But they’re organized around topics, subjects, rather than geography. Talk a little bit about that, and what the implications for that might be for this endeavor.

Kebbel: Obviously the requirement that the communities effect people in physical space in real life, is an addition requirement. Because we don’t feel that online communities need our help. Virtual communities spring up every day. But using digital communities to enhance physical communities, we think does need our help. And the reason we’re focusing on physical communities is because we simply want to perform the functions that a good news organization should, we think. Which is, to help improve the lives of people where they live and work. And it boils down to physically getting people together and trying to improve their actual, real lives.

OJR: But might it not be possible that some people or organizations putting together these virtual communities might develop some type of technology that then could be applied to the physical geographic community that would then be worthy of consideration?

Kebbel: Oh, yes. If a digital community helps people get together in real life, that qualifies. We’re just saying, for example, a community of model railroaders around the world is not one that we’ve designed this news challenge for. But something that might bring together Detroit teachers, that would work.

OJR: Let’s talk a little bit more about specifically who you’re looking for to apply for this. Are you looking for individuals in their home office? Are you looking for a corporate IT department, or something in between?

Kebbel: Everything. We would love it if a brilliant high school kid submits an idea and we get the chance to recognize it for its potential. Typically, foundations give money to other non-profit organizations. And what we’re doing that’s different with this, is that we’re giving money – or saying that we are able to and planning to – give money to individuals, to other non-profits, or to commercial entities or to for-profit companies. It could be a company with two employees, who are trying to get off the ground. It could be an arm of a much more established company, if indeed what that arm is doing is creating a product that helps improve life in physical communities.

OJR: Looking through the website that you’ve set up for this – one of the first things that struck me is that the criteria here is vague. And, as you say, purposely so. But one of the interesting things I saw in there was, you did get a little bit more specific when you’re talking about what you’re not looking for.

Kebbel: You know, you’re the second person to say that.

Well, what we’re not looking for are things that are already there, obviously. A new way to use a blog is probably not going to make it. Or – it’s sort of difficult to say what we’re not looking for, because overall, the thing is so broad. One thing, though, is the training program thing is important. This foundation has supported journalism training very heavily, since its founding in 1950. And so, we really wanted to point out that what we’re looking for here is probably so new that it’s not possible to have a training program for it yet.

OJR: Another one of the issues that comes up to this sort of thing is – it’s great when you’ve got something like this happening. You get a little initial source of funding for it, but what about the long term sustainability? Tell me a little bit about the awards process. Will people be able to renew them, or is there an expectation that this will get you up to the level where something is sustainable?

Kebbel: Well, we’ve broken it into various categories. And let’s take the very first one, ideas. And these categories we thought sort of mimicked a product creation stage, or process. Let’s say that someone wins the idea award in year one. We would love it if they would come back in year two, and try to get a pilot project award for the same program. And then the thing about the pilot project or field test is that we do want there to be a sustainability plan, as part of that. We don’t have any set limit on either the number of grants, or the amount of grants that we’re going to make in each of these categories. We’re literally going to judge it against the number of the quality of proposals that we have in. And some of these proposals might be for $30,000, and some might be for $300,000. We’re not going to say that one is better than the other, until we look at the proposal and what we think it has the chance of accomplishing. But you’re right. Obviously, I think we will give preference to those that seem to have the best sustainability possibilities.

OJR: One of the things I saw that was alluded to on the site, that’s always interesting, and maybe you can expand on it a little bit, was the concept of, if something looks fundable, that not only could there be an award, but also you could help network to introduce people to venture capitalists.

Kebbel: You’re absolutely right. Because we’re a foundation, and are legally set up to give money to other nonprofits, there are different legal hoops that we would have to jump through to give money to a for-profit. Now, there are ways to do it legally. That’s one possibility: A flat out “we want to invest in your company.” Either as an angel investor, or a second-round investor. But we also thought there are other ways to serve this function of bringing new products to the market. When young companies go up in front of VCs—you know, VCs are always trying to hit a home run. And home run usually means the potential for 100 percent profit in three months. Well, we would be fine with 40 percent profit. I think there’s a lot of good companies that get dropped off of the VC table because they’re not going to guarantee 100 percent profit.

Our interest is in what they call the double bottom line investing. Which is something that will be profitable, and socially responsible, and serve a social need. So in doing that, we would be glad to take the companies that fell off the VC’s home run list. And match them up with our financial advisor, who is also a VC, or people that our financial advisors know. We’ve been talking to various other foundations that do the work of bringing entrepreneurs together. Because we think it would serve the networking not only of an individual to a group of Vcs, but entrepreneurs to one another.

OJR: Twelve of the 24 months after you announce the winners, the initial winners of these awards, how are you going to be judging the success or the failure of this program?

Kebbel: Because what we’re doing is so new in the first year, we’re actually going to be using it as our guinea pig, and our baseline. So, I’m glad you said 24 months. Because in the year after we’re doing this, we don’t know precisely yet how to judge this. Depending on how new or unique or creative the ideas are, there may not be traditional measures of measurement, at the moment. So, one thing that we’re gonna do is just do it for a year. Let’s see what we get. And then use that as a baseline for trying to start judging what’s out there after it’s been there.

For more information about the Knight Brothers 21st Century News Challenge, or to apply, visit

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at