What makes a winning news website?

To an online video game that recreates a once-vibrant jazz scene in Oakland, California and an MIT think tank project designed to facilitate widespread community news online, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation recently awarded almost $5 million (and pledged at total of $12 million) to fund digital news projects. The winners of this Knight News Challenge met the following criteria: their projects incorporated digital media, involved community news experiments and used open source software.

Describing itself as a national foundation with local roots, the Knight Foundation has pledged an additional $5 million for the next four years to continue to award such community-based digital innovations.

OJR talked with Gary Kebbel, journalism program officer for the Knight Foundation, to find out what distinguished the winners, the implications for the future of digital media and why, if you have an idea or project and 20 minutes to complete an application, you could be among the next series of winners.

Online Journalism Review: How did this News Challenge come about?

Gary Kebbel:It came about because the president of the foundation, Alberto Ibargüen, is the former publisher of the Miami Herald, and in that role, he tried to put the paper on the Web. He analogizes that to trying to make a movie out of a book. Unless you’re native and taking full advantage of what the medium has to offer, trying to transfer information from one medium to another doesn’t always work.

He also thought that declining circulation and advertising in newspapers carried implications far beyond just lack of readership. Newspapers helped to identify what it meant to be a Miamian or a Philadelphian, and they helped identify problems and brought the community together. So [how] can this community organizing be done in cyberspace?

OJR:How is the amount of each grant determined?

Kebbel: Every individual determines what they feel their project would need. As the process went farther along, we would ask more specific questions and eventually the [finalists] created a line item budget.

We didn’t think it was necessary to make people go through that in the early stages. We wanted it to be easy to apply. If you know what idea you’re proposing, the application process takes about 20 minutes.

OJR: The main winner, the Center for Future Civic Media, was awarded $5 million. Their goal seems to be broader than any of the others, so what will be the tangible result of their project?

Kebbel: The MIT Media Lab will come together with the studies of sociology, psychology, political and cultural science to develop new processes [for gathering community news] and [assess] what mediums and technologies they can bring to solve those problems.

OJR: So it’s basically trying to catch up these communities with new technology?

Kebbel: Yes, to bring new technology to the community or old technology to the community in ways that people hadn’t thought about before. They’re going to be working with all the communities individually to find out what issues they should be solving.

The [Center for Future Civic Media] will also be hosting all of the other News Challenge winners at MIT for education, discussion and conferences that everyone will attend.

OJR: So these winners will be checking in with each other throughout the course of their project development?

Kebbel: Yes, that’s very important to us–that these winners develop a community of their own. Just because they’re experts doesn’t mean they’re only experts in their particular fields. They’re all experts in digital media so if one of them has a problem in one area, they’ll be able to talk to four others who might have a solution.

OJR:Adrian Holovaty won $1.1 million for his open-source software idea. What stood out about his project?

Kebbel: First of all, it’s an extension of his current ChicagoCrime.org, but it’s Chicagocrime.org on steroids. It’s going to take every possible public database that makes sense–whether that’s global or regional or national–and combine it in a way where you type in your address and you find out everything going on on your street or in your neighborhood. You can find out where there’s a new school proposal, or where a restaurant is going to be shut down, or if the city has decided to change trash pickup regulations.

OJR: Like Holovaty, the winners already have some momentum behind their projects. Is it crucial for the winners to have already established themselves in some way?

Kebbel: The competition had various categories. One category was for ideas and those are represented in the blog entries. They didn’t have projects underway but they had a great idea that might get underway someday.

OJR: What about these blog entries stood out?

Kebbel: These winners … wanted to share and educate in a particular area, and to create a sense of community in a specific geographic area. The project had to have these elements and anything that was developed as a result of that project had to be open source. That’s one reason why we probably did not have applications from newspapers.

OJR: Rich Gordon (Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University) has created a project designed to teach students both technology and journalism. Why is it important for the next wave of journalists to be technologically proficient?

Kebbel: We’re not saying that every graduating journalism student should also be an expert in programming. What we are saying is that it would benefit that any organization, and in particular computer scientists who love and understand journalism.

So if an online newspaper wants to create a product, a lot of times they have a great idea, but they don’t have the technical expertise to carry it out. What we’re thinking is that if there were more people with both the journalistic knowledge to understand what makes a good story and the expertise to carry it out then [news] organizations would benefit.

OJR: MTV’s project won $700,000 to fund cub reporters [Knight Digital Youth Journalists] who will cover the election with video spots designed specifically for distribution on cell phones. Is packaging what made this project stand out?

Kebbel: Actually, what made it stand out is that you have this organization that traditionally knows how to reach the youth audience and …with packaging including cell phones, we want them to create a story for themselves and by themselves centered around issues that are important during an election year. I think the project will be enormously important in defining what is of interest to [this audience] and how best to reach them. So one of our goals for them is to learn a lot about the production and how to package stories on mobile phones and media.

OJR: Other projects, including Geoff Doughtery’s ChiTownDailyNews.org, are designed specifically to advance citizen journalism.

Kebbel: With the ChiTownDailyNews, one of the things that’s important is adding to the recruitment and training of journalists. It’s interesting because we haven’t seen that sort of blanket application focused on [so many specific communities].

OJR: Are there any other winning projects that stand out to you?

Kebbel: Yes, one area is games. Three different grants [Gail Robinson/Gotham Gazette, Paul Grabowicz/UC Berkeley and Nora Paul/University of Minnesota] will approach storytelling through games in different ways.

Another is the “incubator centers” [created by Dianne Lynch] based out of Ithaca College and includes six other academic institutions working together to try to solve journalists’ problems in digital newsrooms. It will bring together [a cross-section that includes] engineering, marketing and journalism students to try to solve a real problem [occurring in a digital newsroom].

OJR: Is there anything missing from this year’s winners that you’d like to see next year?

Kebbel: Our goal for next year is to have more quality applications from young people. And as a result, we setting aside $500,000 for a special category to award ideas and projects created by young people.

Our other goal is we hope for more international applications, and as such we are advertising the News Challenge in nine different languages this year.

OJR: Will anything change about the application process?

Kebbel: The application process will be much more open in the coming year. Applicants will have the opportunity to choose to go the open route or a closed route.

If you go the open route, you post your application on the Web and anyone can post comments about your project, and they can rate it. Let’s say your application gets 27 comments, and you decide some are good ideas and incorporate something that would strengthen your application. You can then resubmit an application that incorporates those comments.

About Sarah Colombo

Sarah is a recent graduate of USC's Annenberg School for Communication, where she obtained a Master of Arts in journalism. She served as the managing editor of OJR's news blog during the 2004-2005 academic year. She has also been published in a variety of online and print publications, including the Daily Breeze and Premiere magazine. Her professional interests include cultural affairs reporting, arts and entertainment and anything multimedia related.


  1. I’m wondering what happened to the corporate investment category. It looks like there were no winners there?

    Will that category be included next year, or have you decided to stick with the grants?

  2. Applicants in the commercial products category for new business ventures went through a different process — one that had more steps and more decision points — than the applicants in the various noncommercial categories had to endure. This year, no company made it all the way. We will, indeed, again have the new business ventures category in the News Challenge round that starts July 1 at http://www.newschallenge.org.

    — Gary Kebbel
    Journalism Program Officer
    John S. and James L. Knight Foundation