Still shaping the way people think about news innovation? A few reflections on the new Knight News Challenge 2.0

[In case you missed it: cross-posted at Nieman Journalism Lab]

As someone who probably has spent more time thinking about the Knight News Challenge than anyone outside of Knight Foundation headquarters — doing adissertation on the subject will do that to you! — I can’t help but follow its evolution, even after my major research ended in 2010. And evolve it has: from an initial focus on citizen journalism and bloggy kinds of initiatives (all the rage circa 2007, right?) to a later emphasis on business models, visualizations, and data-focused projects (like this one) — among a whole host of other projects including news games, SMS tools for the developing world, crowdsourcing applications, and more.

Now, after five years and $27 million in its first incarnation, Knight News Challenge 2.0 has been announced for 2012, emphasizing speed and agility (three contests a year, eight-week turnarounds on entries) and a new topical focus (the first round is focused on leveraging existing networks). While more informationwill be coming ahead of the February 27 launch, here are three questions to chew on now.

Does the Knight News Challenge still dominate this space?

The short answer is yes (and I’m not just saying that because, full disclosure, the Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Lab). As I’ve argued before, in the news innovation scene, at this crossroads of journalism and technology communities, the KNC has served an agenda-setting kind of function — perhaps not telling news hipsters what to think regarding the future of journalism, but rather telling them what to think about. So while folks might disagree on the Next Big Thing for News, there’s little question that the KNC has helped to shape the substance and culture of the debate and the parameters in which it occurs.

Some evidence for this comes from the contest itself: Whatever theme/trend got funded one year would trigger a wave of repetitive proposals the next. (As Knight said yesterday: “Our concern is that once we describe what we think we might see, we receive proposals crafted to meet our preconception.”)

And yet the longer answer to this question is slightly more nuanced. When the KNC began in 2006, with the first winners named in 2007, it truly was the only game in town — a forum for showing “what news innovation looks like” unlike any other. Nowadays, a flourishing ecosystem of websites (ahem, like this one), aggregators (like MediaGazer), and social media platforms is making the storyline of journalism’s reboot all the more apparent. It’s easier than ever to track who’s trying what, which experiments are working, and so on — and seemingly in real time, as opposed to a once-a-year unveiling. Hence the Knight Foundation’s move to three quick-fire contests a year, “as we try to bring our work closer to Internet speed.”

How should we define the “news” in News Challenge?

One of the striking things I found in my research (discussed in a previous Lab post) was that Knight, in its overall emphasis, has pivoted away from focusing mostly on journalism professionalism (questions like “how do we train/educate better journalists?”) and moved toward a broader concern for “information.” This entails far less regard for who’s doing the creating, filtering, or distributing — rather, it’s more about ensuring that people are informed at the local community level. This shift from journalism to information, reflected in the Knight Foundation’s own transformation and its efforts to shape the field, can be seen, perhaps, like worrying less about doctors (the means) and more about public health (the ends) — even if this pursuit of health outcomes sometimes sidesteps doctors and traditional medicine along the way.

This is not to say that Knight doesn’t care about journalism. Not at all. It still pours millions upon millions of dollars into clearly “newsy” projects — including investigative reporting, the grist of shoe-leather journalism. Rather, this is about Knight trying to rejigger the boundaries of journalism: opening them up to let other fields, actors, and ideas inside.

So, how should you define “news” in your application? My suggestion: broadly.

What will be the defining ethos of KNC 2.0?

This is the big, open, and most interesting question to me. My research on the first two years of KNC 1.0, using a regression analysis, found that contest submissions emphasizing participation and distributed knowledge (like crowdsourcing) were more likely to advance, all things being equal. My followup interviews with KNC winners confirmed this widely shared desire for participation — a feeling that the news process not only could be shared with users, but in fact should be.

I called this an “ethic of participation,” a founding doctrine of news innovation that challenges journalism’s traditional norm of professional control. But perhaps, to some extent, that was a function of the times, during the roughly 2007-2010 heyday of citizen media, with the attendant buzz around user-generated content as the hot early-adopter thing in news — even if news organizations then, as now, struggled to reconcile and incorporate a participatory audience. Even while participation has become more mainstream in journalism, there are still frequent flare-ups, like this week’s flap over breaking news on Twitter, revealing enduring tensions at the “collision of two worlds — when a hierarchical media system in the hands of the few collides with a networked media system open to all,” as Alfred Hermida wrote.

So what about this time around? Perhaps KNC 2.0 will have an underlying emphasis on Big Data, algorithms, news apps, and other things bubbling up at the growing intersection of computer science and journalism. It’s true that Knight is already underwriting a significant push in this area through the (also just-revisedKnight-Mozilla OpenNews project (formerly called the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership — which Nikki Usher and I have written about for the Lab). To what extent is there overlap or synergy here? OpenNews, for 2012, is trying to build on the burgeoning “community around code” in journalism — leveraging the momentum of Hacks/HackersNICAR, and ONA with hackfests, code-swapping, and online learning. KNC 2.0, meanwhile, talks about embracing The Hacker Way described by Mark Zuckerberg — but at the same time backs away a bit from its previous emphasis on open source as a prerequisite. It’ll be interesting to see how computational journalism — explained well in this forthcoming paper (PDF here) by Terry Flew et al. in Journalism Practice — figures into KNC 2.0.

Regardless, the Knight News Challenge is worth watching for what it reveals about the way people — journalists and technologists, organizations and individuals, everybody working in this space — talk about and make sense of “news innovation”: what it means, where it’s taking us, and why that matters for the future of journalism.

Failure and finding partners: Ideas for innovating journalism school

David Cohn has revived the Carnival of Journalism in a fabulous way. This is coming in advance of a roundtable he’s hosting at the Reynolds Journalism Institute that focuses on the Knight Commission’s report on the information needs of communities. The topic for Round 1: the role of higher education as “hubs of journalistic activity” and centers of “digital and media literacy.” A number of great ideas are rolling in today (you’ll find some links in the trackbacks here), and Carrie Brown-Smith in particular covered several major issues that I would endorse wholeheartedly. Read her post.

For my part, here are three two basic recommendations that I’d like to toss out—more as questions and points of discussion than actual fleshed-out solutions, mind you. (I was going to propose three recommendations, but this post is getting a bit long-winded already. It’s the academic in me…)

Recommendation 1: Create opportunities for students to fail—in a good way. As just about any educator will tell you, students are obsessed with grades (hey, I was too at their age). This, of course, can make it hard to help students see the vision of working and struggling for the sake of learning rather than merely meeting requirements for points. I’m sure I speak for a few professors when I say that I’d like to get away from grades entirely and find some other, better method of evaluation, but generally we’re stuck with the system we have. And, as much as we bemoan grades, the academic system does nothing to deter students from being super grade-conscious (by virtue of the way scholarships work, etc.).

The upshot, I believe, is that all of this creates a culture of perfectionism and conformity that might lead to good grades but doesn’t contribute to an ethos of energy, innovation, and risk-taking—i.e., the stuff of tech startups that we need to be encouraging in higher education and in journalism education in particular. This is a long way of saying that we (educators) can do more to give students a “license to fail,” in the most positive sense—an opportunity to think big, play with stuff, and learn by failing along the way. We could think of this as colleges encouraging students to carve out 20% of their academic time to experiment, a la Google employees.

OK, nice. So how do we do this? Well, as I said, it would be hard to work against the structure of grading in general. But if we think about the student newspaper as the place where journalism students used to (and continue to) “fail” on a regular basis, then maybe we can start imagining opportunities to create similar (but more broadly-focused) extracurricular “centers” of some kind—say, coffeehouse-style places, physical spaces, where students can congregate and collaborate on crazy projects. But we wouldn’t want to limit this just to journalism students (for, as C.W. Anderson reminds us, “j-school is too important to be left to journalists“) … which brings me to …

Recommendation 2: Build partnerships within and beyond the university. First, there are good reasons for journalism programs to build stronger partnerships with local media organizations—not for exploiting student labor, but for creating a more realistic experience for students and a richer media offering for the community. The Times-NYU partnership is a great example of this. But I’ll focus on the first part of my recommendation: Journalism programs should be wasting no time trying to forge connections with other departments and academic centers around campus. Yes, this happens to some extent, but not deeply enough. Begin with the low-hanging fruit: Journalism has, um, a little revenue problem on its hands, so why not look to the business school for some brainstorming? And I’m not suggesting another bureaucratic apparatus, some center with an eight-word name and little to show for it; rather, I’m envisioning a scenario in which administrators from both programs come together and create those formalized spaces—think of them like “network forums,” in the framework developed by Fred Turner and touched on in my dissertation—wheres faculty and students from across the divide can congregate, share ideas, and see what emerges from the mix, the organic fashion of a (business) hackathon. Such melding is “where good ideas come from“—the very stuff of innovation. Some (like Jeff Jarvis and his program at CUNY) are making big strides in this area of entrepreneurship. But we need more, and soon.

Another obvious point of connection is journalism and computer science. Again, some are nicely moving into this space (like Columbia) and others have been working at this for a while (like Rich Gordon), but we need more action, and soon. J-schools shouldn’t try to teach programming any more than programmers should try to teach journalism, but certainly there’s some sorely needed cross-polination: things they can teach us, and things we can teach them.

On that note, I’ll end with a little story. In my honors Introduction to Mass Communication course I have a lot of students from around the University of Minnesota. During introductions on Day 1 yesterday, one student said he’s a computer science major.

“Are you interested in journalism?” I asked.

He shot back a no-duh look.

“Of course. Why do you think I’m here?”

I think we’d find that a surprising number of computer science folks (and others, for that matter) have an interest in journalism, even just contributing to its development in some small way. Why? For some of the same reasons we got into this: for its noble calling, its idealistic vision, its civic purpose. They’re interested. We’ve just got to reach out and invite them over to play. Even if we fail a little along the way.