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.

A good dissertation is a …

… done dissertation, as the saying goes, and I was thrilled to finish mine this summer. I defended it on July 15, made some final revisions in the weeks after, and finished up all the paperwork by early August. The diploma should be in the mail later this week. Now, that’s a good feeling!

As noted on my dissertation page, I conducted a case study of the Knight Foundation and its Knight News Challenge grant-funding contest to examine what’s happening with journalism innovation—or, to be more precise, to explore how change can occur within professions through the influence of a boundary-spanning agent, an embedded institutional player like Knight that can operate both within and apart from the professional field, thus “opening up” journalism to bring change back in.

I realize that no one—and I mean no one, not even the parents of Ph.D. students—reads dissertations, in large part because of the clunky format, but I’m making mine available online and would welcome any feedback you might have to offer as I revise this for academic publication. E-mail me at Here’s the title and abstract, and a link to the full PDF:

Citation: Lewis, Seth C. (2010). Journalism Innovation and the Ethic of Participation: A Case Study of the Knight Foundation and its News Challenge (Unpublished dissertation). University of Texas, Austin.

The digitization of media has undermined much of the social authority and economic viability on which U.S. journalism relied during the 20th century. This disruption has also opened a central tension for the profession: how to reconcile the need for occupational control against growing opportunities for citizen participation. How that tension is navigated will affect the ultimate shape of the profession and its place in society.

This dissertation examines how the leading nonprofit actor in journalism, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has sought to help journalism innovate out of its professional crisis. This case study engages a series of mixed methods—including interviews, textual analysis, and secondary data analysis—to generate a holistic portrayal of how the Knight Foundation has attempted to transform itself and the journalism field in recent years, particularly through its signature Knight News Challenge innovation contest.

From a sociology of professions perspective, I found that the Knight Foundation altered the rhetorical and actual boundaries of journalism jurisdiction. Knight moved away from “journalism” and toward “information” as a way of seeking the wisdom of the crowd to solve journalism’s problems. This opening up of journalism’s boundaries created crucial space in which innovators, from inside and outside journalism, could step in and bring change to the field. In particular, these changes have allowed the concept of citizen participation, which resides at the periphery of mainstream newswork, to become embraced as an ethical norm and a founding doctrine of journalism innovation. The result of these efforts has been the emergence of a new rendering of journalism—one that straddles the professional-participatory tension by attempting to “ferry the values” of professional ideals even while embracing new practices more suited to a digital environment.

Ultimately, this case study matters for what it suggests about professions in turbulent times. Influential institutions can bring change to their professional fields by acting as boundary-spanning agents—stepping outside the traditional confines of their field, altering the rhetorical and structural borders of professional jurisdiction to invite external contribution and correction, and altogether creating the space and providing the capital for innovation to flourish.

ISOJ 2010: Talking about the Knight News Challenge and news innovation

It’s been a very full two days of the International Symposium on Online Journalism here in Austin. This afternoon I got a chance to unveil some key findings from my ongoing dissertation research, which analyzes the Knight News Challenge in particular and the Knight Foundation more generally. It was a lot of fun, problems with the microphone notwithstanding!

My interest was in assessing how News Challenge winners negotiate the tension between professional control (embodied in the “occupational ideology” of journalism described by Mark Deuze) and open participation (see “participatory culture” described by Henry Jenkins). This question of professional-vs-participatory tension isn’t all that new to the literature on online journalism, but the unique placement of the Knight News Challenge — having something of a participatory bent, while being funded in a nonprofit/alternative fashion (see Quadrant 4 in PowerPoint slide #4, below) — makes it an interesting case study because it’s so different from the legacy press that usually gets so much attention in the sociology of journalism. Let me put it more simply: Knowing how “news innovators” wrestle with issues of control, and how that relates to the way they define journalism, may begin to tell us something about the assumptions (or “logic”) of journalism innovation as a whole.

In summary, I found that news innovators (i.e., KNC winners who intended to start news organizations/platforms) were able to render unproblematic the tension of professional control vs. open participation because they had made a key shift in mind-set: They saw journalism as an open practice to be shared rather than a proprietary profession to be protected. By making this profession-to-practice shift in perception, news innovators could “pull apart” journalism (rhetorically speaking) to preserve its best principles while discarding outmoded practices, all while embracing a new ethic of participation — this idea that journalism not only can be participatory, but actually should be. I saw this in the way news innovators talked about their confidence in crowd wisdom (or collective intelligence) and their interest in “community management”; this emphasis on collective knowledge, as opposed to the gatekeeping expertise of an individual professional, emerged as a key theme. However, I also found that certain challenges have made it difficult for news innovators to achieve these aims in practice, raising questions about sustainability beyond the life of nonprofit grant funding.

There’s much more to this, so if you’re interested check out the crib notes, or coverage from Alfred Hermida. A number of folks have asked for the full paper — and I sure appreciate the interest! — but I need a bit more time to tidy things up. These findings represent one chapter of my dissertation, which in its entirety should be finished in a month or two.

In all of this, the best part is this little anecdote: When I got home tonight, I learned that my 7-year-old son watched my talk via the live webcast. But, after just a few minutes into the presentation, Jackson turned to his mom and said in exasperation, “I haven’t understood a word Dad has said!”

Finally, the slides are below: