The Knight Foundation has an important role to play encouraging innovation and experimentation within the news industry — because let’s face it, not many people in news media have that kind of money to throw around these days (KNC has granted about $22 million over the past four years). Knight has a responsibility to the projects they’re funding, the communities that rely on those projects, and the journalism community as a whole to see that their money is put to good use.
What I’ve gleaned from breaking down the numbers, reading the various survey responses and generally observing KNC practices over the past few years is this:
- Knight appears to “play favorites,” awarding money to people who have applied multiple times or to people they have previously known and met in person. One survey respondent even commented that only the projects that would sound good in a NYT article are selected.
- After projects are funded, adios! No communication with Knight commences, which shows an incredible lack of accountability and makes it easier for projects to fall by the wayside.
- There are inefficiencies in the processes related to applying for and obtaining money from Knight.
We can take a hint from one project, TileMapping, that according to their survey response is having “a great experience so far!” This project was already in the process of being actively built before the grant money was attained. TileMapping used the funds for a second iteration of their project, so they had a clearer scope of what they were trying to accomplish and what resources were required to do it.
So many of the respondents who haven’t had such a good time as TileMapping said they changed course because they realized that they:
- Just didn’t have the technical capacity
- Vastly underestimated the amount of time it would take to build something
- Couldn’t get the industry connections or user base to pull off what they desired.
I think many of these problems can be tackled by the solutions Daniel poses, that I need not repeat (shorting funding cycles, milestone-based funding, smaller amounts of money). Related back to TileMapping, projects need to have a clearer plan of execution and sustainability, beyond simple speculation. The Knight News Challenge should be an investment in the future of news, not a gamble.
And while, yes, some projects will most certainly fail, they shouldn’t fail quietly and unacknowledged. There should be clear transparency, enforced through Knight, that requires grantees to explain why projects failed and how future projects can learn from those failures — because what’s the point of experimentation if there are no clear takeaways? Otherwise, it’s just lost time, money and effort. And that’s not how you shape the future of news.