Creating Technology for Social Change

Supporting Transformational Innovation in the News: #MozFest Knight Foundation Fireside Chat

Today at the Mozilla Festival, Dan Sinker and Michael Maness hosted a conversation about the Knight Foundation’s funding programs and evolving priorities for journalism and media innovation. The session started with pretty grim context on the state of journalism and turned into an exciting and deeply practical conversation about supporting transformational innovation in the news.

(See also “Test first, then scale,” by Chris Barr, a roundup of recent Knight Prototype Fund grantees and a description of the vision and future of the prototype fund)

Dan Sinker and Michael Maness are Serious about News

At the #mozfest in London, Dan Sinker is Serious.
Michael Maness uses his long form explainer claw to outline
the future of Knight Journalism and Media Innovation

In the last five years, 3.5 billion dollars have been eliminated from newsroom payrolls. The Knight Foundation spends 100 million dollars a year, and they spend 30-40 of that on journalism. Michael shows us a graph of newspaper advertising revenue adjusted for inflation 1950 to 2012. The drop from 2000 has been precipitous.

How does Knight respond in this environment? Knight funds projects towards Freedom of Expression (26 grants), journalism education (28), Digital Transformation (19), Media Innovation (53), and open government data (6). In the near term, they expect to offer more grants and more money in digital innovation as well as more money on open government data.

Michael talks about the Knight Prototype fund, which offers $50,000 or less to prototype projects. He announces the first set of prototype grantees:

  • UNICEF Amplifying Voices of Youth. UNICEF tried this in Rio and Haiti, and it took off, so they’re trying to reflect and scale the project.
  • FOIA Machine makes it easy to find out how to make freedom of information requests in many countries.
  • Ground Truth is a system for crowdsourcing citizen reports.
  • Kon*Fab links news with the real-time activities of news readers.

On average, an innovation takes around four iterations before it stabilises into something that’s consistent, but people often use grants just to build the first version. That’s where the Knight Prototype Fund can help. Through the prototype fund, Knight will be funding 70-80 grants of $5-50k. Knight also hopes to fund 10-15 of these projects to help them scale.

Dan Sinker tells us about the new Code Sprint project within the Open News program. The core mission of Open News is to place highly skilled developers within newsrooms. Open News has also funded numerous hack days.

There’s a big gap between developers who spend a year at newsrooms and people who spend a single weekend in a hack day. Especially when people don’t need to make a startup but want to make tools, they often can benefit from to bringing people together across organizations for a longer code sprint. The output of springs need to be replicable, open, and able to solve a common problem for several news organizations. (read more at the Nieman Lab)

We’re well beyond the days of trying to save journalism, Dan Sinker reminds us. He’s excited that we’re at a stage where people can try lots of new experiments, where building small is smart.


An audience member argues that to make apps more sustainable, it’s important to support learning and education. Dan agrees and responds that Knight will be launching a new learning initiative in 2013.

Jeff Warren of the Public Laboratory points out that lots of new projects often need long term resources like server space. Might it be possible to offer hosting and other longer term services to help these projects last long enough to get taken up? Michael responds that Knight is trying to figure out how to create a moment of pause, a place for projects to live until they go to the next place. Dan answers that nonprofits often think that their projects will magically live forever. For-profit companies don’t have this assumption. The smartest people will think about sustainability from day one: ask how something should live– or even if it should live. Jeff responds that this is a different skillset from creating a new thing.

A participant from the Telegraph comments that the US seems further ahead with news innovation than other parts of the world. Dan points out that Open News is a global initiative. 2012 had only one US partner, although there will be more in 2013. Knight primarily tries to identify news partners at organisations who have a track record in digital innovation. Open News can’t ask a talented developer to be the first person to do innovation in the newsroom. And even then, Americans might not be in the majority; half of the news challenge applications come from elsewhere.

Dan asks Aaron Pilhofer, editor of Interactive News at the New York Times, to respond to the idea that the US is ahead. What mindset led to the NYT’s work? Aaron responds that it was luck. They wanted to be able to do things they couldn’t, and they had leadership who supported it. Scott Klein responds that he was hired to be a “webmaster,” and he resisted. Scott told ProPublica that they should focus on data instead, and ProPublica supported him.

Michael says that news organisations often don’t have transformative leadership at the top. News people tend to be perfectionists and find it difficult to appreciate the value of hacking. A lot of news apps in the US have been created by people coming in from the edges. ProPublica and the New York Times are rare exceptions to that. Dan adds that skeptics often say that newsrooms will never find great developers because Facebook will always pay more. But you could say the same about advertising, and newsrooms still manage to find great writers.

Dan Sinker thinks will always be possible to find people who care about getting information out to the world. He tells the story of the Sunlight Foundation’s Fifty States Project, which engaged with developers in the way they want to be engaged– working through hack events. And now it’s possible to go to a great number of newsrooms whose developers got hooked as volunteers in the Fifty States Project. At a fundamental level, journalism itself functions a bit like a hack day: creating something good enough on a deadline. In fact, the web is built out of tools that were built out of journalism: Django, backbone, underscore, and D3. Some of the greatest developers want to be in journalism.

Another participant points out that often the audience isn’t as sophisticated as new technology, and organisations aren’t sophisticated in their use of technology. He also wonders if we have lost sight of audience participation in our pursuit of data. Dan points out ProPublica’s Free the Files project as something which combines participation and data. Free the Files posted lots of files online for people to transcribe and annotate. Scott also describes ProPublica’s Message Machine, which invites people to contribute campaign emails for analysis. Michael adds that the most successful crowd journalism projects start by offering a piece of data that people can work on and curating participation from the core superusers as well as the larger group of less active participants.

A participant from Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires complains that media owners often don’t respond positively to all the energy of coders who care about journalism. As a result, he’s excited about the work Knight does to work with decision-makers at news organisations.

A participant asks about the role of youth in Knight grants. Youth projects tend to be focused within the community grants that Knight offers. Dan responds that youth are an important vertical within Mozilla, and that they have fewer conversations than they should. Often the focus on youth media is getting kids to realize that they have a voice. In Open News, they tend to focus on how to get high end developers more engaged with the news.

The participant responds that we shouldn’t see young people as “instructables” but also as sources of information. Dan and Michael point out that the UNICEF project is doing exactly that. Michael also talks about the Free to Tweet project, which encourages young people to raise awareness about censorship on Twitter.

Another participant suggests the idea of publishing more data and inviting young people to use it for stories. Dan Sinker responds that young creative writers have opportunities to work for the school paper, but do high school papers offer data journalism opportunities for teens? Probably not. Dan thinks that projects like Source document the process behind making a piece like the NYT’s visual election outcome explorer, making available information that teens might find useful.

A participant from the New School responds that it’s really hard to get undergraduates to care about things like data journalism; they all want to be writers. Michael points out that while newspapers are hiring hybrid people, universities often put people into expertise silos.