Creating Technology for Social Change

New Knight Prototype Fund to Fund 50-60 Projects in Journalism Innovation

Knight Prototype Fund

The Knight foundation has just launched a prototype fund (Knight Challenge prototype fund), in an attempt to shorten the pace of grantmaking. The prototype fund takes 60 to 120 days and offers less than $50,000 dollars to help groups take an idea into prototype. The goal is to create a more iterative, innovative approach, funding 50-60 projects. The Jefferson Institute┬áhas received one of these grants to explore their Patchwork Nation data. University of Nebraska’s drone journalism program has also received prototype funds.

Michael Maness and Joi Ito spoke to Elise Hu about Knight’s vision for this fund.

Eilse Hu (@elisewho): How have you sought to innovate in this space?

Michael: historically, we have seen really big grants, and people haven’t baked in ways to iterate and change direction. By offering smaller amounts of funding, we’re trying to help grantees think about how to prototype, iterate, and scale. We’re also trying to give more dimensions of support than just funds: marketing and branding, social media strategy, and design.

Elise: As a trustee for the Knight Foundation and director of the Media Lab, how does this this fit in?

Joi: The DNA of the Media Lab is to try things out in an agile way. That allows a lot of discovery, serendipity, and interdisciplinary work. As the world gets complex, if you get too focused, you can’t get lucky. We can also do more and more for less and less as computing power is getting cheaper. Money matters less– now we build the thing first and then figure out the money. You can’t get into deals like Path or Kickstarter just because you have money. You get in because you know people and have done good deals in the past. Early stage is all about getting invited into the party. For charitable foundations, support becomes more about the environment they’re creating than just offering money. Joi also points us to a fundamental power shift away from people with money toward people with ideas.

Elise: how do foundations strike the right balance between serendipity/failure and the need to set parameters?

Joi: The cost of innovation goes down and predictability is going down, and they often only seem great in retrospect. What is the cost of saying no? If we calculated the billable time of the people in this room, we could probably fund 20 startups. I don’t look at business plans– I just bet. If you try to manage risk, then you end up losing money. Think about peer review– you have to explain to five other people what you’re doing. Really amazing ideas you can’t even explain. If you can write a grant proposal that a program officer can create metrics for, then you already know the answer. You’re not in discovery mode- you’re in answer mode.

Michael: The more money that’s involved, it’s difficult to have an authentic conversation and deviate from the plan. But the whole point of this is deviation. One of the purposes of this conversation is to help other funding organisations realise that this is the new operating procedure.

Elise: How have you leveraged the brainpower in your networks over the years?

Michael: We do it organically at the moment. We want to produce a salvage yard of ideas out of this grant– helping people pick what worked and what didn’t. We hope this will become a systemic network of innovation that’s self-propelling, moving forward even if we’re not around. We’re still searching for ways to do this.

Elise: Is there a balance you want to see between successes and failures?

Michael: It’s a portfolio project. Large projects focus on digital rights and the first amendment, journalism education, and data analytics. The acceptable risk is much higher for the smaller grants.

Elise: In your ideal world, what does success look like five years out, and who’s paying for it.

Joi: The path isn’t clear. We’re hitting a treacherous period. The business model for journalism is about to die. We need to discover something completely new. Maybe citizen journalism will have to bump up a level. But we’re still lost, and if we don’t figure out in the next five years, we’re going to be in a really bad place.

Think about videogames. They did well because the people who wrote the content were the same people writing the software. They pivoted their business models and the mode along with the media. With TV and printing presses, the people who make money are not the people who make the content. If technology looks like a black box to the people making content, then it becomes incremental. The citizen media stuff went well because the people who wanted to write the content wrote the software, and they iterated.

The people who make the content and technologies have to be the same people. Who’s going to fund this? It needs to be a combination of for-profit and non-profit. It’s going to be really hard work, and unless we figure it out, it’s going to be bad for democracy.

Michael: One key is to make tools easy for anyone to use. Joi is right; the things that are most successful are built in the environments they were meant for. Projects like DocumentCloud also work to foster the community that uses it, building networks into what they’re doing or leveraging an existing network.

Elise: What should become of ideas that Knight has supported in the past?

Joi: There are two categories. Some of them can be inspiration. Getting the idea right is important, even if something doesn’t survive. Hopefully some of these larger projects will become infrastructure, becoming part of what big journalism does.

Jeff Jarvis: What impact do you think Kickstarter and the Jobs Act will have on the ecosystem?

Joi: I’m conflicted because I’m an investor in Kickstarter. I think that raising money for corporations and selling stock is a different animal than raising money for an album or a widget. I think there will be lots of hiccups. The combination of social networks and funding of things is important.

I’m more skeptical about for-profit investing using crowds. If you look at a social network and its behaviour on investing. If you overdo it, you can get into a bubble. Enough people are worried about it that it can be prevented from being bad. With Kickstarter, you know that the most you will get is what the person promises to give you. Crowd investing offers the possibility of greater return, and it can get out of hand.

Michael: Kickstarter can help once you have a demo, and we’re hoping to fund earlier stage work with the prototype fund.

An audience member from DocumentCloud asks: How are you going to help projects pivot?

Michael: The way to pivot is to get things out in front of users as fast as possible, even if it’s a paper prototype. We often build a lot of solutions looking for problems. We need to take a user-centered approach that allows projects to pivot.

Joi: The Knight Foundation does have a mission, and you don’t want people to pivot in the opposite direction. Venture capitalists will let you pivot anywhere so long as it makes money. But we need to ask people, “are you sure you want to go in that direction?”