Welcome to the first of what I hope will be many posts as I participate in #JCarn.

The Carnival of Journalism is a loose collection of journalism thinkers (and people like me) who get together to post on their blogs with their reflections on a given prompt.

This month head carny David Cohn prompts: the Knight News Challenge. What up with that?

If you’d like to participate next time head on over and sign up for the next prompt.

The Knight News Challenge was a $25 million fund which doled out grants to promising ideas and journalism innovators with the caveat that they produce an open source project that will advance journalism.

Projects like Spot.us, DocumentCloud, Everyblock and others were all born or advanced through grants.

This is the fifth and final year of funding for KNC grants and it’s a time of reflection.

The KNC has brought a lot of good with it by funding projects that never would have hatched beyond an idea on their own. They’ve given a stage to thinkers that may not have found an audience. And most importantly they’ve shown a desire to seek out media thinkers who don’t carry mass communications or journalism degrees.

By all means in these regards, KNC has been a resounding success and I would hope additional funding would come to keep it going for another five years.

But the program has also fallen short in a few respects.

The aim it can be argued was to fuel actualized innovation and I’m afraid I’m just not seeing it happen.

Why haven’t the Knight grants resulted in one Kickstarter (a derivative of Spot.us granted), one Yelp or one GroupOn yet? If that is the aspiration, and I think it is.

Great ideas in the mist

Lots of grant projects seem to die out after the money dries up.

There’s many great ideas that I was looking forward to seeing come to fruition, grant projects like Oakland Jazz Scene Game, PlaceBloger and Playing the News come to mind (apologies if you feel singled out, but we’re all in this together).

I don’t mention these projects to single them out, but to ask what happened and what can we learn from it. These were and are great ideas, so why are we not supporting them?

Maybe it’s not enough to just throw money at a team.

I see little support of the ideas after some grant money is doled out. How about working with them to find them partner news organizations that want to take a chance and see what happens. Or treat it like the venture capitalist of Silicon Valley and ask for updates, check in, provide mentoring and guidance as they try to help upstarts find their way and change the funding model to allow for booster funding the following year for the more promising projects.

The result is some really great ideas go underutilized, like a recent one that I loved, MediaBugs, is brilliant for what it does (and available as a niffy WordPress plug-in). It fills a void newspapers have, and yet it’s not being used by newspapers (if I’m wrong, please let me be wrong, point it out please).

Bigger problem

News organizations aren’t in a position to make use of the tools KNC grant winners create. Legacy systems make it difficult for an open source project to take shape inside a local newsroom, at least the ones that aren’t simple tools or embeddable code snippets.

If the goal is creating stuff for existing news organizations to use, well, when is the last time your hometown paper redesigned their website from the ground up and improved it?

Say you make drill bits and you create the worlds greatest drill bit. It drills everything, never breaks, dulls or needs to be replaced. It can run for 100 yrs and is the safest drill bit in the world.

Workman’s comp is a thing of the past around this thing and everyone benefits with lower insurance premiums.

Only problem is you can’t monetize it for the private sector and the power drills on the market are incompatible because they run on legacy systems which can’t spin fast enough to use your drill bits.

I fear this is what happens to many of the promising projects that come though Knight. They’re amazing drill bits for newspaper systems that can’t make use of them and no investors are interested because they can’t make money off it.

Again, a little assistance in helping grantees find partner publications to work with could go a long way in giving ideas a real chance in the real world.

Now if the goal is to create entirely new platforms, that’s different, but over the last two years it seems to me like building tools is what Knight is interested in funding.

Maybe it can be argued that just getting the dialogue started and the example out there is enough, but I’d say that’s selling it short. Ideas need to be nurtured and advocated for beyond the initial welcome.

Tools are sexy

Also, I feel, looking at it from the outside, group think tends to take over. First it’s blogging and citizen journalism platforms, then it’s all about database journalism, then we move to geo-location social applications, and anything with mobile in the description, I guarantee the next phase will be gamification.

Yes, it’s all very exciting and exhilarating to think about, but lets not chase hype. Instead, spread the funds around a little more and fund some really crazy stuff, a few recent trend items and in the quest to move forward don’t forget to revisit old ideas or fundamentals. Don’t play it so safe, no one ever gave birth to a great idea by swimming with the current.

Tools are great and shinny and new, but tools never changed the world, the people wielding them did. Right now I bet there’s someone out there with an idea for a simple problem that’s not some sexy new application or platform but a re-purposing of something existing.

And speaking of tools, may I suggest that KNC create a set up a system which will suggest to folks working on similar projects to consider combining forces or creating tools which will play nice with each other.

I understand that the Knight Labs in Chicago step in with development resources in this regard, but more can still be done on the release side.

Maybe I’m just stating the obvious and these are all things people much smarter than myself have already thought of or suggested. All I can share is perception and that’s how I’m seeing it.

Going forward

I hope the KNC grants continue and I applaud the effort, community and discussions it has sparked. Kudos for recognizing the changing tide and wanting to do something about, but don’t you want to see your investment through?

Journalism has been in a critical spot over the last decade and it’s now more than ever that we need something as daring as the Knight News Challenge. It may not be perfect, but that’s what feedback and discussion is for. Plus, it’s much better than the alternative.

Now, I’m on the outside and maybe I’m speaking with some assumptions and I’m sure I’m naive to some nuances, but that’s just how I see it from the outside.

Rule one is no apologies, but if I’ve offended  anyone or crossed a line, I’m sorry. I’m really a nice guy. Ask around. Better yet, drop me a line or leave a comment.

Call me an idiot, but tell me why. I love geeking out and getting schooled with some knowledge. Honest.