Eric Newton is the vice president of the journalism program at Knight Foundation. He describes the annual $5 million Knight News Challenge, which aims to bring about news innovation by supporting new technologies and techniques to bring news and information to specific geographic communities around the world. He offers some examples of projects that have been funded including Rhodes University in South Africa, Freedom Fone in Zimbabwe, Ushahidi in Kenya, and the Sochi Olympics citizen journalism project in Russia, and also provides some tips for applicants seeking funding.
The deadline for this year's News Challenge is October 15 so if you have a good idea, apply now.
Eric: My name is Eric Newton. I’m the Vice President of the journalism program  at Knight Foundation . The Knight News Challenge  is a kind of open, international, research and development contest for news innovation. And the idea behind it is that the digital revolution has turned information and news upside down and inside out, and things are changing so rapidly that no one – not traditional media companies, not even the entrepreneur community – can keep up with the pace of change. So our foundation thought that if we have an open, international contest and collected thousands of entries and picked the very best ideas for news innovation that it would help speed the process of moving good news and information into the digital age.
David: How does the Knight News Challenge relate to media development? Or does it?
Eric: Well, it relates to media development in that each of the entries needs to have four key elements. 1) It needs to involve news and information. The kind of news and information that people need to run their communities and their lives. 2) It needs to involve specific geographic communities. So it is not about technology platforms that aren’t related to a specific community – a place where people live and work and run their government. 3) It needs to involve digital innovation; something new. And because of the fourth element, it is very helpful for media development because the fourth element is that whatever technology is developed is then free and open source, and usable by anybody anywhere in the world for news and information in their communities.
David: Does innovation have the same meaning in all countries and all contexts?
Eric: No. Things that are new in one culture might be quite old in another. But we don’t think that it’s the job of the News Challenge to try to bring all of the new developments to everyone in the world. We think that the governments will do that and businesses will do that. There are already structures involving millions and even billions of dollars in media that will spread the innovations. What we’re looking for are things that no one has tried before. No one meaning no one. Those innovations can be technological, but they can also be innovations of technique. If someone in a culture outside the United States says, ‘hey, we can combine these technologies in a unique way in our community’, that is innovation.
So, when Rhodes University in South Africa says  ‘we can develop a cell phone citizen journalism program in the township, we can create a web platform for the English-language newspaper, we can create a new web platform for the Afrikaans radio station, and then we can digitally connect all three of these things so that for the first time this community can have a unified news system’ – well, that wasn’t any new technology necessarily. That was taking things and putting them into action in specific communities because of the unique characteristics of that community.
David: Can you give a couple other examples of News Challenge winners internationally, from outside the US?
Eric: Sure, in Sochi, where the Olympics are coming, a citizen journalism project  is in the process of organizing the community to talk about whether the olympics are a good thing or a bad thing for the town, or something in between. A major citizen journalism project in Russia is not the norm – so that should be an interesting experiment. In Zimbabwe, there is an experiment in mobile news distribution called Freedom Fone . In Kenya, Ushahidi  is experimenting with data visualization and real-time mapping of citizen journalism contributions so that if major news events are occurring you can see the reports that are coming in from all quarters and get a visual idea of what is happening. Those are just some of the examples.
The News Challenge is open internationally because the idea is that anyone anywhere can come up with a good idea. We haven’t done as many international projects as we’d like to because a lot of people think that they have new ideas, but really they just don’t know that it is already happening somewhere else and the technology already exists, and in fact models already exist. So nothing new needs to be developed. What needs to happen in that case is that aid programs or the commercial sector or any number of other funders need to step in to spread things that we already know work.
David: We are about one week from the deadline of this year’s News Challenge. What recommendations and advice would you give to applicants?
Eric: Well, I think that the main thing to remember is that we’re looking for projects with all the elements: great news and information, great digital innovation, specific geographic community and free and open source sharing of what is learned and developed. We frequently will get project proposals that are very strong in one of the categories, but weak in the others. The best thing that anyone can do is partner with experts in the other areas and do their homework in the other areas if they themselves are only experts in only one of the areas.