VC For Media-Makers: How Is Knight Giving Journalism Innovators Room to Experiment?

It goes without saying that rapid technological developments are transforming all facets of the journalism space. But in a time- and resource-sensitive world, how can technologists and journalism outfits most efficiently and effectively harness these developments?

Enter the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, whose Knight Prototype Fund frees up journalists, newsrooms, citizen hackers, "tinkerers," and "media makers"—Knight's terms—giving them what's akin to start-up money with which to experiment from concept to demo. With grants of $35,000, innovators are given six months to research, test core assumptions and iterate before building out an entire project. 

In the process, these recipients seek to answer some of the most challenging questions facing the field of journalism today, including:  

  • How can we better protect consumer data and privacy?
  • How can we make our politicians more accountable?
  • How can we make it easier for people to shape their community and our world?
  • How can we make complex data clear, interesting, and relevant to people’s lives?

The beauty of the fund is that we already have answers—or at least possible answers, as determined by the folks at Knight. Recipients develop their projects during the course of six months, upon which they share their discoveries with other teams. In fact, when successful projects emerge, Knight Foundation can help them scale so other organizations can adopt them accordingly.

And therein lies the true value of the prototype fund. Your typical journalist may be a savvy smartphone user, but probably not particularly fluent in coding or, in the case of one winner—LPFM Radio Impact Maps by Prometheus Radio Project out of Philadelphia—creating software that maps interference and population demographics for low-power FM. And so the fund harnesses the technical acumen of the engineers and helps to customize and scale the technology so the end product, whether a fact-checking app (Dataproofer by New York's Vocativ) or a tool to help citizens better understand local government finances (ClearGov.com by Massachusetts' ClearGov Inc.) can be intuitively implemented by journalists and their teams.

Much like start-ups that rely on VC money, recipients are essentially given room to experiment and take chances they normally wouldn't take.

Click here to check out this round of winners. As for more IP analysis on the Knight Foundation's journalism work, check out their efforts in the field of small news markets here and boosting civic engagement here.