Innovating philanthropy while innovating media: thoughts from the Knight News Challenge review

Reposted from the original on The Knight Foundation Blog.

Raina Kumra, CEO of Juggernaut and co-director of innovation for the BBG (along with Robert Bole), was one of 19 readers who helped decide which of the 52 projects moved to the next round of the Knight News Challenge on networks. Here, she provides her thoughts on trends that emerged from the entries considered.

Knight’s News Challenge is one of the few events in the foundation world that I can think of that makes foundation funds accessible to real people with big and small ideas. This was my first time as a reviewer for the News Challenge (its sixth one to date) and I walked away with an appreciation for each of the ideas put forth, as well as the design of the challenge itself.


This challenge had over 1,000 submissions. That’s an indication alone that there are few mechanisms in the foundation world that are as widely publicized and instantly accessible for those looking at apps that help media help people. The reviewers were made up of an impressive and diverse group of journalists and other media-centric folk including: Olivia Ma from YouTube, Ethan Zuckerman from MIT’s Center for Civic Media and Harvard’s Berkman Center and Dan Greene from the Gates Foundation to name a few. Lucky for us, the Knight team along with another group of advisors whittled down the entries to about 50 for us to review before the full day session began.

Since the focus of this round of the challenge was networks, a variety of themes emerged from the proposals we reviewed:

·      Truth and Verification were big. Many entries proposed solutions to a long standing and increasingly relevant issue with digital sources and distribution.

·      Another more mature problem that many newsrooms need to tackle is that of the social media dashboard, and there were a slew of entries on that topic. Many of these ideas were well developed, and some had great commercial potential.

·      There were some solid entries looking at sensor based networks and automated data gathering for the news, and for community monitoring of public services or the environment. All very cool and so good to see the arduino being referenced so heavily in so many pitches.

·      Countering homophily was another frequent and interesting topic this year, and there were some great suggestions on how to make news less biased and the curation of news more balanced.

·      A few entries approached the theme of networks in the more traditional way: looking at demographic slices of people i.e. women, environmentalists, or residents of a single city and pitching tools that help strengthen these networks, to collaborate and communicate more effectively.

Working at an international media agency, I am on the constant hunt for projects that can be deployed globally – but there were so many compelling, hyper-local entries that it was really refreshing to think about single community impact without its potential for scale. With my consultant hat on though, I could see so many new startup ideas having their first walk down the aisle. Nascent teams and seedlings of relevant and useful ideas that could eventually grow to scale were given an early debut. There are few arenas for ideas – outside of Kickstarter and the crowdfunding platforms that followed it – that offer pre-flight funding and support like the News Challenge does for ideas that don’t necessarily fit into a typical grant framework.

Knight Foundation also designed the News Challenge to be a feeder for other types of capital and funding, including small and large investments, which I think is smart since philanthropy can only go so far on its own. The News Challenge seems to be a really interesting feeder to some of Knight’s successful investments such as Snag Films, Next Drop and Front Porch Forum.

The News Challenge also informs other aspects of Knight’s journalism grantmaking. Projects like Voice of San Diego, and The Texas Tribune, although not News Challenge winners themselves, were funded in part because in the second year of its challenge, Knight saw a large amount of entries proposing community news sites. Although the projects weren’t innovative enough to fund through the challenge, the foundation felt there was a definite need for them in local communities and decided to find the most promising models to support.

After a day and a half chatting with my fellow reviewers, I’m even more certain the solutions that newsrooms need won’t be coming from the newsrooms themselves. The News Challenge’s meta theme of networks has provided a smart first funnel for innovation in news and philanthropy, by creating opportunities for news consumers, thinkers, tweakers and hackers to help media evolve.

How Satire Can Save the World

Co-authored with Paula Goldman and originally posted on Huffington Post

You’re an activist in Kenya. You’re mad about corruption in your country — with hundreds of millions of dollars meant to aid people in poverty being siphoned off by greedy officials. You want to speak out, but worry that doing so might put your life in danger.

What should you do?

If you’re like us, hopelessly addicted to checking our smartphones every two seconds, you may think the answer is obvious: Use technology to spread the message. Post your thoughts to Twitter and Facebook and hope that others will follow suit. But of course that only works in a free media environment.

If you’re Gado, Kenya’s best known cartoonist, you’d take a more creative route [because you have to]… involving puppets. Gado was inspired by well-known British and French satire shows Spitting Image and Les Guigons, both of which use latex puppets to poke fun at political absurdities. For six seasons, he’s been producing fifteen-minute episodes of The XYZ Show — broadcast on Kenya’s most popular television channel, and featuring likenesses of everyone from Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki to Barack Obama.

The results have been tremendous, with millions of dedicated fans tuning in each week (and more than a few ruffled feathers amongst Kenyan officials).

Parazit, which is billed as the “Iranian Daily Show” and shot nowhere near Tehran, but in the Voice of America building in Washington, D.C., still reaches millions of Iranians, despite extensive jamming and a heavily censored Internet. The creators of Parazit, Saman Arbabi and Kambiz Hosseini, have, for the past three seasons, delivered important humor to the Iranian people — often using the very footage the Iranian government broadcasts daily on its state run television, as well as footage sent by Iranians from around the world. The Iranian government has attempted a copycat version of the show. Arbabi is currently unveiling his latest project, Weapons of Mouse Destruction, which is an international art and advocacy project against government Internet censorship.

Gado and the Parazit team are far from alone. In some of the world’s most dangerous, politically-stifled geographies — from Azerbaijan to Russia — activists are using comedy to say publicly what would otherwise be unspeakable.

This is not new; political satire is as old as the Greeks. It’s just that we’ve partly lost sight of it in our enthusiasm for new gadgets and gizmos that we’re convinced are the next panacea.

In all the recent debates about whether social media was responsible for movements like the Arab spring or the Tea Part, we’ve forgotten that sometimes humor matters more than the straight news and information, especially in closed media environments. Those who have the ability to make fun of their leaders have the ability to lead a free life in many more aspects.

Here are six key examples from around the world to demonstrate how satire can move the needle on difficult issues that are otherwise unmovable.

Full slideshow available on Huffington Post

Putting the 'i' back into ICT

Most people in the tech and development space are familiar with lots of acronyms. The acronym ‘ICT’, or “information communications technology” has gotten a lot of mention lately from the development space as well as from the tech world, but very very little from the media world. There’s been a ton of focus on communications, and on the technology, but what specifically is being communicated? What’s the content? And who is focusing on it?

It would be worthwhile to bring back the focus to the ‘i’ – to the information itself – with ICT programs across the globe – and bring media producers to the table during brainstorms. Development agencies are not in the content business, and tech companies rarely are – so it’s the job of content creators, to ensure that the wrapper of messaging, as well as the strategy of how that content gets to the audiences that need it is thought through, along with the technologists. At least, that’s what I’d like to see more of.

Light Up Malawi Getting "Acquired" by buildOn

More and more non-profits are merging, and getting acquired and this is a practice I hope to see more of as common sense dictates – the best way of delivering change is not always to have a thousand voices yelling, but one very strong voice leading the pack. I was definitely excited when an opportunity came to practice this common sense came to the NGO I founded a few years ago.

As many of you know, my passion project Light Up Malawi has been run by Ryan Renner for the past several months as I took a job at the State Department and then at the Broadcasting Board of Governors to be their new co-director of Innovation. As a federal contractor, I could not hold any executive function with any non-profit organization, so I stepped down to an advisory role. While LUM was in good hands with Ryan – we also realized that the political environment in Malawi was not ideal. For a young organization like ours could thrive, or even survive, we needed entirely different circumstances, or years of experience. Both of which we did not have.

After a remarkably simple conversation with our first pilot partners, buildOn we were able to transfer the funds raised so far on Global Giving (the most amazing website for non-profit fundraising ever!) and put them into a community education program around clean energy. We think its a win-win situation. Thanks to everyone who supported us in the early days and fans through out. Thank you for believing that a few people can make a difference in the world, because we did! More details on the change here: