The future of news: Mobile, video, data — & crowdsourced

The Knight Foundation, a non-profit entity that is one of the biggest funders of journalism and media-related projects in the United States, announced the winners of the first round of its Knight News Challenge on Monday in Massachusetts — a contest aimed at funding the next generation of news entrepreneurs. This round was aimed at startups that are taking advantage of existing networks such as Ustream and Twitter, and the winners who are sharing the $1.37 million in prize money are trying to develop video, mobile and crowdsourced solutions to the problem of filtering the vast ocean of news that washes over us every day.
In past years, the Knight Foundation — which was set up by John and James Knight, whose family founded what became the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain — has hosted a single News Challenge, worth a total of $4.7 million last year and divided among the 16 winners. This year, the foundation decided to split the challenge into three parts, each with a slightly different focus on the future of news and journalism, and the first was aimed at ways of using existing networks. The foundation said in a blog post earlier this year that its thinking was influenced by watching what Andy Carvin of National Public Radio was able to do by using Twitter as a news source during the “Arab Spring” revolutions:

Andy, a one-man aggregation vehicle, [is] someone who successfully leveraged a network to tell stories and engage communities. Andy did not go off and build a new platform to aggregate news from the Middle East and North Africa — he leveraged an existing one.

Looking at the past entrants in its News Challenge, the foundation said, confirmed the idea that “projects that brought with them their own networks were better placed for success than were those starting off on their own.” So the first round of award winners each use different networks — and in many cases multiple networks — as a source of both news and as a distributor of their own content. And in many cases the idea seems to be similar to what Andy Carvin tried to do with his Twitter stream: namely, to filter and “curate” the massive amounts of video and other content to find meaning.
Two of the winners focus specifically on video:

  • –- The Knight Foundation describes this startup as “leveraging streaming networks like Ustream and TweetCaster” to aggregate live, mobile video streams of breaking news events and present them on a world map so that viewers can see live video of events as they unfold. Award: $360,000 – Winners: Felipe Heusser and Jeff Warren.
  • Watchup –- Founded by Adriano Farano, a former Knight Fellow at Stanford University and founder of a European “crowdsourced journalism” community called, this startup is developing an iPad app that will allow users to create their own on-the-fly video channels from different news sources. Farano has described it as “Hulu for news.” Award amount not released.

One of the other Knight Foundation challenge winners shows how broadly the contest is defining the term “news”: instead of being a tool or service that produces or distributes or even filters traditional news content,, awarded $340,000, is aimed at allowing residents of disaster-stricken communities to co-ordinate news and information about their situation through a single website hub. The startup was founded by two sisters after a tornado destroyed their Massachusetts home, and is designed to provide a platform for other communities to communicate and share information in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Two of the other startups are similar to the winners of last year’s News Challenge, many of whom were focused on mining data and analyzing it in order to understand more about news events and other information:

  • –- Still in beta, this service is designed to help editors and newsrooms monitor how their content is being engaged with or shared by readers, so that they can decide where to put their resources and where to position that content online (award amount not released). This sounds similar to some of the features that analytical tools like Chartbeat offer.
  • Behavio –- Behavio is described as an open-source platform that turns phones into “smart sensors” that can capture people’s behavior and help them understand everything from how they use their phones to how they interact with the world around them. It will be interesting to see how much of that data users want to reveal, and how journalists want to use it. The startup is based on an open-source project that founder Nadav Aharony developed while he was at the MIT Media Lab. Award: $355,000 – Winners: Nadav Aharony, Alan Gardner and Cody Sumter.

Although each of these winners has a unique take on the problems they are trying to solve, one of the more interesting startups for me was the Tor Project, which is aimed at helping journalists — whether the professional or the amateur variety — do their jobs more effectively and securely. The Tor Project, awarded $320,000, is based on an open-source development effort called Tor, whose network of “anonymous proxies” protects users from online snooping by governments or other authorities. Critics have pointed out that many journalists fail to take appropriate precautions even when reporting from dangerous locations, and the Tor Project could help to change that.
The second round of the Knight Foundation’s news challenge closes at the end of June, and is focused on startups who deal with data. The foundation also said that and Watchup have received funding through the Knight Enterprise Fund, an early-stage venture capital fund associated with the foundation (which is why their funding amounts were not released). And the Knight Foundation also announced on Monday a new fund aimed at helping news startups take their ideas to the prototype stage — including one startup focused on “drone journalism.”
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Ed Kohler and Petteri Sulonen