The Knight Foundation expects most journalism projects they fund to fail – John S. Bracken at Hacks/Hackers London

Hacks/Hackers London logoThis week’s Hacks/Hackers London meet-up was themed around the funding of investigative journalism, and featured a stellar cast including John S. Bracken of the Knight Foundation, Bobbie Johnson of Matter, and the Guardian’s legendary investigative reporter David Leigh. Here are my notes from opening session, John S. Bracken joining us at host Bloomberg’s UK HQ on a big screen via Skype.

“Funding Journalism & Media Innovation” – John S. Bracken

John S. Bracken was talking about the Knight News Challenge, which he described as a way to try and “accelerate the energy” devoted to finding new ways of conducting and funding journalism. They’ve been running it for seven years, and John cited the Open Knowledge Foundation and ScraperWiki as two successes. He also name-checked DocumentCloud, EveryBlock and Ushahidi as having received encouragement and support from the Knight Foundation.

John explained that they had just finished the applications round for their latest Knight News Challenge, and that they’d had over 800 entries. They’d changed the format a little this year, and there is an opportunity for the whole of the web to contribute feedback on the submissions over the next few days — you can do so here.

He said that they’d learned from the public way Matter had funded their journalism start-up, and had made a conscious effort to shift to an submissions platform that was more inclusive, and which facilitated conversation. Bracken stated that “When we do a new challenge, we are only able to fund one percent of the ideas. At the same time we realise there is a good chunk of value in the other 99 percent.” They felt that in order to do a better job of taking advantage of those ideas they needed to focus on the feedback and the conversation. They’ve had online hang-outs or conference calls where for long periods of time nobody from Knight has spoken — the conversation and knowledge exchange has all been peer-to-peer amongst the applicants.

Kathryn Corrick, who always asks incredibly perceptive questions from the floor at these kinds of events, pressed John on the sustainability and viability of the tools and businesses that they have funded. He explained that they take a venture capital approach, helping these fledgling companies with things like accounting services, HR and branding. He said they preferred to work with “early stage projects”, but accept that in this “venture zone” the majority of projects they fund will fail. “It is the learning that is important” said John.

Joanna Geary asked John if, after having seen hundreds and hundreds of these ideas with very few successes, he was still optimistic about future journalism funding models. He suggested that Matter and the 99% Invisible podcast showed some potential in this direction, but, like most people faced with that question, I felt his answer veered more towards “I sincerely hope so” rather than “I sincerely think so”.


Following John’s talk, four of the Knight-Mozilla Fellows who have worked in UK newsrooms over the last couple of years talked about their experiences. I’ll have my notes from that session next.

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