Planning to spend the long weekend finalizing your Knight News Challenge application? It’s too late for my favorite bit of advice (“don’t wait until the last minute!”), but as someone who’s been involved with three different winning projects, I like to fancy that I’ve got got some insight into what makes a good project.

A half dozen prospective applicants have sat down with me to workshop their News Challenge ideas, and I think I’ve helped them think through their projects to get them to a more viable place. The application process isn’t hard, but you do need to give some sincere thought to your project or you’re just wasting your time. Here’s the advice I keep giving people:

Tips for the News Challenge

Focus on work you really want to do — If you have a great idea but aren’t really personally invested in making it happen, you’re going to face a long, long slog if it gets funded. Three different people have complained to me that software developers put a ton of time and energy into developing Knight proposals that didn’t wind up getting funded. That’s always a let down, but it shouldn’t be the end of the world. If you do make it past the first round, Knight is going to ask you a lot of hard questions and work with you to revise your proposal. If you don’t get funded, you’re left with a pretty solid and well thought out proposal that you can shop around if you really want to raise the money you need to get funded. That’s a good thing!

Tell a solid story of engagement — I’m not an expert on what is and isn’t news, and I cut my teeth most recently at Gotham Gazette, which has pretty distinct standards for what qualifies. The most fascinating story won’t find a home there if it doesn’t have any apparent policy implications. I’m pretty sure that Knight doesn’t look for policy implications alone, but if you can’t tell me a solid story that takes me from your project to citizens (and non citizens!) and helps make them more engaged in decision making in their communities in some tangible way, something is missing from your project. That, or you’re making me work far too hard to understand why this matters. So spell it out.

Make a realistic budget — Grants awarded by the news challenge vary wildly in amount. Meaning: You should be honest with yourself about what it will cost to see your project through. A low ball request could leave you without enough money to finish what you started, and could be a sign to Knight’s reviewers that you don’t have a good understanding of what your project is going to take. A stratospheric budget isn’t any more realistic.

Have a realistic outreach plan — If you’ve got a great idea but no idea how to connect with the users that should be taking advantage of it, you’ve got a silo. Think this will be useful to a community? Go out and talk to people about what you’re trying to do, how you think it will help and listen to what they say about how they want to use it. Not just what they think would be nice for other people to use, but what they want and will use.

Proofread! Proofread! Proofread! — Your goal is to impress people, and to impress upon them that they should take a chance on your bright idea. Attention to grammatical details doesn’t matter to everyone, but to some people a misplaced modifier is like nails on a chalkboard. Why risk alienating a reviewer?

Don’t give up — Knight’s reviewers are going to look at zillions of proposals. If you’re convinced that yours is a good idea but Knight turns it down, don’t just quit. Keep looking for ways to make it happen, and keep listening to your community for insights that might make it a stronger project next time.

PS. I really have been involved with three Challenge winners. I wasn’t around to help write the proposal, but I joined Gotham Gazette full time as director of technology after they won a 2007 news challenge grant to develop a series of games about public policy. Two years later, I helped develop Gotham Gazette’s winning Councilpedia proposal before I joined the DocumentCloud team.