As the media industry continues to be upended and traditional publishers search for ways to survive, those of us who’ve chosen journalism as our craft are left wondering what the future holds. The Knight Foundation, as it happens, appears to be one of those entities exploring that very question. So it’s no wonder that many in the industry look to Knight for answers.

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When it comes to the Knight News Challenge grants, of course, the first question that pops up is, so uh, how do you go about nabbing one?

I get to read a lot about the winners, but I’m not always privy to what goes on before the awards are doled out. Dan Schultz, a 2007 Knight News Challenge winner and tech wizard extraordinaire for our MediaShift and Idea Lab sites, has written about how to brainstorm for ideas when applying for a Knight News Challenge grant. You can read more about that here. But I also reached out to some other Knight News Challenge winners to get their thoughts on the application process and how winning the award was a game changer for them.

The reality is that lots of folks in the journalism industry have brilliant ideas for the future of news, but a lot of those concepts aren’t going to go anywhere at all without the right backing. After all, it’s one thing to have an idea, but to build it into a business takes a lot of hard work — and money. So once you have an idea, where do you go from there?

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Alberto Ibargüen, CEO of the Knight Foundation, announces the 2011 Knight News Challenge winners. Photo courtesy of Dan Schultz.

How to Get Started

The application process itself is relatively simple, said David Cohn, a 2008 winner and the founder of Spot.Us, an open-source project to pioneer community-powered reporting. All you need is an idea and to answer some very basic questions about it. “I had an idea, and in truth, no real way to implement it in a massive scale. The Knight News Challenge represented an ideal opportunity,” he said. “There is absolutely no reason not to apply in the first round and submit several ideas. The process at that stage is very easy.” In fact, at that stage, you can submit as many ideas as you’d like.

There are various rounds, and each one requires more information about yourself and your concept. At each stage, it’s “worth it to invest the time/energy to really think through and answer the questions as best you can because each stage [makes] winning more of a potential reality,” Cohn said.

So the first thing you’ll need to do is draft a submission. “Be as clear and concise as possible,” said Jose Zamora, the journalism program associate at Knight. “Once you have the draft ready read it a few more times and edit it. Try to get rid of jargon and technical terms. Make it simple and to the point.” Once you think it’s all set, let some friends read it over and get their opinions on it.

Where to Go From There

To get your project to the full proposal phase, you should take three steps, according to Zamora:

1. Do your research — Look at past projects to find out what Knight is looking for, but don’t replicate them. It’s all about innovation.

**2. Develop an accurate budget**— You’ll need to create a budget, and that budget needs to be as accurate as possible.

3. Be reasonable — When it comes to how much you’re asking for, you need to make sure that it’s reasonable for what you’re proposing to do.

A lot of times, you might have a project in mind but no idea how much money to ask for, so that second step can present one of the most formidable challenges. “You’ve surely talked over various aspects of your project hundreds of times with friends and colleagues, so answering most questions about your goals and methods should be easy,” said Christina Xu, a 2011 winner and the chancellor of the Institute on Higher Awesome Studies, a nonprofit that promotes microgranting as an alternative to traditional funding. “But when’s the last time you had a conversation about what you’d spend this year on printing costs? Working through the budget is daunting for a number of reasons, especially as an organization that’s just starting out, but it’s actually a great opportunity to think through your plans in a very concrete way.”

What Is Knight Looking for?

The Knight Foundation is looking for a number of things in your application, and the main thing is that you’ll need to meet those criteria. Try to remember that the foundation isn’t just looking for innovative ideas. It’s also looking for a dependable record, name recognition, technical proficiency and collaborations, said David Sasaki, a 2007 winner for Rising Voices, a global citizen media outreach initiative of Global Voices Online. “Create a website with more information than what you can put on your application,” he said. “Perhaps show support for the concept with a Kickstarter campaign. Name recognition never hurts.”

In 2011, Knight asked applicants to apply in one of four categories: Mobile, Authenticity, Sustainability, and Community, although the next iteration will have even more categories. If your project fits well into one of those categories, you’ll then need to ask yourself if this is something that’s going to advance media innovation and serve the information needs of a geographic community. “We are looking for projects that have a good strategy for audience growth, engagement and sustainability,” said Knight’s Zamora. “We are looking for projects that inform and engage citizens in communities — projects that create new audiences, new modes of communication or new types of information, different approaches for advancing the future of news and digitally informing communities.”

The biggest hurdle you’ll face is that because it’s a much-coveted award, the contest is extremely competitive. On average, Knight receives 1,600 applications a year. In the first five years of the contest, the foundation received around 12,000 applications and funded approximately 70 projects.

Once you’ve swallowed that bit of hard news, you’ll want to focus on innovation. Can you come up with a transformational idea — something that isn’t a clone of past projects — that will push the future of journalism? Considering the amount of information that’s already out there, that’s hard to say. As Cohn put it simply, “What some people think is innovative others do not.”

How it’s a game changer

Getting a Knight News Challenge grant can be a game changer, not just because of the funding, but as validation that your project is a viable concept — and that in itself can go a long ways. “The Knight News Challenge — even beyond the funding of our research and civic media experimentation — has been like the wind in our sails,” said Andrew Whitacre, a 2007 winner and communications manager for the MIT Center for Future Civic Media. “Its mission has helped shape our own, obliging us to be radically inventive at the same time that we work with communities, on equal terms, to meet their information needs.”

Sasaki had a similar experience. The grant allowed his team to launch Rising Voices, which is still ongoing and “has trained dozens of under-represented communities how to actively participate in global citizen media, and has helped diversify the reporting in countries like Madagascar, Ukraine and Senegal.”

Of course, sometimes what happens once the funding is over can be the most important steps that a project makes. “What we did after funding ended is far more interesting than what we did while funded, if you ask me,” said Dan Pacheco, a 2008 winner and CEO of BookBrewer. “The grant set us on our path, but we weren’t able to really hit our stride until it was over.”

The main thing to remember is that there are no hard and fast answers to winning a grant, particularly in the current economic climate. When the economy is in doubt, awards become even more competitive, so even a brilliant idea may be left to simmer quietly on the back burner, unless you’re willing to seek out other ways to get it started. As Pacheco put it, “With the economy teetering on going a double-dip, getting any kind of funding in the next few years is doubtful. Learning how to bootstrap is more realistic. At face value bootstrapping isn’t fun and it’s not for everyone, but it’s great if you can make it work.”