It seems so obvious that a contest to further innovation would itself innovate, so few were surprised when the Knight Foundation recently announced they were changing the rules of the Knight News Challenge and offering three rounds instead of one competition per year — especially since we got the first whiff of it back in October.

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But as the first round gets underway, it’s become clear that there’s a whole lot more going on beyond changing the number of rounds. There’s a new focus on speeding up and simplifying the whole process — and that could be a good thing indeed for applicants.

“Oh man I’m going to submit like 500 ideas to every round of this year’s KNC,” tweeted Dan Schultz, a 2007 winner and blogger and tech guru for our MediaShift and Idea Lab sites. “@knightfdn you won’t know what hit you!”

He further explained in an email: “Having a low entry point makes it possible to just brainstorm and submit anything that looks like it has potential. After that, you can make Knight do the hard work of telling you what feels best.”

To speed things up, Knight has a simple application form on Tumblr with seven short questions. There are word limits (ranging from 20 to 100 words) for each question to encourage applicants to keep it short and sweet. “We won’t reject your application if you go over the limit — you can write 203 words instead of 200 on why you think your idea will work,” John Bracken, director of journalism and media innovation at Knight, wrote in a blog post. “But the ability to successfully convey thoughts with precision is a criteria we will use in reviewing the applications.”

Another change is the length of each cycle. Because the contest is now three times per year, they each last 8 to 10 weeks. In this first round, for instance, Knight will start to review the applications on March 17, and in mid-April a set of finalists will be asked more in-depth questions. The winners will be announced June 18.

“The ‘snowball application’ (one that gets bigger and more complex as you barrel down KNC Mountain) is a great way to run an innovation competition,” Schultz said. “It’s kind of like a brainstorming session: No idea is bad until after the idea generation is over.

Other Knight News Challenge winners also applauded efforts to simplify the process. “I think it’s a good idea. It’s more agile and nimble. And if you look at innovation on the web, the quicker/lighter you are, the more likely you’ll be successful,” said David Cohn, Knight a 2008 winner and founder of Spot.Us, an open-source project to pioneer community-powered reporting.

Knight’s Michael Maness, the Old Spice guy of non-profits, on Vimeo.

Let the entries begin

The focus of the first round that just opened up is on networks. What sort of networks, you might ask? “The Internet, and the mini-computers in our pockets, enable us to connect with one another, friends and strangers, in new ways,” Knight’s Bracken wrote. “We’re looking for ideas that build on the rise of these existing network events and tools — that deliver news and information and extend our understanding of the phenomenon.”

Knight is also looking for folks who can “walk the talk” when it comes to networks. In other words, dreamers are welcome to apply, but the foundation is really looking for people who can combine existing products and services to create something that hasn’t been done before and improves on the current way we share and receive information.

“I often say that we love the person who invented the suitcase and the person who invented wheels, but what we are really looking for is the person who put the wheels on the suitcase,” said Jose Zamora, the journalism program associate at Knight.

The Knight Foundation launched the first Knight News Challenge in 2006 to spur “innovative ideas that develop platforms, tools and services to inform and transform community news, conversations and information distribution and visualization.” Innovation is still at the core of the contest, but it’s grown up a lot since then.

“In the early stages of the contest we were doing a lot of experimentation,” Zamora said. “Most recently we are looking for the most promising models and nurturing them so that they can scale-up and disseminate. We are looking for projects that have a good strategy for audience growth, engagement and sustainability.”

What started out six years ago as an effort to promote media innovation has turned into Knight’s most prominent example of how philanthropy can potentially change the face of an industry — in this case, giving a voice and a platform to innovators who can hopefully pave a path for the future of news. As Cohn said, “Knight has done a great job of changing the conversation in the journalism community. Now the question is if we can sustain it and push forward at the speed of innovation.”

Full Disclosure: Knight is a funder of this site, Idea Lab, as well as sister site MediaShift.