As the Knight Foundation gets closer to announcing the winners of its News Challenge on Networks, it’s opening up its next round of the contest, which now occurs three times a year instead of annually.

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Round 2 of the 2012 Knight News Challenge will focus on data. Why data? “The world has always been complex, but we are now challenged with making sense of the rapidly increasing amounts of information that we are creating,” John Bracken, director of journalism and media innovation at Knight, explained in a blog post announcing the contest.

Plus, data journalism was a strong theme running through the 2011 News Challenge winners — think PANDA, the AP’s Overview, ScraperWiki and OpenBlock Rural — so it’s not a huge surprise that it’s the focus of one of the rounds this year.

the emergence of the ‘hacker/journalist’

A lot has changed since the Knight Foundation launched the first News Challenge six years ago, when the concept of a “hacker/journalist” who develops tools to help news outlets make sense of data was relatively novel. Since then, it’s become a much-vaunted position in many media organizations including The New York Times and the Boston Globe. The most recent example is NPR’s hiring of Brian Boyer, developer of the PANDA Project, to lead its news apps team.

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Brian Boyer

Round 2 of the News Challenge is just yet another example of the growing role of data in the media industry. As Knight-Mozilla’s Dan Sinker wrote, “There is ample space for math geeks, stats nerds, number-crunchers and many more in journalism. It’s a place they should be playing. And you can see, with each stat-heavy report, with each number-savvy data visualization, that some are starting to. But nowhere near enough.”

So if you’re a data wizard with a brilliant idea for the future of news, what should you keep in mind when you apply?

The key is coming up with a transformational data-related idea — something that isn’t a repeat of past projects — that will push the future of journalism. “We’re looking for new ways of collecting, understanding, visualizing and helping the public use the large amounts of information generated each day,” according to the Knight News Challenge site.

Knight’s Bracken explained further, “We need help making things ‘clean and simple’ and ‘paring away the extraneous’ if we are going to remain aware of and engaged with what is transpiring around us. What are the implications — ethically, economically, socially — of having access to so much information? How can the flood of data best be channeled to make us better citizens? What stories can we tell?”

The data round gets underway on May 31, and Knight will be accepting applications until June 20. The foundation will announce the winners of the Networks Challenge at MIT on June 18. Winners receive a portion of $5 million in funding.

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