i-eef67b7a5a3053578932ac8e75f1d021-Eric Newton of Knight Foundation.JPG
The email pitch was so cheesy, that I almost didn’t open up the message, thinking it was probably a get-rich-scheme spam email: “Last Chance to Help Spend Someone Else’s $$$” was the subject line. But for once, this was no empty come-on. The Knight Foundation — started by the newspaper moguls Jack and Jim Knight — is asking for advice on how it should give grants to people and projects that will “help improve the flow of journalism, information and news in the public interest in America’s communities.”

What’s great about this initiative, dubbed “The Knight Brothers 21st Century Challenge,” is that the foundation is also opening up the grant process itself to citizen participation. They’re using a Newsvine web page to outline some of their ideas and then ask people to offer their own suggestions on how the money should be given away.

Here is how they describe the thinking for this initiative:

The technology that allows information to be consumed on demand and on the go — through iPods, cell phones, PDAs, PlayStations or wireless computers — obviously has the potential to separate and isolate us. Sometimes it reassembles us into communities that exist only in the electrons.

Yet these devices also can bring us physically together in ways undreamed of even five years ago — witness the flash mobs protesting in South Korea’s streets. In what other ways will computers create community? How can cyberspace improve life in physical space? How will digital news improve the world of journalism?

Great questions, and great subjects that I’ve tried to explore here on MediaShift. As local newspapers have become part of large corporate chains — such as Knight-Ridder — the connection between local news in newspapers and the communities they serve has lessened. Reporters often have little stake in their communities as they only pass through town after town on their way to the big news outlets. But citizen media efforts have a chance to really connect local denizens and the local newsgathering process. Take a look at iBrattleboro or Northwest Voice, where average folks have a big voice in the news.

According to the foundation’s Newsvine site, “We want proposals that increase the clarity, not the cacophony. We’re looking for ways to increase a community’s capacity to both understand what’s wrong and to fix it.” But they also have a lot of open questions about how to implement the program. Should the money go to individuals, companies or educational institutions? Should there be a minimum age to receive funds? Should there be money sent to international organizations?

Rather than decide arbitrarily, the Knight Foundation polled some folks in the online media community, and has now cast its net even wider for ideas. Eric Newton (pictured above), director of journalism initiatives at Knight, told me the foundation would be asking for funding from its trustees for this initiative in September. Newton said it made sense to open up the grant process.

“For the next few months, we’re collecting ideas to shape our presentation to the board,” he said via email. “In the spirit of this century’s interactive media, we wanted to offer a way for people to tell us what they have to tell us about the idea for a News Challenge. We usually give grants to U.S.-based [non-profit] organizations. But we have no way of knowing whether or not tomorrow’s community news breakthroughs will come from such groups. We are thinking about giving grants to individuals and even making program-related investments in businesses if that’s what we need to do to help people get the news they need to run their communities and their lives.”

It’s a bold maneuver, and one that runs counter to the way most large newspaper companies have approached new media and community issues — usually with an eye toward mergers and acquisitions or baby steps. Instead, the Knight Foundation has a chance to use its millions to really make a difference on the ground floor of innovation, perhaps by incubating hyperlocal efforts, providing seed money for community projects and aiding people who are ready to think outside the box.

So if you have a thought on this project, feel free to share in the comments below, but be sure to visit and comment at the foundation’s Newsvine site as well. It’s not too often that a major journalism foundation asks for this much input in how it will spend its money, so let’s not waste this chance.

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