Local foundations are becoming key players in the emerging local news ecosystem by funding news and information projects or creating their own.

Knowing that, the Knight Foundation has distributed more than $16 million to 85 challenge winners to develop projects that inform and engage local communities.

The Community Information Challenge focuses on community or place-based foundations because Knight believes these foundations are well-positioned to help meet core community needs. Traditional needs include education, environment and health. As traditional news media has diminished, community and other place-based foundations are stepping in to help assure healthy information flows in their communities. Round V of the challenge is now open with applications due no later than Feb. 27.

Here’s a look at some of the projects that have attracted community foundation support through the Knight Community Information Challenge.

1. Community Archive

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The Black Hills Knowledge Network

This is a repository for important information and documents, posted online so they can be available to the entire community. For example, minutes of the school board or city council meetings might be posted, or historical documents or census information — any type of information that might prove useful to citizens. The Foundation for the Carolinas created one called Thought Box Charlotte. The Black Hills Community Foundation project, the Black Hills Knowledge Network, is being produced in partnership with local libraries.

2. Local Action Center

These sites also provide important community information, but they seek to enable people to take action as well. For example, Grow Western New York is a project of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, and it is seeking to connect people with volunteer opportunities and other ways to help improve and enjoy the local environment. The Park City Community Foundation created Park City Green so residents could assess their impact on the local environment, including their water usage.

3. Contest

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Contests are a great way to spark public interest and bring new voices into the mix. Minnesota Idea Open holds an annual contest to address an issue of public concern — in 2011 the contest focused on water and there were more than 100 entries of ideas for improving water quality. More than 10,000 Minnesotans voted in the finals. The winning entry, Farmwise, will engage experienced and retired farmers in helping active farmers do more to protect water quality and supplies. The Open is sponsored by the Minnesota Foundation.

4. Mobile

These days, not everyone is accessing the web on a computer. It may be more effective to reach some groups — like young people — with a mobile project. For example, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation is partnering with the non-profit Voto Latino to develop an app that makes it easy for users to register to vote. In 2010, the California Community Foundation was part of a similar project that encouraged young Hispanics to be counted in the U.S. Census.

5. Data

Sometimes the numbers — or visualizations of the numbers, like maps — tell the story better than a conventional narrative. Three foundations in the latest round of Knight Community Information Challenge winners are working with data and experimenting with ways to engage people in data about their neighborhoods and cities. These are the Denver Foundation, The Piton Foundation and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.

6. Citizen Media

Local citizens don’t have to be passive readers of news and information — they can create their own. The Grand Rapids Community Foundation helped create The Rapidian, a lively citizen journalism site that has received national recognition. In Akron, the Akron Community Foundation is developing a site called The Akronist. The foundation sponsors multimedia training for local residents, who then become contributors to the site.

Training young people to report on their lives and neighborhoods is a powerful way to elevate their voices in community conversations and even policy discussions. Our Life in the D, sponsored by the Skillman Foundation in Detroit, works with high school students to cover local neighborhoods and events.

7. Ecosystem Support

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Some foundations are finding it makes more sense to support the emerging ecosystem of local news rather than creating a specific project. The Chicago Community Trust did research to find out more about dozens of local news startups in Chicago. Now, the Trust is supporting the start of a local advertising network for 15 of the sites to help make them more self-supporting without making direct grants.

Incourage Community Foundation, formerly the Community Foundation of South Wood County, has formed a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to test digital tools to help residents share information about key concerns, including jobs.

8. Student Journalism

Students and universities are playing large roles in the transformation of the local news ecosystem. With fewer professional journalists in traditional newsrooms, students can produce important stories. Often they partner with the traditional news outlets and their work is published on those sites.

The News Outlet, a project of Youngstown University supported by the Raymond John Wean Foundation, has proven to be an important source of investigative journalism. It’s expanding to other university towns in Ohio.

9. Public broadcasting

Many public radio and television outlets are putting more focus on local news. So partnering with a local broadcast organization may be a way to reach more people with news and information on topics of importance to the foundation.

Hiki No, a project of the Hawaii Community Foundation, enables schools across the islands to produce weekly newscasts for PBS Hawaii stations.

The Alaska Community Foundation also partners with a public broadcast organization, Alaska Public Telecommunications. They have created Town Square 49, a website that hosts local blogs along with programming that fosters public discussion of important issues facing the state.

The Rhode Island Foundation, meanwhile, has partnered with a local NPR station to host a series of public forums that were broadcast on the radio and online.

10. Professional journalism

Non-profit news startups are covering important issues that used to get more thorough coverage from traditional news organizations. For example, Oklahoma Watch, sponsored by the Tulsa Community Foundation and several other foundations, as well as New Jersey Spotlight, sponsored by the Community Foundation of New Jersey, are having a significant impact.

What is the Knight Community Information Challenge looking for? So far, the contest has funded a wide variety of ideas — and Knight is always looking for fresh approaches.

In general, Knight is looking for projects that help fill community information needs, foster community engagement, and help residents participate in the creation and sharing of news and information.

For more information on the Challenge, please see Knight’s FAQ.

(Note: As a Knight circuit rider, I help foundations hone and implement their news and information projects.)

This is a cross-post from Knight Digital Media Center’s News Leadership 3.0 blog. The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Michele McLellan is a journalist and consultant who works on projects that help foster a healthy local news ecosystem. As senior leadership consultant for KDMC@USC, McLellan helped develop KDMC leadership programs in 2008-2011. She also blogs about leadership best practices at News Leadership 3.0. McLellan is also the founder of Block by Block, a network of small, entrepreneurial community news sites, and a Circuit Rider for the Knight Community Information Challenge, which encourages local foundations to support news and information projects.