Knight retools grant programs, adds new fund for ‘tinkerers of all kinds’

By Debra E. Blum

In another set of changes intended to adjust its journalism philanthropy to the rapidly evolving digital-media marketplace, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation unveiled a new grants program last month and created a new mechanism for providing aid to digital start-ups.

The Knight Prototype Fund is designed to react quickly to entrepreneurs, journalists and “tinkerers of all kinds” who are building and testing pioneering ideas, the foundation announced on its website. The fund offers small grants of up to $50,000 over a few months, a much shorter time frame than the more typical cycle of one- to three-year grants. Among the first award-winners is Matt Waite, a professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln who is experimenting with the use of drone vehicles for news and data collection.

Knight also tweaked the formula for its News Challenge, the grant program that was split into three application rounds earlier this year. Knight gave money to two challenge winners from a foundation investment fund rather than awarding grants from its philanthropic budget.Knight made the change after determining that the business models of the two digital ventures, Signalnoi.se and Watchup, called for start-up capital rather than philanthropic grants. The foundation invested in both companies with assets from the Knight Enterprise Fund, a $10 million pool carved from the endowment at the end of 2010 to invest in media innovators during their early stages.

A Knight spokesperson said more changes to the News Challenge are in the works, including an interactive version slated for next year that would use a special web platform designed so that “the community can come up with the problems that need solving, and Knight comes up with the money.”

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