Knight Foundation Injects Lots of Cash in Hyper-Local

It’s nice when a foundation puts itself in the middle of what’s happening, and uses its money to inject a little bit of the consumer’s interest in a commercial world. It’s a win-win.

Most foundations, of course, don’t actually do that. Most of them are a mutual back-scratching society. Trust me, there’s a lot of shrimp cocktails at their events. But now the Knight Foundation has just issued a list of really big grants that should really jumpstart hyper-local media (and some more traditional media endeavors as well). As Knight itself says, the “News Challenge” was meant to combine “nerds, news and neighborhoods.”

This year’s recipients are getting more than $12 million. In my view, the money is coming at a great time, just as confidence in hyper-local as both a movement and an “industry” has begun to wane.

Since it is the Knight Foundation, journalism is the core focus; more than “community.” In the past, I’ve been critical of this emphasis, since it largely excludes community commerce and services. Many of the most compelling community sites aren’t the quasi-journalism sites. They are the social network sites.

But Knight’s big dollar winners stretch the concepts of journalism, and include many significant projects and subjects. (hey, I feel like we are riding something here!). Ones that stand out include Adrian Holovaty, a leader in the application of computer science to journalism and community; Richard Anderson from Villagesoup.com; and Placeblogger’s Lisa Williams.

26-year-old Holovaty, who has now apparently left Washingtonpost.com, is getting $1.1 million to replicate some of the lessons he learned from his own Chicagocrime.org project to produce address-specific news and information in ten cities – including the former Knight newspaper cities of Miami, Philadelphia, Detroit, San Jose and Charlotte.

The stated ambition is to produce open-source software “that links databases to allow citizens of a large city to learn (and act on) civic information about their neighborhood or block.” In those cities, and beyond, his efforts might have a longer lasting legacy than Knight’s newspapers.

Richard Anderson at Camden, ME’s VillageSoup.com, is getting $885,000 to –get this –“turn independent weekly newspaper companies and entrepreneurs into an imposing, lively, worldwide creative energy that is competitive with media company chains.” Anderson says he is going to create an open-source version of Village Soup’s community news software, “combining professional journalism, blogs, citizen journalism, online advertising and “reverse publishing” from online to print.”

Another major recipient, and a personal favorite, is Placeblogger founder Lisa Williams, on loan right now to Boston.com’s hyperlocal project. Williams got $220,000 to continue Placeblogger’s mission of finding and even incubating blogs in every community and finding new ways of bringing them to the public’s attention (see archive for recent coverage of Williams).

I’ve been talking and emailing with Williams about her grant. She says she’ll use the money, in part, to “create technology to make it easier to surface and distribute local content. She says she is interested in partnerships that “help get the technology into the hands of organizations who can use it, particularly news organizations and independent community sites.

“One of the big challenges facing organizations pursuing a hyper-local strategy is that the combination of what the news organization produces and what registered users contribute to that site may not produce enough fresh content to make those sites ones that visitors want to return to and participate in. That said, nearly every community has people creating content about their lived experience of where they live, work, or travel. It’s just that news organizations and community sites can’t depend on those people to discover their site and take the time to contribute their material to the news organization site.”

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