April 24, 2018

New Knight Foundation News Challenge Spotlights Libraries

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has been inspiring people to think creatively about what influences and drives their lives for nearly a decade. Since 2006, the Knight News Challenge has encouraged innovators to respond to open calls on a series of themes—past challenge topics have included networks, open government, and strengthening the Internet.


On Sept. 10 the Knight Foundation (KF) opened the most recent News Challenge: How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities? The challenge hopes to elicit projects that “build on the transformational power of libraries and use their ideas, principles and assets in innovative ways to help people learn about the world around them and engage in the places they live.” Three particular assets KF wants to see expanded on are librarians, the public trust and goodwill libraries have built, and the physical plants themselves. The challenge is open to individuals, businesses, and for-profit and nonprofit organizations, with an emphasis on U.S.-based projects.

“We view libraries as key for improving Americans’ ability to know about and to be involved with what takes place around them,” the challenge’s website asserts. “The library has been a vital part of our communities for centuries—as keepers of public knowledge, spaces for human connection, educators for the next generations of learners. While habits are changing, those needs have not. We want to discover projects that help carry the values of libraries into the future.”

Some $2.5 million will be awarded to the challenge winners altogether, with individual awards ranging from $1,000 to $1 million (the typical award size is between $200,000 and $500,000). This financial support will go toward the design, development, and implementation of the projects, although universities are expected to cover overhead and administrative fees of their faculty and staff. Entrants do not need to provide a budget or request specific funding amounts unless they reach the semifinal round.

Initial entries can be brief, and submissions close Sept. 30. However, the process is designed to be iterative, and between October 1–20 projects can receive feedback from fellow participants and the public in order to refine their proposals; commenting on other projects is highly encouraged. Semifinalists will be announced October 21, and each project has another week to refine its original proposal. Then the finalists will be selected, and a list of proposed winners submitted to KF trustees. Winners will be announced in January 2015.

A History of Valuing Libraries

John and James Knight established the Knight Memorial Education Fund in 1940 in honor of their father, Charles Landon Knight, who owned the Akron (OH) Beacon Journal and would often help local students pay for college. In the beginning KF, a private nonprofit foundation, helped fund education, social services, cultural organizations, and journalism-related causes. The family newspaper business eventually became Knight-Ridder, Inc., and both Knight brothers left the bulk of their estates to the foundation.

These days KF is especially interested in journalism, media, and the arts, focusing on community engagement and open information. (All intellectual property submitted to the challenge must be under GNU or another open source license, and all visual or written material under Creative Commons licensing.) John Bracken, director of the journalism and media innovation division, which administers the News Challenge, told LJ that ten years ago the KF became concerned that they were helping train journalists for jobs that weren’t going to exist much longer. “The world was changing radically,” he said, “and we needed to jump-start our network, our thinking, and our investment to better reflect that.” The first News Challenge questions were open-ended, asking people to “tell us your ideas about news.” Recent topics are more focused on areas that KF members are excited about.

The values libraries represent are clearly aligned with those of KF, starting with its personnel: John Palfrey, chairman of the board and a trustee, is also president of the board of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and previously served as executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.

Winners of the last News Challenge—“How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation?”—included projects from the New York Public Library to provide portable Wi-fi hotspots that patrons could borrow, and “Getting it right on rights” from DPLA, which will build a public information platform explaining rights and usage standards for users of online resources. And the ongoing $6.7 million Knight Library Initiative, which launched in December 2010, is currently encouraging public libraries in 27 cities to become digital community centers by helping them strengthen their connectivity and technical infrastructure, and providing digital training.

Wide Range of Participants

Since 2013, KF has partnered with the innovative design firm IDEO, using its OpenIDEO platform to maximize people’s engagement with the proposals. The submission process is set up to be both idea-generating and transparent, with entries available for commentary as they are posted. “The public-facing part of the conversation is really important,” Bracken told LJ. Lauren Magnuson, Systems and Emerging Technologies Librarian at California State University, Northridge, whose team has submitted a digital history crowd-sourcing app, agrees. “The feedback we’ve gotten from other Challenge participants has helped us consider new potential partnerships and strategies for our idea,” she told LJ. “It’s been wonderful to see the openness of the community of participants, where everyone seems genuinely interested in advancing and strengthening each other’s ideas.”

Once the challenge is closed KF’s panel of advisers, composed of professionals from other foundations, libraries, and digital media, will identify the finalists and meet with them virtually to discuss any questions.

The process is designed to attract the widest possible range of participants. “We want to enable non-librarians to stand up and raise their hands and share their ideals, even if they’re not associated with a library,” Bracken explained to LJ, “entrepreneurs, journalists, software developers, designers, parents, teachers who are passionate about libraries in a digital age.”

Jeff Penka is one such applicant, a user experience training consultant and product designer who “caught the library bug” when he worked for OCLC. His team’s project, the Libhub Initiative, is a platform to link library content; it has also worked with the MacArthur Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Penka told LJ, “The submission process at this stage is interesting, because with a lot of organizations that do this type of funding the process can feel laborious. But the transparency of this process, which encouraged clarity and conciseness, was refreshing.”

Jeffrey Schnapp, currently the faculty director of Harvard’s MetaLAB and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, started out as an Italian cultural historian. He became interested in libraries while running the Stanford Humanities Lab. The Library Bridge, an inexpensive popup station designed to tie together local libraries, is MetaLAB’s second entry in a News Challenge—the first, an interactive storytelling tool called Zeega, won a grant in 2011. Viewing library culture through the lens of the competition has been interesting, Schnapp told LJ. While MetaLAB has run a wide range of projects with funding from Harvard, those projects are necessarily conditioned by the university environment. “What strikes me about [the KF News Challenge] is that it’s a very bottom-up process. [The foundation’s staff] cast a net widely and do a lot of public outreach, put a lot of stake in public commentary…. It’s one of the more agile institutions out there.”

As of press time there were 200 entries posted, ranging from a branch system for academic libraries to centralized government customer service program (asking the ultimate in rhetorical questions, “Who likes going to the DMV?”).

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.



  1. Thanks for spotlighting this. I’ve applied and we’ve got some folks talking on facebook about who else has.