Funding improbable beginnings

A post by Susan Mernit reminded me that the deadline to for a spot in the 2009 edition of the Knight News Challenge is looming.

A piece of $5 million is up for grabs for projects submitted by Nov. 1 and that then make the check cut. This is the third year in the five-year plan to give away $25 million for projects “or innovative ideas that develop platforms, tools and services to inform and transform community news, conversations, and information distribution and visualization.”

I suspect my idea of a mountain retreat to restfully muse on the future of journalism  from the comfort of a rocking chair is destined to be rejected.

Nonetheless, the rules are simple:

  1. Use or create digital, open-source technology as the code base.
  2. Serve the public interest.
  3. Benefit one or more specific geographic communities.

Think about it. Some $25 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funding the invention of no less than the next era of Journalism — with bets on the risky end of commercially improbable (at least today).

These are projects that venture capitalists and angel investors aren’t clamoring to bankroll — if they’re still clamoring at all in the current economic climate. In some cases, these are projects, the crazy idealists couldn’t get their own employers to fund because, well, they’re crazy idealist journalists and their ideas couldn’t pass an accountant’s smell test in a perfume factory.

But they are ideas from people with a dream and a passion. One or two or a dozen or more — accountants be damned —  will develop into tremendous successes aped in market after market. The lessons learned even from those that just come and go will become the experience cement blocks upon which the coming new era of Journalism (with a big “J’) will be built.

What’s the coming new era of Journalism? Fund my rocking chair retreat and I’ll let you know in the by-and-by, but meanwhile, I’m browsing the 2007 and 2008 grantees for clues.