After reading some of the commentaries on WikiLeak's loss in the NewsChallenge contest, I want to offer another possible explanation and a suggestion.
First, a few disclosures and comments: NewsCloud has received two Knight Foundation grants (outside of the News Challenge) for research and Facebook. I have entered and lost in the News Challenge in two separate years. I have just returned from the News Challenge announcement and Knight Foundation MIT conference on the Future of News and Civic Media in Boston. I have never discussed WikiLeaks with anyone at the conference or at the foundation. After working with the foundation for two years and attending several conferences where I've had an opportunity to meet in person and spend time socially with some of its employees, I count some of them as friends. I also know Noam Cohen, the New York Times reporter who wrote the above story, and also count him a friend though I have not discussed his article with him.
The NewsChallenge Bias Towards Single Geographic Communities
The NewsChallenge is an extremely competitive contest and although its judging criteria and contest format change slightly each year, one thing I've noticed is that it strongly favors applications that use a specific local community to run trials, learn from and prove models for strengthening access to information, engagement and democracy. Last year, I received rejection letters for all three of my entries saying they were not specifically focused on a geographic community even though I thought that I had focused enough on emphasizing local trials in a group of areas. I regularly have advised colleagues that ask me to review their entries to choose a single geographic community as a trial and focus on that for the News Challenge entry.
Choosing a single geographic community often helps minimize your budget request, speed results from your trial and forces you to think about structuring your idea in a way that could be replicable.
I don't think the Foundation regularly invests in platform solutions that can be generally applied to any community ... as a technologist, I kind of wish they would focus on this more deeply ... but I think they have an institutional orientation around ideas that have proven themselves working in a specific geographical community.
While there are probably counter-examples (even in the list of past News Challenge winners), Vermont's Front Porch Forum is a perfect example of this. It's a service that has shown success by providing private email listserves for neighbors. It's not necessarily cutting-edge technology, not necessarily news oriented, but it's strengthening connections within Vermont communities and in an age of Facebook-privacy violations it's creating a safe, private space for neighbors to relate to each other with just email. As its founder, Michael Wood Lewis said this week, "We hope that people spend as little time as possible on our service." How many tech-titans might say that? Perhaps these social innovations are the kinds the news challenge wants to see more of.
Another example of this might be News Challenge winner One-Eight, which will approach reporting from our nearly decade long Afghanistan war using embedded journalism and social media entries from a single battalion.
After reading an excerpt of the WikiLeaks entry, my guess is that it failed to win because it lacked focus on a specific geographic community.
A Suggestion to WikiLeaks
After my first news challenge entry made the second round but was rejected, I emailed the folks at Knight and asked them for more feedback. I wanted to learn how to do better next time. Later, I approached them outside the news challenge to discuss new projects. Those discussions led to both of NewsCloud's grants. I'd like to suggest WikiLeaks now do the same.
I don't think the Knight Foundation shrinks from controversy. I do think that like any foundation, they have a variety of areas of grant making in which they like to do things a certain way. The NewsChallenge may not be the most appropriate venue for funding WikiLeaks' next step forward.
In closing, I'd like to say that personally, I think WikiLeaks has done a great service to our nation by providing increased transparency of how our money is being spent on military actions overseas. The military industrial complex is thriving in our post 9-11 world and it's sucking vital funds from our domestic needs. I'd like to see the Obama administration release all of these videos ... and the drone attack videos for that matter. Americans need to see the actions that are done in their name with taxpayer dollars. It's especially relevant because our tactics seem to be successfully used as recruitment tools that make our goals more elusive.
As I passed through security at Logan Airport last night - removing my shoes, taking off my belt, emptying my pockets and assuming for the first time the position of hands raised above my head that I see criminals do in cop shows so that I could be more clearly radiated by the backscatter security machine whose health effects I am not certain of, I realized again how obvious it is that the terrorists are winning.