One piece of good news is that it looks like most of that money will be channeled into the nonprofit sector, where experimentation can take place while sheltered - at least in the incubation stage - from bottom-line pressures. Among the grantees are ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Even better news: $3 million of the $15 million is yet unclaimed. Remember, you can't win if you don't enter.
Now here’s my little black cloud. Look at the approximately $12 million in grants already awarded, and it seems that only about half really might have anything to do with developing new economic models.
One example of what I mean: $2 million goes to IRE "to create an endowment to permanently train journalists in the areas of watchdog and computer assisted journalism." Great! But that's an investment in the journalism, not the business model.
And among those that sound like they're about the business model, I have questions as well.
Nearly $5 million is going to News21 "to help 12 university-based investigative reporting projects look for a model of self-sustainability." Again, great. But News21 is Knight's partnership with Carnegie to support journalism education. Its mission statement says in part:
The initiative will experiment with curriculum and hands-on experience with the hope of creating a national conversation with other schools across the country.
How is this is about an economic model?
The only thing that sounded like it was even close to the mark was a $250,000 grant to Boston University "to create a regional, university-based investigative reporting unit that draws on reporters from the local print, broadcast and digital press." Now there's an idea you can take to the bank. Or at least try.
Which is the whole point here. A time of crisis - the Knight release notes that "America’s daily newspapers employ some 10,000 fewer journalists in their newsrooms than they did a decade ago" - is no time to stick to the well-worn path of the familiar.
If foundations want to make a difference in journalism, they need to take some chances. Because of its legacy in the news business, Knight was better suited than any to place its bets strategically. By going with proven successes and in-house favorites, it sends the wrong signal to other foundations that are interested in joining the field but have yet to develop the necessary internal expertise.