Rules get in the way.
This was the guiding principle under which John S. and James L. Knight Foundation CEO and president Alberto Ibargüen launched the Knight News Challenge seven years ago, a contest that has vastly amplified the influence of the 73-year-old foundation, which is dedicated to funding and promoting innovation in journalism.
Eric Newton, an advisor at the foundation, remembers walking into Ibargüen’s office seven years ago to talk about rules and conditions for the fledgling contest, which was Ibargüen’s idea. Here’s how Newton remembers the exchange they had:
“Alberto took the memo, and without looking at it, put it face down on the table and said, ‘I don’t want any rules. Because if we make rules, we’ll get all the people we know already applying, with ideas that match our idea of what the future of news should be. The whole point of the News Challenge is to bring in all those people and ideas out there that we don’t know anything about.’ And it did.”
The Knight Foundation has shifted dramatically under Ibargüen’s leadership, moving away from higher education grants and instead focusing on digital journalism and how communities and individuals organize around information.
“Rather than continue to instruct the smartest, best journalists on how to be Woodward and Bernstein, how to be 1975,” Ibargüen said, “a better investment was experimenting in ways that people would disseminate and use information.”
So where the Knight Foundation once gave hefty grants to universities and other major institutions, it’s now giving huge grants to startups, small teams, and entrepreneurs–more than $235 million in journalism and media innovation grants since Ibargüen joined the foundation in 2005.
Knight will today announce the question driving its next Knight News Challenge, which is set to focus on how we can use information and data to make healthier communities.
Opening the contest to anyone with good ideas and the enthusiasm to test them out means Knight News Challenge winners often share Ibargüen’s willingness to break with convention, push boundaries, and dismantle preconceived ideas about what journalism is and what journalists do.
Recent winners received grants to develop a plan to track air quality in the United States; create privacy-protecting software so that whistleblowers can anonymously communicate with journalists online; establish a massive campaign finance database for federal elections; and launch a project to livestream judicial proceedings in Massachusetts courts for the first time ever, and many more.
Ibargüen has a long history of putting broader journalism goals ahead of institutional expectations. In 1965, when he was editor of his college newspaper, he remembers standing in the Wesleyan Argus newsroom at midnight waiting for the phone to ring. The next morning’s edition had four full pages empty and still no dispatches from Selma, Ala., where his fellow students were covering the march to Montgomery.
“I had given a dime, the price of a collect call then, to half a dozen people,” Ibargüen said. “And my instructions were, ‘When you get arrested–not if but when–don’t call your parents, you don’t need to call a lawyer, forget about the dean. Call me.’ And they did.”
When the phones finally began to ring, the other papers in town had already gone to press. The Argus‘s team of rookies may not have had the slickest coverage but it was the freshest.
“We even had one guy who was being beaten while he was on the phone,” Ibargüen said. “He was talking about police brutality and they were hitting him. After an experience like that, what else would I do with my life?”
A lot, it turns out. Ibargüen spent five years in the Peace Corps then worked as a lawyer through his thirties before returning to journalism, first at The Hartford Courant, then at Newsday in New York, and after that as publisher of The Miami Herald.
When he became CEO of the Knight Foundation, Ibargüen steered it away from being a newspaper-oriented family foundation and toward being a community foundation with a tighter focus.
“He has taken the foundation to an entirely new level,” said William Hodding Carter III, who was president of the Knight Foundation before Ibargüen. “Alberto is a very skillful man in a boardroom. Among other things, he doesn’t lose his temper as much as I do. As a matter of fact I don’t think he does. He essentially just led a process which ruthlessly–excuse me–efficiently eliminated a number of communities from being a yearly interest while leaving behind good extra endowments for their community foundations.”
These changes at Knight reflect Ibargüen’s own values. His longtime acquaintances and colleagues describe him as passionate about journalism’s most dearly held principles–that he cherishes the First Amendment comes up again and again–but ultimately unconcerned with the establishment.
They also describe him as someone who can move deftly between industries and leverage all of the resources available to him to get what he wants.
“Alberto has the capacity to speak the language of the establishment of the nonprofits and foundation field while at the same time embracing the cultures and values of the startup world, of the tech world,” said Chris Hughes a Facebook cofounder and publisher of The New Republic. “It’s not something that you normally see. Normally you find people who are solidly in one camp or the other.”
Hughes says the best example of this skill is in how Ibargüen designed the Knight News Challenge in the first place. Though Ibargüen likes to be closely involved in the contest–he still regularly sits in on review sessions, a spokesman at Knight says–one of his biggest contributions was dreaming up the contest in the first place.
“The logic comes from the start-up world–emphasize creativity and iteration over large-scale planning–and then support those projects or applications that resonate,” Hughes said in a follow-up email. “It’s a different model for sourcing (and incubating!) great ideas in our space and not something I’ve seen other large foundations do.”
People who know Ibargüen say he’s intensely curious, action-oriented, and assertive. In 1999, a rival publisher in Florida told The New York Times that his problem-solving abilities made him worthy to be “president of the United States, if not king of the universe.”
“The man is brilliant,” said Paul Steiger, ProPublica’s founding editor and executive chairman. “There are some people who are great at running a kind of top-down enterprise and there are other people who are great at herding cats. Alberto is great at both.”
He has a reputation for being both charismatic and blunt. Steiger recalls a ProPublica board meeting in the nonprofit news organization’s nascence. Ibargüen didn’t hold back, according to Steiger.
“I wish I had a recording of those conversations,” Steiger said. “They were passionate, and I think everybody learned from them, but they weren’t entirely full of sweetness and light. There was a certain amount of piss and vinegar.”
Ibargüen also has a track record of pushing ahead in an industry that has long resisted change, a feat that requires a careful combination of grace and cunning.
Again, Steiger: “When a situation calls for being even-keeled and restrained and charming, he is even-keeled and restrained and charming. But when the situation calls for a shot across the bow, he knows how to deliver it.”
Under Ibargüen’s direction, The Miami Herald was the first paper in the country to include reporters’ email addresses with their bylines–a once-progressive decision that now seems quaint.
The move signals that early on, Ibargüen had an inkling of where journalism was headed. Email technology made it easier than ever to communicate with readers, so why wouldn’t newspapers invite them in? Not just to comment on the story or alert the paper to errors but to participate and advance it.
These days, engaging with readers is a full-time job in many newsrooms.
“The impact of the paper alone, it’s hard for people to remember that there was a time when we didn’t have all these other ways of communicating,” Ibargüen said. “The hard part was letting go in the ’90s. We [the industry] never did figure out how to do that.”
Ibargüen’s solution today is to let go of the past over and over again. Create something new, then let go of that, too. Even the hugely popular Knight News Challenge, for instance, might not be a fixture for the foundation.
“The contest is a device,” Ibargüen said. “We’re here for a much more complex purpose.”
Once again, the foundation’s focus is shifting, ever away from the confines of a newsroom and into the realm of big data and open government. When Knight staffers talk about the foundation’s future, they describe continuing to experiment but also moving into a phase that’s much more results-oriented. One example: The Foundation’s Enterprise Fund offers early-stage venture backing for projects related to “information, community and engagement.”
Knight is also prioritizing learning from past projects, something it hasn’t always been great at doing.
“The hardest thing to remember is just because you can sign the check doesn’t make you smart,” Ibargüen said. “Just as when you’re the person who can provide the news, it doesn’t make your insight the only one.”
The rest of the journalism world hasn’t always been meticulous about examining Knight’s grantees either, perhaps in part because so many journalists rely on the foundation for funding.
“To highlight failure is really counterintuitive but it’s absolutely necessary,” Ibargüen said. “We will fail. The fact that we fail is not dishonor as long as we learn. That’s a hard thing to do when everybody you know is really nice.”
One of the biggest opportunities for failure in journalism today: The search for a sustainable business model, a quest Ibargüen says the foundation would never have been on 10 years ago but is the “minimum expectation” now.
“At Knight, we’re certainly not focused on saving the newspaper industry, and for that matter not even saving the news industry,” Ibargüen said. “We’re focused on developing a strong community of informed readers who are skeptical users of information and whom technology powers to check [journalism] in a way that my editors and my writers were never checked.”
[Alberto Ibargüen courtesy of the Knight Foundation]
Correction: Ibargüen started at the Knight Foundation in 2005, not 2006 as originally reported.