What 100+ Challenge Fund experiments taught us

By on November 11, 2014

It’s been a full year since we launched the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education, a $1 million competition encouraging universities to create teams to experiment with new ways of providing news and information to their communities.

The 2014 Challenge Fund winners are in their first six months of experimentation and we look forward to sharing what they’re learning, but it’s already time to look for the next batch of innovation happening in schools across the country.

Last year, we saw so many promising ideas that our partners — the Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation — expanded the fund to support two additional winners, bringing the total to 12, and recognizing 13 honorable mentions.

And, as with any experiment, we learned things along the way, including what makes a great application. Here are some tips:


Focused experiments rose to the top of the pack. These projects were not just hitting an underreported topic head on — such as mold, maps, music or air quality – but were experimenting with new ways to cover those topics, and simple ways to compare the innovative approach with the status quo. Many of our first-round applicants had inspiring ideas and impressive collaborations, but had not zeroed in on the specific story or innovation they would test in a live news environment. The tighter the focus, the better the experiment.


The sibling to focus is clarity. Applications for the Challenge Fund should be radically clear. I’m sure I’ve exceeded the acceptable redundancy limit for the word “experiment,” but that’s on purpose. Many of the applications we received were clear on what the teams wanted to achieve, but lacked a specific experiment. A cool idea with no plan behind it isn’t an experiment. Trying a lot of things and seeing what happens isn’t an experiment. Doing what you already do isn’t an experiment. An experiment has very clear questions about the new technique or technology being tested, a hypothesis describing what you think will happen and a research design that tests it. We’ve embraced the mantra “it’s OK to fail.” But without a clear experiment, failure is just for failure’s sake.


Finally, it should be no surprise that teamwork is a critical piece to this challenge. After all, our key goal is to hack the journalism curriculum using customized versions of the teaching hospital model. In the process, we’ve learned that collaboration takes on many different meanings. At its best, it fosters innovative and game-changing ideas as people from different backgrounds and experiences put their minds together to solve a problem. At its worst, it’s an excruciating process of miscommunication and bureaucracy. It became clear that successful applicants spent time planning with their partners before submitting an application. It’s especially important to find a good media partner – student, nonprofit or commercial – with a community large enough to generate good data (which they’ll need to share).

The commitment this challenge requires will mean more than a quick email asking permission to add someone’s name on an application because you need a partner. The type of collaboration we are looking for means each partner has a stake in the project’s success. How do you know if you have a true collaboration? When everyone on the team is so invested and excited that winning the Challenge Fund grant becomes almost a secondary goal. Collaborating on a project with a smart team should be your primary focus.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVhBfUBwpvk?list=PLGPw5bL5sLiPF2nW8U-SRJqel5uhuMpXK&w=520&h=293] ONA’s Irving Washington presents “Challenge Fund: Lessons Learned” at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Green Shoots in Journalism Education program at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

We’ll share more tips and lessons learned in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, we hope you’re excited about submitting your experiment for the next round of applications. Get inspired by joining our ONA Educators Facebook group or checking out the resources on our website and make sure to apply by Jan. 15, 2015.


Irving Washington

Irving Washington is the Executive Director/CEO for the Online News Association (ONA), the world’s largest membership organization of digital journalists. As a media diversity advocate, Irving has led programming and fundraising initiatives for journalists, media professionals, and students worldwide.