5 things we learned about innovation in 2014

Innovation in nonprofit journalism had quite a year in 2014.

It was the year the INNovation Fund jump-started 16 nonprofit journalism projects that stood out from almost 200, each proposing an idea to engage with new audiences, experiment with new revenue models, and achieve sustainability.

The projects ranged in scope, area of focus, and originality, from native advertising to event journalism to mobile app development. Using a large grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Investigative News Network selected match-ready projects with the best chance of success and funded them with micro-grants of up to $35,000 each.

While it’s still too early to see final results from all of these projects—which you can see here—we have gotten enough of a glimpse to know what seems to be working. What we found provides a set of guidelines that should be useful for anyone hoping to replicate these projects:

  1. Have a clear vision of your goals and process: The proposals that stood out articulated quantifiable goals and their methodology. For example, Southern California Public Radio sought to experiment with native advertising on its digital platforms, and it has made good on its promise to set guidelines ahead of testing the ads. Earlier this year, SCPR’s digital team and its top editorial staff set the criteria for how native ads could be distinguished from regular editorial content. In the coming months, we’ll see how those native ads play out and whether they will be welcomed by SCPR’s web audience.
  2. Acquiring assets is not a quick process: Even with a clear vision, some projects take time to execute a plan or come to fruition. IowaWatch got to work right away and produced many high-quality stories for its experimental radio program without a hitch. The nonprofit had anticipated securing underwriters by September, but it took three more months well beyond its original deadline to secure two funders for 2015. The IowaWatch Connection is now slated for at least another six months worth of radio episodes.
  3. Offer stakeholders a seat in the table: Innovation projects are hardly the work of one person or one organization. Take InvestigateWest, for example, which is working with Seattle NPR-PBS affiliate KUOW to produce a branded series that will live on a number of mediums. The key to make a journalism partnership work is understanding each organization’s own incentives, whether it’s money or content, says associate director Jason Alcorn. We’ll find out the name of the series and its contents in the next phase for this collaborative project.
  4. Get outside help: There’s no shame in hiring people with the right experience outside your organization. The Food and Environment Reporting Network wanted to launch a branded “food journalism event,” but even its own staff lacked the right experience in event marketing and planning. So it hired contractors to cater the needs of the event, which sold-out to an audience of 250 people in New York this past November. What remains to be seen is whether we will see it replicate in another city in the future.
  5. Utilize (unpaid) personal investment: Yes, INN gave thousands of grant dollars to help these organizations accomplish their goal. But every one of the people behind each project has invested personal, unpaid hours of labor as well. That’s unbudgeted investment that often goes unnoticed, and we fully acknowledge it.

The INNovation Fund cycle will continue for at least another two rounds, and we’re excited to see what will come in the next round in February 2015.

Our second-round winners are already working on their projects and we’ll soon be reporting on their challenges, their lessons and their results. You can read more about them here.