October 12 was a day of high emotion; it was finally time to thrive under pressure. I got home from work, rushed to my friend’s house, and cracked open my laptop. The goal was to brainstorm like crazy, write up some solid project descriptions, and submit as many Knight News Challenge grant applications as possible over the three days I had left. Thank goodness fate had a better plan: the deadline was extended.

Now that we all have another two months, I’m going to take a few steps back and try to combine my formal education in information systems with my Knight-sponsored crash course of journalism’s ongoing transformation and the lessons I’ve learned from three years of applications. I hope that the resulting guide will help you come up with some good ideas of your own. Remember, there is no limit to the number of applications you can submit. (Note: I won a 2007 Knight News Challenge grant for $15,000 to blog about
“connecting people, content and community.”)

Step 1: Identify Needs

Well-designed solutions require well-understood problems. When brainstorming ideas for your News Challenge application, the first step is to write down a long list of complaints. (This also works if you already know what you want to do.) What do you want to change? What isn’t working well today? What isn’t happening that should? This list will give you a starting point, and will make sure that the ideas you come up with will have a real purpose.

Complaints might start from your own personal experience, but you need to expand from there because the true gems come from a fusion of imagination and research. Here are some ways to gather information:

  • Talk to people. If you are looking for new problems, ask people you know what they would change. If you are looking to better understand one that you have already identified, ask if the problem exists for them and why. Their insights could provide the spark you need to turn a potentially good opportunity into a great one.
  • Pay attention to buzz. Read what other people are saying about your issues. I can guarantee that as you read this there are members of the blogosphere discussing their own trials and tribulations with new media. This will help you get a general understanding of how people fit into the way things work, where they see opportunities for improvement, and which direction the crowd is moving.
  • Know the current process. You can’t change something without knowing what it is you are changing. Even if you plan to completely redefine the status quo, you need to appreciate and learn from the way things work now. There will always be something worth incorporating or maintaining.
  • Explore the cutting edge. What are the front-runners doing, and what problems are they addressing? The cutting edge is known for being risky because nobody is sure of the best solution. Look at the problems that they are addressing and add those to your list. With any luck, you can think of a better idea.

Step 2: Understand the Technologies

The more you understand the tools available to you, the more effective you will be at finding creative applications for them. Ideally, you want to get to the point where you can have an intelligent conversation with a programmer, but for now it is enough to just have higher-level knowledge.

For each technology you think you might be able to use, figure out:

  • How it works. While you don’t have to be able to program, you really should have a general idea of how the magic happens. So long as you know what the tool is called, you will be able to find an accessible guide. Just remember that Google is your friend here.
  • What it does. Tools tend to have an intended purpose, although often it’s a very broad one. Be sure to understand what that purpose is. You can start by looking at its website and see what its creators say. Also try to find out which existing sites have used it, and examine what they have done.
  • What it could do. Once you get a basic understanding of a tool, you can start to get creative and think of ways to use it that its creators never would have thought of. This task is all on your shoulders, but you can always scour tech blogs like TechCrunch or SlashDot to find examples of how people can push the limits.

If the technology is at all popular there is probably a community surrounding it. Once you find it, create an account and join the party; there will be people willing to help you learn.

Step 3: Imagine Solutions

You have a list of tools and a list of goals, now it is simply a matter of creative application: find out how to achieve those goals with the technologies available. Brainstorm as many solutions as you can for each problem, and be sure to dream a little bit here.

For each solution you need to be able to explain:

  1. What it would do and how it would be used.
  2. How it could fit in and what it could change.
  3. How it would incorporate technology and/or people.
  4. What assumptions would have to be met and how you would meet them.

You will probably find yourself coming up with new tools, new processes, or (more often) a combination of the two. If you’re having trouble, try looking at how people are solving problems in completely different fields. Maybe you can learn from their work. Just remember that you don’t need to know how everything fits together just yet.

Step 4: Recognize Opportunities

This is when you descend from the land of the theory and optimism and take a close look at the world. You have some ideas already thanks to your list of solutions, but there are plenty of others to be found; plus, not all of what you have will work. What looks promising? Which ones can you cross off the list?

Some things to think about:

  • Who are you dealing with? You need to understand your stakeholders (i.e. the people who would be impacted by your project). You want your solution to provide them so much value that they will be willing to donate time — and maybe even money. At the very least, they need to be willing to try it.
  • What is your competition? There will be direct and indirect competition, but you need to know about both. This will help you differentiate your idea from what is already out there, and it can also force you to further develop your solution into something even better.
  • What resonates personally? You are going to need to explain why you are the person to take this idea and make it a reality, so figure out what you bring to the table and make sure you can get excited about it. It won’t be enough to say, “I thought of it!”

To get funding from the Knight Foundation you need to be able to convince the world that what you have is a genuine opportunity. It should have the potential to redefine landscapes.

Step 5: Design Systems

Take your most promising solutions and try to envision their implementations. What is going on behind the curtains? What kind of synergy can you create? Even though you are getting more concrete, don’t get bogged down in unimportant details — you are still brainstorming here.

Think in terms of process (how things get done), objects (e.g. “news article,” “user contributed question,” or “media clip”) and user roles (e.g. “journalist,” “editor,” “consumer,” or “judge”). How will the objects interact? How will each role fit into the system? Refine this line of thought with your previously researched understanding of your stakeholders, the current state of affairs, and the technologies available.

By now you’ve probably conjured up something spectacular, and filling out that first round application will be a breeze. With any luck you will have enough inspired thought to submit more than one. Good luck!