What the Knight News Challenge could learn from ABC’s ‘Shark Tank’

The Knight News Challenge is once again alive.

The deadline for applications in the fifth annual media innovation pitch series from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is, as deadlines tend to do, rapidly approaching: Dec. 1.

It was only back in June that the recipients of the 2010 Knight News Challenge grants were announced, for which you can see commentary from the Nieman Journalism Lab here.

In other news, ABC this fall announced that outspoken billionaire and Dallas Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban and comedian Jeff Foxworthy would be joining a handful of venture capitalists on the second season of made-for-TV, speed investment pitch reality show “Shark Tank.”

Despite being influenced by a popular Japanese program format and easily being among the most interesting reality TV shows I’ve ever seen, “Shark Tank” wasn’t the ratings success ABC may have wanted.

Popular or not, from when the show first debuted and even more so this year, I think there is plenty the Knight News Challenge should take from “Shark Tank.”

This year, there are two big announcements around the News Challenge, namely a $2 million investment from Google and four categories for entries: (1) Mobile, (2) Authenticity, (3) Sustainability and (4) Community.

I wrote a little about this in my ONA conference take aways, as I sat in on a Knight Foundation panel discussion lunch.

Last year, I was involved in submitting two proposals that didn’t make it to funding, a business services hub for niche sites as proposed by Technically Phily and a training network for neighborhood correspondents as submitted by NEast Philly, and so it surely got me thinking.

ABC reality show Shark Tank, surely among TV’s critical standouts of the year and having a mid-July one-off to test its merit for a second season, has small business owners pitching investors to attract capital to grow their ideas. It’s meant to be a more dramatic version of the VC pitch sessions that happen across the country — certainly here in Philadelphia.

There are four things in particular that investors say over and over again to those pitching them:

  1. Scalable — Can the project quickly benefit from economies of scale once the idea is built once?
  2. Propriety content — Is there something unique enough about the project that it cannot be quickly replicated? (Knight may want the answer to this question be different than the Sharks)
  3. Existing sales — What evidence do you already have that you know what you’re doing with the business?
  4. Find a need — Does a community need this?

While there is some nuance, I’ve been struck by how similar those conversations are.

More simply, there is a core precept that investors seem to fundamentally believe, as crystallized in 22-minute episodes by “Shark Tank.”

If what you’re proposing cannot sustain itself or lead to something that will, any project you might conceive of will risk failing to have the impact to make the time, investment or energy worth it all.

What’s different, I believe, than, say, the Knight Arts Challenge, which I also submitted a few ideas, is that news and media and information dissemination has a couple centuries of business model history. Foundation-support, memberships models and other non-traditional support may be there, but the conversation needs to be around sustainability.

Knight’s introduction of the Sustainability category (and conversation) to the News Challenge is thrilling, but I hope there is a lot of overlap in the conversation with what’s happening next year on ABC’s Shark Tank.

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