What I learned as a Knight News Challenge awards winner
- David, Janet and all,
Today I wrote my final report as a 2008 Knight News Challenge award
winner. I received $15,000 to blog about my idea for an Includer, a
device for Africans and others with marginal Internet access to read and
write emails on a USB flash drive so they could later upload and
download them when they get online at an Internet cafe. I blogged at the
PBS Idealab blog:
and my 13th post was deleted
and I was not allowed to blog again, but continued at my own blog
http://www.includer.org I'm glad that I did receive my final payment.
That also allowed me to reflect more freely as I wrote my final report.
I share below my reflections because I think it's the kind of experience
that we don't get to hear. I think it's helpful to appreciate the
limitations of institutions like the Knight Foundation (the premier
foundation for excellence in journalism) and the Public Broadcasting
System (public television in the US). I think there's a fundamental need
for a culture that links us more deeply, heart-to-heart, than can any
such institutions. I'm keen to work with all who might create such a
I'm experiencing a similar dynamic in the European Union:
and I've experienced it in the Soviet Union, Lithuania, and various
other circumstances. I think it's important to talk about it in the West
because it's a worldwide dynamic, but it would be wrong to think that it
doesn't happen in the US and Europe, where one may be treated as a
"dissident", too. If we might communicate as people-to-people, then we
can overcome the institutional constraints. I'm trying!
Andrius Kulikauskas, Minciu Sodas, http://www.ms.lt, ms@...
I received a $15,000 prize to blog about the Includer. I have about
$100,000 in personal loans through my efforts since 1998 to make Minciu
Sodas laboratory a viable business. The prize covered my loan payments,
but I still needed to make a living. There was no interest by the Knight
Foundation that we actually develop the Includer. There was noone to
talk to about my lab's big picture. Therefore I needed to focus on the
core capability of Minciu Sodas which is organizing global teams.
I tried to work closely with the Knight Foundation and make the most of
this award. I got permission from Jose Zamora to arrange my flights so
that I could come early and stay longer in the US (and even save money
for the Knight Foundation). This is how it worked: I asked the Knight
Foundation travel agent, What was the cheapest round trip ticket that
they could find for me from Lithuania to Las Vegas? They said $1,650. So
it was agreed that I could buy one way tickets up to that amount. I made
stops in Dublin, Chicago, San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles and Las Vegas
all for about $650. I got invitations to go to the June meeting in
Boston and the July meeting in Chicago. I wrote letters to ask if,
instead of flying me back and forth to Lithuania, they might allow me to
use part or all of that money to fly in the US, or better yet, to return
by way of China (to visit manufacturers) and Africa (to visit the
potential users of the Includer, as I have never been there).
The organizers of the News Tools conference in Silicon Valley agreed to
give me a free pass. (Jose Zamora was there, too.) There I spoke about
our laboratory's work to to avert genocide in Kenya by organizing 100
peacemakers on-the-ground and 100 peacemakers online.
http://www.pyramidofpeace.net I was hoping that we might organize such a
global team to stop genocide in the Black American neighborhoods of the
South Side of Chicago where the murder rate is 1 per 1,000 per year and
the population has shrunk by half over the years. Hundreds of
journalists there and at the Knight News Challenge Awards heard our
story, but nobody cared to learn more.
Just before the Knight News Challenge Awards, after my inquiries
regarding travel to the Boston meeting, I was informed by the Knight
Foundation that I was not invited to the Boston meeting nor the Chicago
meeting. I could not attend either meeting even at my own expense.
Indeed, I needed to leave the US before the Chicago meeting. Also, even
though I had saved the Knight Foundation money, I had to pay for my
travel between San Jose and San Diego. I did not receive compensation
for my meals at Las Vegas nor for the flight I had paid for myself from
Lithuania to Dublin, nor for my travel from Las Vegas back to Chicago. I
was forced to get a ticket with a date before the Chicago meeting, which
fortunately I could pay to change to a later date (the travel agents
were always helpful), but actually I didn't ever use because instead in
October I got a job teaching algebra in Bosnia.
I met briefly with Jose Zamora about this at Las Vegas. He explained
that this was a problem regarding the IRS. He told me a story how in
Guatemala as a journalist he had been threatened with guns, but was not
afraid to stand up for his principles. But here at the Knight Foundation
he could lose his job because of this, and he and his wife were having a
baby, and that would be very bad for him. I tell this now because I've
received my final payment and because it illustrates for me how
dreadfully wrong the Knight Foundation is, that I should have to be
concerned whether people there lose their jobs or not. I emphasize that
Jose Zamora was ever empathetic and creative in salvaging my dignity and
assuring that I might be paid.
In Las Vegas, I asked Gary Kebbel if I could meet with other prize
winners who came that first day (for videos) and he said it was not
Meanwhile, Chris Czikszentmihalyi, an organizer of the Boston meeting,
encouraged me personally to go there, unaware that I had been disinvited
by the Knight Foundation.
I spoke to Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibarguen about these
problems and he had Gary Kebbel sit with me. I asked Gary about his
values and whether he thought that the US democracy was able to solve
problems like the gross, persisting dysfunctions in Chicago (where I was
jailed on election day by the Chicago machine as I waited at my polling
place to report violations there). He thought, yes, US democracy solves
all these problems. And he spoke with the person on his left and was not
available to talk with me about anything.
I asked the Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibarguen at the dinner
if he could introduce me to media businesses for whom we might organize
global teams, but he told me there weren't any such there. The next day
I sat through the award ceremony for many projects like CNN's iReport -
exactly the kind of project we could work for - but with no way to speak
to them, and no introductions made.
David Sasaki of Rising Voices, a 2007 Knight News Challenge Award
Winner, and a fan of our work, greeted me at the awards ceremony, which
was very kind, but despite my efforts, he was never free to speak to me,
which was very strange. Rising Voices is part of Global Voices,
co-founded by Ethan Zuckerman. In 2003, I was at the island of Vis,
Croatia at a Summer Source summer camp for open source software for
NGOs, preparing a proposal to submit to the Open Society Initiative. The
organizers ordered me to leave the camp because I had made Ethan feel
uncomfortable when I told him at his talk that he hadn't answered my
question (which the African participants had been hesitant to ask).
Afterwards, I learned that I was on an Open Society Initiative black
list. I have since then spoken briefly twice with Ethan to clarify the
situation, but he's never embraced me or reached out to me. I have no
way to know if any of these obstacles are related, but probably on some
level they are, because this world is quite small and opaque.
I then traveled to Silicon Valley where I spent six weeks trying to make
contacts for the Includer. I went to many events and had lunches with
acquaintances from Google and Yahoo. But Mark Glaser was unavailable and
nobody at the Knight Foundation would help in any way that I make
That summer I received a contract from the Knight Foundation which was
confidential, yet included restrictions on what I could blog about,
which is all counter to the ethics of blogging and my lab's (and the
Includer's) culture of working openly. Jose agreed that I might write,
in the Public Domain, my own understanding of the agreement, which I
did. I then wrote a series of questions for clarification which were not
answered. A month went by. Jose explained that they were too busy to
write answers, and that I was free to decline the award. I am grateful
that he did agree to answer my questions verbally, and I wrote down his
answers, as I understood them. I then signed the contract, sent it out
and received the first payment.
I wrote three reports asking for help to make contacts, and made calls
to Gary Kebbel, but never received any help, nor did he reach out to me.
I wrote a new proposal "Help Room" for the Knight News Challenge, but
received no advice and was not asked to write a full proposal.
After my failure in Silicon Valley, and lack of support or interest from
the Knight Foundation, I felt very awkward writing about the Includer,
as there didn't seem much point. I therefore focused on writing on
behalf of the disincluded, what they might write if they had an Includer
and were included. My posts led to my removal. Yet I never received any
specific comment about any specific post, what was good or bad. I never
received any positive guidance, what to write about.
This summer, before my third report, I called Mark Glaser, the editor of
the PBS Idealab blog, if it was his decision to lock me out, and if it
was all right by him if I blogged there again. He said that he had not
made that decision and it was OK by him, and then I contacted Jose
Zamora. But then Jose spoke with Mark and Mark changed his mind to say
that it had been his decision and that he looked back over his reasons
and that he wouldn't let me blog.
Recently, there was a meeting for "all of the award winners", but I
never learned about it. I do not receive any communications as an award
I learned (or think I learned) that:
* the Includer idea won funding because, being hardware, it was "real
enough" for funders to grasp, whereas solving the same problem with
software, as I had proposed four years earlier, was too abstract to be
* the Includer idea was helpful as a catalyst for other projects
* the Includer idea didn't have a genuine champion among potential users
in Africa and therefore wouldn't ever happen; if it did, then it would
* the world is moving closer in the direction of the Includer
* I did get paid, so it was worthwhile to stick it through
* I did the right thing, and it's understandable that I suffered for it
* I am an American dissident, silenced by PBS, the Knight Foundation and
* there's something about me that gets me kicked out, fired, abused,
shortchanged, penalized, silenced, ignored, but it seems to be a good
quality and it expands my empathy for others and my understanding of the
systems we live in
* there are people who don't want me around, but if I'm not around, they
will let me be
* there are people like Jose Zamora in the system who will help me
survive, even if they won't or can't side with me on every point
* I need to focus more and more on individuals (in business and
institutions) who believe in our culture of "independent thinking" and
will champion us, especially if we can build a network of them
* I need to avoid institutions, including awards like the Knight News
Challenge, where you can win but nobody actually cares that you and your
14. Please describe your plans in detail to sustain the project long term.
My focus now is on organizing an online help room, training a global
team to staff it and related online venues, building relationships with
people like Leon Benjamin for whom we worked on behalf of Mornflake
cereal, creating an "economy of dreams" where we support each other's
dreams directly as much as possible, and cultivating a culture of
independent thinkers, a "kingdom of heaven" that God might support, too.
15. Did you collaborate with other organizations, particularly Knight
Foundation grantees, during the course of this project? How?
Minciu Sodas has a strong network and we overlap with many groups
including those on-the-ground in Africa (like UYOGA in Tanzania, Actwid
Kongadzem in Cameroon, Nafsi Afrika Acrobats in Kenya and Rising Voices
grantee Repacted in Kenya) and online groups (like Act Alive, One
Village, Dadamac). Janet Feldman leads our Holistic Helping working
group. She wrote a handbook on “blogging positively” for Rising Voices.
Several of our participants have written proposals for Rising Voices
grants. Also, during the post-election turmoil in Kenya, we posted news
through Ushahidi.org who won a Knight News Challenge award this year and
have kindly invited us to share news.
16. Please describe your interaction with Knight Foundation staff. What
was most useful and what changes would you suggest?
I described my interactions above. Mostly they have been one-sided: I
have tried repeatedly to reach out to the Knight Foundation and make the
most of the opportunity. Nobody reached out to me, neither Gary nor Mark
ever left a comment at my blog, nor did they write me or call me, and
rarely did they reply to me. Nobody responded to my three reports where
I ask for such help and contact.
I suggest that you dismiss Gary Kebbel and Mark Glaser. I don't think
Gary Kebbel has the love of truth, the breadth of empathy, the concern
for others or the regard for critical thinking that are fundamental for
fostering excellence in journalism. I don't think that Mark Glaser has
the moral fortitude. I think neither has the relevant social skills or
Make a commitment to support an award winner rather than their idea; and
know why you care about their idea, don't simply oblige them to do
something pointless. Have editors who are willing to edit (or censor)
rather than shut writers down and lock them out. Don't ask them to
censor themselves, I think that's immoral. Don't work secretly - work
Don't sponsor a "clique" of winners. Sponsor open events like Bar Camps
I think it's a mistake to organize such awards, to pick winners and
losers, and to focus on "ideas" instead of people. I think it would be
much more effective to encourage everybody to work for free on their
projects, in the Public Domain, encourage collaboration in every way,
and then have money available for those who have indeed worked for free,
so that they might further help each other and make their projects come
17. Did you ever need Knight Foundation to help you facilitate contacts
with experts in the field, professional peers and similar organizations?
If so, was Knight Staff helpful?
Nobody contacted me. Nobody responded to my previous reports. I have not
found anybody at the Knight Foundation who wants to help me. I am
certainly open to help from the Knight Foundation. Please do help!
Thank you for this award. It has been a great help. Thank you for
considering my reports.