Introducing the Walkleys Media Incubator and Innovation Fund

Today the Walkley Media Incubator and Fund is open for its fourth round of seed investments. Our grants program has evolved a lot over its first three years, so we want to take this opportunity to reflect on how the program has developed and share why we’re taking a slightly different approach this year.

The goal of our grants program hasn’t changed since we first launched it with support from Google in 2014. We want to support new ventures, unusual media projects, and experiments by giving them seed funding and access to targeted training.

The Walkley Foundation’s mission has always been to celebrate and encourage excellence in journalism. We run the premier awards, a suite of training programs, as well as a series of summits and events. But we also need to look toward the future and support the tools and fledgling organisations that will help enable tomorrow’s excellent journalism. Our news industry has been through so much change and turmoil over the last decade or so, and it doesn’t look like the road is going to get easier in the next few years.

This is why we launched the innovation grants — to give anyone in Australia, New Zealand or the Asia Pacific region with a great idea for a journalism project a chance at getting the support they needed. We’re pretty non-prescriptive about what these can look like and are interested in supporting projects in the journalism, media and civic engagement space. We get especially excited about ideas that empower journalism to fulfill its critical role in democracy of speaking truth to power, and supporting an engaged, connected and informed public.

Previous funded projects include:

  • A secure and verifiable way for people in crisis zones to communicate with journalists.
  • A news bot for analysing data sets and drafting basic stories.
  • An online training and support portal for community radio.
  • A public health news site.
  • A podcast to unearth and showcase stories of innovation and progress.
  • A not-for-profit publisher that focuses on arts and culture writing with a locational element in storytelling.
  • A content-driven ethical fashion ecommerce site.
True fact: We’ll fund innovative journalism as well as startups and other ventures. Kristofer Lawson was awarded $5,000 last year for his podcast Moonshot.

We’ve learned a lot over the last three years of the program about the kind of support the teams need to succeed. So we’ve evolved the program accordingly. Back in 2013, from an applicant pool of 130 about ten ideas were invited to pitch, and a handful were given funds and then training. Over the next two years, we selected more ideas — between 15 to 25 — and hosted in-person bootcamps with the entire shortlist of applicants before the pitches.

However one of the consistent elements of our program has been it attracts a diverse bunch of entrants. It’s one of the joys of the program and it’s exciting to have so many promising ideas entered. Many of the entrants are from the journalism industry, many from the creative and tech communities. They’re often experts in their own fields, but most have little to no startup experience (commercial or non-profit).

Reflecting on the program over its initial three years, it has become clear we need to do more to get as many ideas as possible to the stage where the entrants would graduate from the program well-equipped to grow their project regardless of if they are successful getting seed funds.

This year, we want to be sure that any of the longlisted projects (probably between 40 to 60 projects) will graduate with a clear plan of their next steps, the tools and support out there for building a journalism project and a more developed understanding of what kind of revenue streams will help them build and sustain their projects.

This is why we started exploring and have today launched the program that is built more around an incubator model than a standalone grants program. We needed to create the kind of incubator that could run at least nation-wide (our applicants come from all over Australia, New Zealand and even the Asia Pacific region) and for people who were already fairly busy.

So we needed a high-value but light-touch incubator — only the most necessary skills and taught by the best quality people, both as mentors and trainers. This year we’re excited to partner with startup incubator and accelerator BlueChilli, which has run incubator programs for clients such as Westpac and UTS. Veteran startup advisor, investor and former journo Alan Jones (not the radio host) will be heading up the program. He will run three modules of tailored versions of BlueChilli’s training in Sydney and we will live-stream these out to the rest of the long-listed applicants. The longlist will also be part of a closed Facebook group for sharing what they’re learning, tips and questions with the community.

Alan Jones has been working in and advising startups for decades. Hi Alan.

And because any startup program is only as strong as the people who take part in it, we’re very excited have a group of mentors who will work with the teams to develop their ideas, upskill the team, and push their projects forward. This group includes people from both startups and journalism including Tran Ha, the former managing director of media experiments of Stanford Design School’s; Annie Parker, a veteran startup advisor who built Telstra’s Muru-D program and Gautam Mishra, a former Fairfax Digital executive who is now running Australia’s most promising news startup inkl.

Annie Parker, the cofounder of Telstra’s Muru-D accelerator, is one of the official Walkleys Innovation mentors.

The increased investment of time, energy and effort in the larger longlist means many more projects/startups will finish the program with the skills and understanding they need to keep going as efficiently and effectively as possible.

But who gets the grants this year? Well, from this longlist our judges will select probably between 18 to 35 projects that will make up our shortlist. The shortlisted projects will be invited to attend a two-day in person workshop in Sydney or Melbourne. The in-person workshops are anchored in human centred design and will launch with a design thinking bootcamp to embed both a set of methodologies and a mindset. We’re lucky to have support and funding from iSentia and the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund for these workshops.

Design thinking is better described as creative doing — it’s a Stanford tested operating system for innovation built on the concepts of understanding your user, designing with their needs in mind, brainstorming and ideation and building scrappy prototypes and testing quickly again with users and iterating on those insights. It’s about understanding the technology itself has little value unless it’s meeting a deep user need. We think it’s really important for our program to encourage the design thinking mindset, which embraces creative confidence and empathy for the people we design for. It also confirms for participants that ambiguity is part of the journey, the importance of having a bias to action, as well as testing lots of ideas, being ok with failure and building solutions.

The workshop program will culminate in a pitching session to the judges. We’re very excited this year to be able to share that Niki Scevak, the cofounder and managing director of Blackbird Ventures and the Startmate accelerator program, is joining the panel as a judge. Winners will be announced at the Walkley Mid-Year Awards in July.

Niki Scevak, managing director Blackbird Ventures, is joining the judging panel.

The move to an incubator program comes after the year Jacqui spent in Silicon Valley as a knight fellow at Stanford University. It’s an important step to bringing innovation, design and entrepreneurial skills and support to journalism innovators. We will continue to grow the fund, the community and the incubator into a structured and supportive framework that uses human centred design to help create a sustainable future for journalism.

We’re working hard to make this the best media incubator and funding program we can. So if you’ve been tossing around an idea or are already working on a project, the time has come to take it to the next level and apply for a Walkleys innovation grant. You can find all the information and entry form here.

And you can always email Rose if you want see if your idea is a good fit for our program, or to explore partnering with or supporting the program. Reach out on Twitter (with open DMs) and at rose.powell [at] walkleys.com.

By Walkley Foundation CEO Jacqui Park and innovation manager Rose Powell.

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