Maria Thomas, former head of digital media at NPR and CEO of craft marketplace Etsy, has joined this year's Knight News Challenge and will participate in judging hundreds of funding proposals to create the future of news media, the organization announced today. The Knight Foundation began 70 years ago next month to support innovative news organizations; the deadline for submissions to this year's challenge is December 1st.

Previous years' winners include Ushahidi, Global Voices, MobileActive, the Public Radio Exchange and of course the MSNBC-acquired hyper-local news site EveryBlock.

News Challenge winners are required to create digital media, to open source their technology and to deliver news in the public interest. Some applicants argue that the process and the open source requirements are prohibitively onerous, but every year a new batch of news experiments gets funded to great fanfare.

The inclusion of an established media leader like Thomas in the Challenge selection process is a nod to the strategic outlook characterizing NPR and Etsy, two substantially innovative online organizations. Thomas led digital media at NPR when the organization launched its first mobile app to rave reviews (including ours). She was responsible for the organization's early adoption of podcasting and for developing its online music efforts. She was named one of the 25 most influential people on the web in 2008 by Business Week. She began her career at Amazon.com and the World Bank and acts as an advisor to four technology startups and the MIT Open Courseware Initiative.

"The disruption the internet can bring to any industry is very painful. NPR is an example of how it can go well," Thomas told ReadWriteWeb today. "Likewise, Etsy is disintermediating galleries and other taste makers. I get jazzed up about the idea of making things more accessible, transparent and in doing so, creating valuable businesses."

Thomas can be found on Twitter here.