The goal of the first release was to demonstrate different ways of thinking about how foster communities and conversations around news articles on the web, and not to build a real news website or software to power a real news website.

Version 1.0 of News Mixer is a standalone application built on Python and Django. It is meant as a technology demo. For those who liked the ideas and wanted the software, News Mixer is a great commenting system, but it lacks depth. There was very little time put into anything but the commenting. The content management component is minimal. There is no support for posting media. There was a lot of thought but little dev time put into comment moderation, either for site owners or visitors. It’s what happens when you only have 11 weeks to go from “you can do whatever you want” to working software + report + polished presentation.

Despite the minimalism of News Mixer 1.0, it was a hit. People were impressed and inspired by it. So for a tech demo it was a success. Now to make it usable …

Usefulness

Yes, there will be a WordPress plugin.

The next release of News Mixer will be a more useful application built to actually be used by folks. The plan is to build an API on top of News Mixer and build a plug-in to make the features available for WordPress. In addition to an API, we’re going to give News Mixer the ability to handle commenting for multiple sites.

Why not just put all the commenting features into a WordPress plug in?

So the wheel re-invention is kept to a minimum. So we can plug the features into other applications without writing everything from scratch. So folks can manage the comments for many sites in one place. And so maybe it will grow up to be its own web service someday.

There is a big list of things that our team came up with that could make News Mixer better: more commenting systems, rating systems, moderation. But right now we need to make it accessible for people to use.

This new work for News Mixer is being done by the Gazette and me (Ryan Mark). I’ll be writing more about the progress on my blog: http://ryan-mark.com and on twitter: http://twitter.com/ryanmark. Send me your thoughts.

In fall of 2008, Team Crunchberry- six journalism students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism – partnered with Gazette Communications in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to explore the broad idea of building better conversations around news. After four weeks of researching and defining our project, six weeks of designing & developing software, and two weeks polishing & presenting our work, we went live with our final product, News Mixer.

And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for – how we did it. Now available for download is our final report (80 pages – 2.7MB pdf file), which documents all 12 weeks of our research, design and development processes. We also provide our findings and recommendations for the journalism industry, as well as further development of News Mixer.

You might also be interested in this roundup of reactions to the News Mixer site, written by our professor, Rich Gordon.

This has been a very educational experience for us, and we hope this final report will help educate journalists, media organizations and journalism schools (in addition to bettering conversations around the news!). We would like to extend one last thank you to our partners at the Gazette, our industry experts, our research panel, and of course – you - our readers who helped us develop News Mixer. Thanks!

For your edutainment needs, we present a short how-to video outlining the various commenting structures and navigation schemes of http://newsmixer.us

 
How to use News Mixer from Stuart Tiffen on Vimeo.

After much anticipation, Team Crunchberry is proud to present to you our final product: News Mixer.

Our mission statement: “For busy young adults, News Mixer is the only place to find the news affecting Cedar Rapids that your family, friends, neighbors and coworkers are talking about.”

And why is that, you ask? Because it harnesses the credibility of an established media company, leverages existing online social networks and gives people a constructive way to interact with each other and the news.

The site we have created is a demonstration site.  You can log in now with your Facebook username and password and try it out.  The folks at Gazette Communications want to launch a site based on News Mixer in  2009, and there are already some other people interested in using our open-source software.

Here’s a quick summary of News Mixer:

3 commenting structures to encourage and engage readers to discuss the news.

Questions and Answers: Displayed like annotations in the margin of an article, readers can ask questions or answer others left behind by other contributors to the discussion.

Quips: Displayed as a small talk-bubble in a live feed on the article page, quips are short-form comments styled after Twitter that allow people to leave feedback in a quick, to-the-point form.

Letters to the Editor: For users who really have something to say, they can write a letter to the editor in 250 words or less. Instead of having this commenting form at the bottom of an article, our letters to the editor live on their own page. Letters are highlighted by the editorial staff, and are also featured on our home page, highlighting user feedback for the community.

Facebook Connect

Along with the commenting structures, we have used Facebook Connect to take down the registration barrier from using our Web site. Facebook Connect also allows us to display your friends’ comments on every article.  This allows for transparent discussion, and as a direct result, we hope this will encourage more intelligent discussion.

User profiles

Finally, all users of News Mixer get their own profile page. On News Mixer, users are allowed to follow each other’s activity on the site, and view the activity in their news feed. Along with your own contributions, recent comments from your Facebook friends and News Mixer follow-ees are aggregated and quantified in your user profile, which serves as the nexus for the News Mixer social community.

The home page

The home page of News Mixer weaves news articles together with letters and responses from your social network.  On the top of the page you will see recent comments by people in your social network, and a hot question of the day.  Down the left side you will see news articles and letters posted in reverse chronological order.  And on the right you will see a live feed of the most recent quips.  The idea is to provide a quick snapshot of what’s new and what’s generating conversation, while highlighting the conversations involving your social network.

More to come

We’re sure you have a ton of questions about our processes, suggestions for improvement, and of course, comments about what we did. Many of these questions will be answered soonwhen we release our final report, and a video of our presentation. These materials will be found here at crunchberry.org, and will also be available on our News Mixer Web site.

Stay tuned…

Team Crunchberry has spent a better part of the last 11 weeks thinking about how to engage an online news audience, particularly young adults, and encourage discussion. The culmination of what we learned is the recommendations we would like to pass on to fellow journalists, news organizations and media companies.

Journalists must interact with their audience. Start the conversation by inviting questions and constructive criticism. Monitor commenting on your work and respond, especially to  thoughtful comments, criticisms and requests for further information. The involvement of credible sources and thoughtful contributions will elevate the audience’s perception of the comments and increase the value of the format to readers. 

Encourage and fund experimentation with online media. The only way someone will find out how to make money on the Internet is to try something new. 

Participate in different types of social media. To really understand what works and what doesn’t and to understand the unwritten rules of social media, journalists need to participate themselves. Use social media to build the audience for journalism, identify sources and generate story ideas.

Work to integrate the “journalism” side of your newsroom with the “technical” side. Typically these two entities work distinctly from one another, but the more each side understands what the other is doing the more possible it is to work toward an end goal together.   One idea worth considering is hiring developers to work in the newsroom to help build new content, services and ways of interacting with the audience. 

Provide your audience with tools to interact with the news organization and with each other. This will enhance the quality of journalism and also build loyalty and time spent on your Web site.

Use social media to reach young adults. Social network sites generate more usage and loyalty than news sites. Use them as a distribution platform and as a way to build a network of followers. 

Allocate staff time for social media and user interaction. Give journalists the time and opportunity to engage in online discussion around their articles.  Assign staff to build connections through social networks. 

Enlist young creative minds in developing your digital products. One way to do this, as the Gazette has done for our project, is to partner with universities and their students.  Another approach is to inject people from other fields (e.g.,  software developers).

When inviting users to react to and talk about your content, don’t just offer an open-ended comment box.  More structured forms of interaction have the potential to engage audiences more deeply and improve the quality of conversation. 

Make more use of links to related content. Connect stories so people are not required to work to get what they are looking for.  People will always use multiple online sources – Web sites that provide relevant outbound links will increase user loyalty. 

Highlight user-generated content on your Web site.  For the users who see their video or comment featured, it will give them an added bonus for contributing, and a greater appreciation for the online discussion.

Consider integrating your Web site with Facebook Connect and/or comparable services from MySpace, Google and Yahoo! These services allow users to log in without creating a new user ID and password and may encourage deeper engagement and participation by leveraging users’ social networks.

Monitor the evolution and adoption of digital identity services such as Facebook Connect, especially the balance between benefits (for instance, no need to set up a separate user ID) and drawbacks (for instance, users’ concerns about privacy and the use of their Facebook profile information). Do what you can to support the adoption of more open, transparent standards such as OpenID and OpenSocial.

We also have a few recommendations for journalism schools:

Teach people new tricks. Recruit programmers/developers and teach them how to integrate what they do with journalism, or collaborate with engineering schools. Teach journalists how to better their stories through the use of new technology. The more you know about these technologies the more you know how to make them work for you (and your story). If it’s not practical to teach the technology in journalism school, publicize opportunities to learn it elsewhere on campus and guide motivated students to resources they can use to teach themselves. 

If you publish content to a publicly available Web site, allow comments and give journalism students a chance to experience real-world audience interaction. This is a fundamental skill for 21st century journalists. 

Provide classes in which students write and contribute to blogs, and make use of social media. Because social media is an emerging industry for many newsrooms, skills in these areas are vital to have in this industry.

 

To build News Mixer we had to complete a lot of research first. Research on the current state of journalism, society and media audiences. Research on young adult news consumers, industry leaders and our Cedar Rapids market. Research on digital content, technology and social software. Needless to say, we learned a lot. We digested what we learned into a list of findings to share with fellow journalists, news organizations and media companies.

Findings on journalism, society and media audiences:

(1) Journalism is not just about reporting and distributing facts; the role of journalism is also to generate conversations and provide a forum for debate. In the early years of American newspapers, as journalism historian David Paul Nord wrote in his book Communities of Journalism, the forum function was dominant. Newspapers served as a place for conversation and debate, and some papers filled page after page with letters from readers. But by the mid-20th century, as the number of papers declined, journalism became defined mostly as reporting and conveying facts.  Opinions were banished to a heavily edited page or two of the paper. 

(2) Overall levels of civic engagement have declined over the past 50 years, as documented in Robert Putnam’s book, “Bowling Alone.”  Putnam, for instance, found declines in volunteering, PTA membership and voter turnout. The decline in civic engagement connects also to declining use of news media, especially local news.

(3) The 2008 election suggests, however, that online social networking tools have the potential for regenerating civic engagement among young adults. Barack Obama’s campaign engaged millions young people by tapping into online social networks.

(4) According to the PEW Research Center for the People & the Press’s News Consumption and Believability Study, “Four in 10 Americans under 25 say they feel overloaded by the amount of news available today.

(5) Young adults prefer to get their news online. “Abandoning the News,” published by the Carnegie Corporation, thirty-nine per cent of respondents under the age of thirty-five told researchers that they expected to use the Internet in the future for news purposes; just eight per cent said that they would rely on a newspaper.

(6) Eric Alterman, wrote in “The death and life of the American newspaper,” in the March 31, 2008 issue of the New Yorker, “Print newspapers are not managing to engage young adults.  The average age of the American newspaper reader is 55 and rising. Only 19 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 claim even to look at a daily newspaper.”

(7) According to PEW’s News Consumption and Believability Study, “Many young adults say they are too busy to keep up with the news.  “Many people in their mid-20s through their mid-30s say they are simply too busy to keep up with the news. Overall, just 30% are too busy to follow the news, while 68% say it is “pretty easy.” But about four-in-ten (41%) younger adults – those ages 25 to 34 – say they often are too busy to follow the news.”

(8) Young adults are far less likely than older Americans to enjoy keeping up with the news.  “Consistent with the Pew Research Center’s past media consumption surveys, young people are far less likely than older Americans to say they get a great deal of enjoyment from following news. Enjoyment of the news has consistently been associated with higher levels of both news interest and news consumption,” according to the PEW study.

(9) Most young people check in on the news from time to time rather than get it at regular times.  “An overwhelming proportion of very young people are news grazers, checking in on the news from time to time. Nearly eight-in-ten of those younger than 25 (78%) say they get the news from time to time. Even among people only somewhat older – those ages 25 to 34 – a much smaller majority (56%) says they check on the news rather than getting it at regular times. Among those 50 and older, most say they get the news at regular times,” according to the PEW study.

(10) People who get news from time to time watch and read less news overall than those who get news at regular times.  “Americans who gather news from time to time watch and read less news overall than do those who get news at regular times. News grazers spend on average 56 minutes per day consuming news. By contrast, regular-time news consumers on average spend 79 minutes per day consuming news,” according to the PEW study.

(11) Social networks are extremely popular among young adults. According to the Pew report, 82 percent of 18-24-year-olds have established a profile on MySpace, Facebook or another social networking site. The same is true of 60 percent of those 25-29 and 41 percent of those 30-34.

(12) According to the June 2008 Associated Press study, A New Model for News: Studying the Deep Structure of Young-Adult News Consumption, “Young adults are dissatisfied with the way news is presented online.  They feel overwhelmed by facts and updates, while not getting enough context and understanding.”

(13) One way to interest young adults in news is to capitalize on the value of news as “social currency in their interactions with others,” the AP report said.

(14) The interaction tools used on news Web sites – generally, an open-ended comment box – often become platforms for ranting, hostility and racism rather than reasoned dialogue.

(15) Many online users don’t like comments as they currently exist: 

— People think there is no pay-off or gratification from participation. 44 percent of our survey panel said they wouldn’t get anything out of participating in online commenting and conversations. 

— People do not think comments are believable. 43 percent of those surveyed said they thought most comments left by others are inaccurate. 

— People don’t like communicating with strangers. 62 percent of our survey respondents replied that they disagreed with the statement, “I like to communicate online with people I don’t know.”  In phone interviews, this continued to be a significant subject.  Some participants were concerned about the ramifications of interactions with people they didn’t know for fear of insulting someone or causing a negative impact on their future employment, others simply preferred to avoid contact with strangers in most if not all cases.

Findings on digital content, technology and social software:

(1) Successful digital journalism/media products require deep integration of content and technology, and deep collaborations between journalists and computer programmers. This means media companies need to bridge the gap between the two disciplines.

(2) There is a fundamental disconnect between programmers and non-programmers, but they have a lot in common that can be leveraged. People on both sides of the development disconnect need to understand the vision of the project to reduce the potential for problems. People generally have a lot of experience using computer systems and may find it easier to understand how they are built then they think. Non-programmers should use this opportunity in working with developers to learn more about how computer systems work, and programmers should put forth the effort to teach.

(3) Agile programming is a powerful way to organize interdisciplinary teams to produce functional Web sites.

(4) By using an almost completely free and open source toolkit — most notably Django, MySQL, WordPress, and Trac — we were able to hit the ground running, at no cost, and build News Mixer faster than any of us anticipated.

(5) Enabling user interaction can dramatically drive traffic and user loyalty on news Web sites. For example, the Monroe (Mich.) Evening News’s Monroe Talks site, which has been operating since March 2007, averages close to 1 million page views per month, and has served as an effective forum for its readers to discuss the things that affect their community. As of December 2008, Monroetalks.com boasts more than a quarter-million comments on more than 11,000 topics; all generated by about 3,400 members. While traffic is heavier on the Monroenews.com site, the Monroetalks.com forums receive nearly twice as many page views as the news site. Shaw said the average user spends about 15 minutes on the site – a great amount of time in the Internet news industry.

(6) Advances in Web technology in recent years now allow designers and developers to design rich systems for user interaction, far beyond what was possible using HTML pages in the earlier days of the Web.

(7) Only a minority of users participate in online conversations. According to web usability expert, Jakob Nielson, 90 percent of online users are lurkers (people who read or observe but do not contribute), nine percent of users contribute from time to time, and one percent of users participate a lot and account for most online contributions.

(8) Passionate people are essential to online discussion, but the passion can also  deter othersfrom participating.

(9) People don’t like to register to participate in online discussions, but user anonymity – or a lack of consistent online identity – can contribute to incivility.

(10) Online conversations can be made more productive and interesting through human intervention — moderation or encouragement.                              

(11) Successful “social software” (e.g., Slashdot, Vita.mn, Intense Debate) often leverages technology in creative ways to channel people’s interactions more productively.

(12) Social network sites such as Facebook and MySpace are beginning to make user identities portable across other Web sites. This trend offers advantages to users (fewer logins, the ability to interact with your social network on multiple sites) but also raises privacy concerns.

(13) Facebook Connect offers rich possibilities for building more successful Web sites geared to conversations around news. A Web site integrated with Facebook Connect allows users to log in without creating a new user ID and password. The quality of conversation may be enhanced by the fact that people’s comments are visible to their Facebook friends. Through Facebook Connect, the site becomes personalized automatically – posts from your social network are highlighted.  Furthermore, posts to the site can be distributed to your social network via the Facebook news feed.                              

(14) Over time, new standards may emerge that will standardize how personal data is shared across Web sites and give users more control over their personal information. Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li predicts that within five to 10 years, social networks will be “like air.” Michael Arrington, founder and co-editor of TechCrunch says, “Users eventually need one place on the Internet to store their data, or lots of places to store different types of data. But what they don’t want is today’s world where they are recreating and storing the same data over a plethora of social networks just because all those sites refuse to share.”

Next TUESDAY the New Media Publishing Project class will give a presentation on what we did this quarter. We wanted to extend the invitation to all of our readers. Here are the details:

Tuesday, Dec. 9, the Medill New Media Publishing Project (Team Crunchberry) will present an exciting new Web site designed to get young adults engaged in the news through online discussion and their social relationships.

The site has been built during Medill’s fall quarter by a team of master’s students in our interactive sequence. Two of the students are experienced computer programmers attending Medill through a unique scholarship program designed to bring technologists into the journalism field.

The Web site the team has built is designed to address some of the most interesting challenges and opportunities confronting media and journalism in the 21st century:
· Getting young adults interested in local news
· Enabling genuine, productive online conversations regarding the news
· Building communities of news users
· Leveraging the value of online social networks (Facebook, MySpace, etc.) to improve journalism

The site has been developed in collaboration with Gazette Communications in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, owner of the Gazette newspaper and KCRG-TV. It will be one of the first sites in the world to take advantage of Facebook Connect, a new tool that allows Facebook users to log into other sites and connect there with their social networks.

Gazette Communications plans to launch the site in Cedar Rapids in early 2009. The software that powers the site will be made available on an open-source basis.

If you want to learn more about the project, check out Rich Gordon’s posts about it on the PBS Idealab blog: http://www.pbs.org/idealab/author/rich_gordon/

Details on the presentation:
When? 9:30-11 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 9
Where? McCormick Tribune Center forum, 1890 Campus Drive, Evanston

(map here: http://tinyurl.com/65r7ph)

Refreshments will be served following the presentation.

Hope you can make it! Thanks!
–Team Crunchberry

The answer: yes we did. Well, we hope so, anyway.

As design and development for our final product wind down, we have begun to pool all of our thoughts and ideas from the past two months, and are preparing to assemble them for our final report and presentation.

ArtWorks | Building Voices | The Building Voices Crew! by www.richardcawood.com

ArtWorks | Building Voices | The Building Voices Crew! by www.richardcawood.com

Although we aren’t sure if/how our final product will incorporate the three commenting structures we have come up with (Q&A, short form, and letters to the editor), we chose them them as the most effective means of communication between people on the Internet. That clearly doesn’t mean they are the only medium for discussion.

Here are a couple of others we considered, but didn’t make the cut:

Live chat: In our consumer research and readings, we discovered that ease of use is one of the most important barriers to participation.  A chat room is one of the simplest means of communication on the Internet, and provides instant gratification to the user, who sees his or her comment appear immediately in the dialogue box above the entry form.

At any given time, thousands of people are congregating in chat rooms across the Web, oftentimes communicating with one another from around the world. Some people are genuinely interested in meeting others to have a conversation regarding a chat room topic. Others are interested in disrupting the conversation with foul language, spam, and marketing.

Nonetheless, by giving your readership this application, articles will garner more interest, and people will generally spend more time on your site. However, to be an effective medium, a staff member would likely need to moderate and guide discussion in the chat rooms. The creation of profanity filters and anti-spamming solutions would only curb the misuse of chat rooms – not cure it.

These inefficiencies, and a desire to pursue other commenting structures, led us to exclude chat rooms from development.

Polling: One of the simplest forms of aggregating community feedback, the poll has been a mainstay in evaluating the overall feeling about a topic in a finite, numerical form.

Because of the simplicity of polls, many media organizations feature them on their site. As was mentioned previously, one of the biggest barriers to online participation is ease of use. Polls transcend ease of use. With the quick click of a radio button, people instantly receive their community’s reaction to a relevant topic.

Although there are many positives to polling, there are just as many drawbacks to its use. Our first – and biggest – concern was that polls do not lend themselves to being creative. Poll questions are created by the editorial staff, and the answers are generally dictated by the same person who creates the poll.

Apart from the creative constraints of polling, we decided that the structure as a whole was not terribly innovative, and audiences could have a more effective means of conversation using the different applications we designed and developed.

Interested in reading more about our reasoning? Stay tuned for our final report!

Image source: flickr/Giant Ginkgo  

 

 

Image source: flickr/Giant Ginkgo

 

I have been stymied by trying to think of a name for our creation.   

“The process of naming also has its idiosyncrasies.  Sometimes you’ll set out to name a new product and the perfect name will be hanging there,  right out in front of you, just waiting to be snatched out of thin air.  Other times, you’ll mull for days, agonizing over the details of your product, entering in hundreds or thousands of options to your registrar with nothing sounding ‘just’ right,” according to Scott Trimble from Halfagain.com. 

The second part better describes my experience so far.  Our class developed a list of words that we would like to be associated with our creation (e.g. friendly and easy).  My first step was to use OneLook Reverse Dictionary, which generates words related to a word or phrase.  I hoped something would jump out at me.  Sadly, it did not.

So now I have turned to other online tools like Worldlab.com that has a tool called Name Builder -” Use this handy tool to jump start your naming process. Over 340,000 possible combinations and counting. Try it for a company name, rock band, album title, product name, book of poetry – just about anything that needs naming.”  When I entered “better news conversation” it suggested “BoxMetal.”

The search continues.

I judge books by their covers. Similarly, I judge websites by their homepages. If you don’t impress me, I will likely leave your site within minutes. 

Research has shown I’m not alone in this. While we all judge homepages by our own set of standards, the fact remains, we judge. This is not good news for someone (me) trying to design a homepage. In fact, it’s downright terrifying. 

The obvious first option was to copy the standard norms for online news sites. Think: USAToday.com, NYTimes.com and CNN.com. There is nothing wrong with these models, to be sure, but as we are building a somewhat experimental site, we wanted to be, well, experimental. And the truth of the matter is we will likely not have enough content each day to fill an entire news site, nor the development time to build it. 

What we want from this site is a place to best showcase what we have created: the comment structures we have built and the Facebook Connect integration we have developed. One of our professors, Jeremy Gilbert, put it best. This site should be like the best art galleries – display the work without getting in the way.

We decided to pursue a news feed model. What we think is the quickest and easiest way to get readers into the stories and experimenting with our designs. Think: New York Times River (with a little more design), meets Digg (without ratings).

dsearls/flickr

New York Times River on a mobile platform. dsearls/flickr

 You see, we are designing a site for the Facebook generation. These people use Digg, Reddit and Twitter. They use sites like this. They get it. They don’t necessarily need the pretty, the big photos, the fancy layout (especially for our testing purposes) they need the stories. 

So while this site might not agree with the tastes of everyone, hopefully it will help us reach our target audience, 20 to 35 year olds living in Cedar Rapids, so they will be able to test out what we have built for them.

After all, if you build it, they will come, right?