Since we announced the launch of News Mixer, a Web application developed by Medill master’s students to demonstrate new ways of fostering conversations around news, the site has gotten a lot of positive feedback.
News Mixer is the final project for six graduate journalism students, including two "programmer-journalists" attending Medill on Knight News Challenge scholarships. It melds three "commenting structures" — question and answer, short-format "quips," and letters to the editor — into a site that leverages users’ social networks by using the newly released Facebook Connect system.
The class officially ended Dec. 12, but the students and I have remained busy. Stuart Tiffen prepared a nice video overview of how the site works. And with the students’ help, I’ve finished editing the team’s (79-page PDF) final report, which explains how the site was developed, lists additional features that the class didn’t have time to implement, and includes findings and recommendations for journalists, newsrooms, media companies and journalism schools.
When my colleague Jeremy Gilbert and I were organizing the New Media Publishing Project class that created News Mixer, we had a sense that the time was right for some new thinking about news-story commenting. A few of the indicators that fresh ideas were welcome: Gawker’s post in July contending that newspapers shouldn’t allow online comments, Techdirt’s reaction to the Gawker post, and even a story in the Onion ("Local Idiot To Post Comment on the Internet").
So it’s been quite interesting — and rewarding — to see the reactions News Mixer has generated. Here’s an overview of some of the best:
Mark Potts, an online news pioneer who now works as a consultant, wrote that "Anybody interested in smart ways to cover local news and building online communities around news coverage-in other words, anybody who wants to succeed in the news business going forward-should rush over to the new NewsMixer site. … It crosses local news reporting with Facebook, encourages citizen participation and includes a very slick way of commenting and posing questions (for a reporter or the community to answer) about any particular facet of a story. Very neat."
"I interrupted writing this post to talk to the designer and developer of a little project I’m working on about ways that NewsMixer can inspire and influence what we’re doing," Potts wrote. "Congrats to … the team at Medill and the Gazette for a great piece of innovation. We need more like this."
Patrick Beeson, a Web project manager for E.W. Scripps Co., wrote that News Mixer could be a "a game-changing effort for news story comments," adding that "News Mixer has put together a great method of directing user participation on their site." Beeson added:
Traditional Web story comments are wrought with problems, especially when editors and content producers are hands-off in their management style. … News Mixer seems to have solved these problems by limiting "comments" to a question/answer session on each paragraph of a given story.
News Mixer’s "radical take on user participation is a great step forward for news sites," Beeson wrote. "And because News Mixer is built in Django, I plan on using their open-sourced code for my own project very soon, in fact. :)"
Editor and Publisher wrote an article about the site and followed up with a blog post praising the Knight Foundation as "the one ray of sunshine in this industry." Bloggers Mark Fitzgerald and Jennifer Saba said News Mixer is "a very cool new project … [that] lets readers log on with their Facebook IDs and comment on the news in Cedar Rapids in unique ways."
Nick Gehring, an Ohio journalist and blogger who helps manage the Kent State University Web site, wrote that "Medill’s tool takes news-story commenting out of the ghetto. You know you’ve seen it — those awful, racist, and oftentimes off-topic comments made under some news articles. Newspaper Webmasters have been notoriously awful at moderating their communities."
Gehring wrote, "The icing on the cake, though, is the Facebook ID integration. This forces users to use their real identities — although the users could fake a profile on Facebook, just like anywhere else, but I don’t see this as likely as on-the-spot Web site registration." (If you’re interested in Facebook Connect, check out this huge and growing list of sites that use this service.)
Gehring writes, "Perhaps Newsmixer will help end the debate over the value of story commenting. Yes, there is value! Blogs and other non-newspaper sites have proven this for the past few years." He added:
I once suggested — and received a fantastic guffaw from an older journalist — that we should treat stories online more and more like blogs. Does this mean dropping objectivity and providing more analysis than just-the-facts-m’am? I don’t know, but I do think it means writing stories and directly engaging the people who comment below them. Aside this News Mixer system, reporters should be regularly responding to and commenting below their stories. Arguably, these same journalists, with some help, should be managing the online communities of their beats.
Ryan Sholin, who is developing the ReportingOn project funded by the Knight News Challenge, wrote that News Mixer "has a huge amount of potential as a conversation vertical, along the lines of the Guardian’s Comment is Free. I don’t see Newsmixer running as a mainstream news site, but as a place to substitute for outdated message boards or underused staff blogs. Populate it with content from your news and opinion sections, and let it stand as the forum for reader feedback, use it as your primary source for comments, letters, and other reader-authored content to run in print. Heck, if it gets big enough, print the letters and comments as a four page insert once a week, not just in a box on the opinion page."
In a comment at the Knight Digital Media Center blog, Aron Pilhofer of the New York Times wrote, "There are bits and pieces of it I’d like to steal right now." And Pilhofer is in a position to do so, because he leads a team of developer/journalists who develop applications for the Times’ Web site.
Most of the reaction in the blogosphere has come from sites (and bloggers) involved with the journalism industry. That’s why it was particularly interesting to discover that News Mixer got a lengthy writeup on Read/Write Web, one of my favorite technology sites and the 15th ranked blog on Technorati’s list of the top 100 blogs based on inbound links. Under the headline, "NewsMixer: An Innovative Community News Framework," Sarah Perez praised News Mixer’s "great features" and its use of Facebook Connect:
Instead of allowing for the creation of fake names or internet handles for use on the site, Facebook authentication means that people’s real identities are being displayed. No more comments left by internet trolls hiding behind their mask of anonymity! Today’s commenting systems are largely broken, as social media pundit Robert Scoble noted today on his blog. The main reason for his post was to share ideas about the state of commenting and interaction systems on the web. He wanted there to be a way that he, as the writer, could call attention to some comments as being more important than others. He had also said that he wished there was a way to see the social networks of the people commenting. As it turns out, News Mixer has introduced a great example of how that second request of his could work.
Perez urged newspapers to " borrow some of News Mixer’s ideas as well. It’s not too late to save the daily paper – it just takes some fresh ideas. Like Rupert Murdoch recently said, the time for doom and gloom is over – the internet is really just a huge new market ready to be tapped. We agree. Now is the time for innovation because…well, it’s either innovate or die. Hopefully most will choose the former."
Gazette Communications, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, company that sponsored the class that created News Mixer, is one local media business that seems to agree with the need to innovate. Led by CEO Chuck Peters, the company is a leader in rethinking how a local media company should operate in the digital age. The company, which owns the newspaper and ABC television affiliate in Cedar Rapids, plans to use the software that powers News Mixer to launch a site for eastern Iowa in 2009. It also has applied for a Knight News Challenge grant to continue developing the software.
News Mixer has also attracted considerable interest from outside the United States.
Richard Kendall, Web editor for a British newspaper, wrote that News Mixer shows "all the freedom and open-ended opportunity the online world bring to news media. …
Bringing the public and journalists closer – certainly not ground-breaking, but by making it the focus of the site rather than an optional element it does help to seed the sense of community?" Noting that the software powering News Mixer is open source, he added, "And if it all works out, we’ll all be doing it."
In Sweden, Citizen Media Watch, a site operated by online journalists Lotta Holmström and Gitta Wilén, described News Mixer as "a great new tool for news discussion and fact-checking." Holmström described the site as "quite cleverly set up," adding:
What I like most about it is the way that any story can be scrutinized paragraph by paragraph by adding questions and answers, thus providing a tool for collaborative fact-checking and discussion about the validity of statements. It is also a social tool, letting me know when my contacts have been active on the site. And it flattens the news hierarchy …
Also in Sweden, the CEO of Mindpark.se, a Web development business owned by several Swedish newspaper companies, also wrote about News Mixer. I don’t read Swedish, and Google’s translation is only somewhat helpful. But I can pick out that author Joakim Jardenberg thinks News Mixer is "hyper-interesting, well thought out and timely."
In Spain, the Web site periodismociudadano.com (CitizenJournalism.com) described News Mixer as "giving a new dimension to the usual system of comments."
Michael Kowalski, who runs London-based Web development firm Kitsite and previously worked at the Guardian, described News Mixer as "an interesting spin on news commenting." He found the Facebook Connect integration "very cute. No choosing passwords, waiting around for emails, or any of that. Though it does also feel kind of terrifying."
Other international sites that have written about News Mixer:
- Andy Dickinson, who teaches online journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, linked to Sholin’s post and added, "I agree that this should be a model that is explored further."
- Reffos.com, the blog of an Indian software developer, linked to the Read/Write Web post with a succinct response: "Steal the idea."
- Dirk von Gehlen, editorial director of jetzt.de (Süddeutsche Zeitung) in Germany, also linked to Potts’ post.
- Anton van Elberg, a Dutch online editor, posted about News Mixer on the site www.rethinkingmedia.nl.
For the most up-to-date set of links to sites commenting about News Mixer, check out my News Mixer tag set on Delicious. Here are a few recent additions:
- Deborah Potter, executive director of Newslab and co-author of the journalism textbook "Advancing the Story: Broadcast Journalism in a Multimedia World," wrote about News Mixer under the headline of "News mixed with Facebook."
- At Journalism.co.uk, Laura Oliver interviewed Brian Boyer about the site.
- On the Society of News Design site, my new Medill colleague, Matt Mansfield, wrote about News Mixer as an example of "a brave new world of storytelling that includes programmers who understand journalism."
- Daniel Bachhuber of CoPress, a group trying to improve content management systems for college student media, posted to FriendFeed about News Mixer: "Really cool light-weight Django application that allows you to "mix up" the news. Most notable for me is that comments under 140 characters (i.e. Twitter-length) are called "quips" and those
under 250 characters(actually, up to 250 words – RG) are "Letters to the Editor." Login is seamless with Facebook Connect, and I think the project has tremendous potential as a community building exercise (although I’m not sure how I feel only limiting myself to the comments my friends make, if that’s the case)."
- Mark Briggs, a consultant and entrepreneur who formerly worked at the Tacoma News Tribune, described "identity management" as one of the three key new technologies for journalists. "See Newsmixer.us for an excellent example of how to implement this game-changing opportunity," he wrote.
- Joseph Cizek, a California-based Web producer, was concerned about the idea of associating his online comments with his Facebook identity. "The problem for me is that I’ve kept Facebook as my ‘off-the-clock’ social networking, and use Twitter, LinkedIn, et al., as my professional social networking. So, if by keeping up on the social media ‘scene,’ I have to use my Facebook identity professionally, I’m now concerned about the mixing of my business online presence with my personal online presence."