The Crunchberry Project is now officially past the halfway point, and I’m getting a clearer picture of what our student team can accomplish in the remainder of the fall quarter at the Medill School. The students’ vision is coalescing around a Web site that enables young adults to interact with news and information via different types of "comment structures," which we’re defining as forms of user interaction.
The features in the software they are developing are:
- integration with Facebook (using Facebook Connect), with the following results:
- Users can log in using their Facebook ID’s and have their Facebook identity carry over to our new commenting systems
- User participation using these tools (comments, Q&A, etc.) can be delivered into the Facebook newsfeed
- At least three “comment structures” that will improve the quantity and/or quality of user participation by comparison to “basic” article commenting:
- Q&A: capacity for users to ask questions related to portions of an article
- Short format answers: capacity for users to respond quickly (via pulldown menus and forms)
- A rating system for other users’ comments
- Another “comment structure” still being determined
In addition to this site functionality, I expect the team to complete a written final report with recommendations to newsrooms, media companies and journalists. (If you’re wondering what that might include, check out this spring’s New Media Publishing Project report on locative journalism.) And there will be two final presentations, one in Evanston for faculty and outside guests, and another in Cedar Rapids for the company (Gazette Communications) that is sponsoring the class.
By mid-December, this means our class (with the help of the Knight Foundation grant that brought two experienced Web developers into our journalism master’s program) will have (1) studied online communities as well as a real community (Cedar Rapids) where digital interaction tools might be used to help build civic engagement; (2) developed new software that offers some innovative approaches to user interaction around news; and (3) documented their experiences for journalists, newsrooms, media companies and others interested in these topics.
I’m pretty happy with how this experiment is playing out, but neither I nor the students will be fully satisfied unless their new interaction tools are deployed into the real world and tested with real users. So I was pleased to hear yesterday that Gazette Communications has decided to apply for a Knight News Challenge grant to test the software, further develop it and make it available for others to use as well. If you’re interested, check out (and rate and/or comment upon) the proposal.
Truthfully, it’s too early to make the strongest possible case for the Gazette proposal, because our student team hasn’t finished its work. But if the proposal gets through the initial round of screening, it should be possible to make a more complete application.
As a Knight News Challenge winner myself, I don’t want to use this space to advocate for any other specific proposals, especially one so closely connected to what my class has been doing. But I don’t think it’s inappropriate to suggest that what’s happened here could serve as an interesting model for research and development geared to digital innovations that might enhance enhance journalism as well as civic life.
Let’s recap how all this is playing out:
- Knight Foundation, through the Knight News Challenge, provided seed funding that enabled Medill to attract two experienced Web developers to spend a year immersed in the culture and practice of journalism;
- In their final academic term, they and four other more traditional journalism master’s students have studied civic engagement, online communities and the online audience (including the "Online Community Cookbook," Jonathan Alterman’s "Out of Print: the death and life of the American newspaper" from the New Yorker, excerpts from David Paul Nord’s "Communities of Journalism," "Making the Leap Beyond Newspaper Comapanies" and selections from the recent "Audience Segments in a Changing News Environment" from The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press).
- The students have also heard from good mix of expert speakers (including Knight winners Lisa Williams and Dan Pacheco)
- The students have learned about a real geographic community and come to understand some of the people who live there.
- By mid-December, the team will have built software that would allow new forms of interaction around local news and information that could enhance civic life — and connect young adults in new ways to each other and their geographic community.
Even if nothing else happens, I think the students will have gotten a good experience, their ideas may spread, and we will have tested the proposition that it’s possible to conceptualize and build interesting new online publishing tools via a class teaming programmer-journalists and more traditional journalism students. Also interesting is that their software development was informed by the study of journalism, by some research into civic engagement, online communities and local information, and the input of experts from the worlds of journalism and digital media.
Donica Mensing, a professor at the University of Nevada-Reno, recently argued (in a response to Amy Gahran‘s post on "Busting J-School Silos") that journalism schools need to "reorient our research so we are active participants in helping invent the future of journalism. Other disciplines in the university are about creating knowledge — developing new medicines, building models of climate change, testing new materials— that then inform what they teach their students." She argues for "serious efforts at sustained R&D," with journalism schools and their students as full partners.
I think the Crunchberry Project has been consistent with this approach. The students’ work has been strongly informed by research that the Northwestern Media Management Center, the Newspaper Association of America and academics have done about civic engagement and online communities, as well as the input of industry experts. Their work has been interdisciplinary, drawing on the fields of journalism and computer science. And if Gazette Communications can test, further develop and deploy the software, we can all learn more about what works (or doesn’t work) to build community engagement and enhance journalism in the digital age.