The Crunchberry Project — the innovation class that includes the first two Knight News Challenge programmer-journalists — is moving forward rapidly.

The six journalism master’s students involved in the project started out exploring "conversations around news." As their instructor, I challenged them to build some kind of site or service that connects people to one another and to community news and information. After meeting with the staff of Gazette Communications (which, among other businesses, owns the daily newspaper and ABC affiliate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa), the class decided to target its work toward young adults, ages 20-35 in the Cedar Rapids area.

The decision to target young adults was sensible, given their heavy use of digital media. Still, I think it also increased the "degree of difficulty" for the Crunchberry team’s work. Local media companies have had some success creating online products geared to this audience, but they have usually revolved around entertainment (for instance, Metromix in Chicago, TBO Extra in Tampa, or Juice in Des Moines) rather than news. Most of the online community-building success stories I described in the Online Community Cookbook focused on very different audience groups.

I did furnish the students with a couple of interesting research reports about the ways people use digital news products. "What it takes to be a Web favorite" (from Northwestern’s Media Management Center) found that for light news users, the typical news Web site is overwhelming. And "A new model for news" (from the Associated Press) found "a deep strain of fatigue" among young adults oversupplied with "facts and updates" and underserved with "back story" (context) and "resolution" (what happens next).

The AP report also found that young adults’ news consumption is closely related to their social relationships. “Many of the subjects found they could use the news as powerful social currency in their interactions with others,” the report says.

Our friends at Gazette Communications have helped us find about 20 young adults in eastern Iowa who are willing to provide input as our project develops. Last week, the students began interviewing the 20 volunteers and also created an online survey for young adults in eastern Iowa. The surveys and interviews are helping the students identify some key needs for this age group.

The class also began laying groundwork last week for the software development project at the center of their work. Brian Boyer, one of the programmer-journalists, has taken the lead in laying out an "agile software development" process that he describes like this:

You design a little bit, build a little bit, test a little bit, and then look up.  Are we still on course?

For me, participating in "agile" software development promises to be one of the most interesting aspects of the class. My prior experience in software (and Web site) development is much more like what Brian describes as the traditional approach: Spend months writing a detailed functional specification, then turn it over to the programmers. The experience always left me frustrated — and clearly could not work for a class (like this one) that lasts less than 12 weeks.

This week comes the hard part: settling on the core idea for the students’ innovation. What kind of site or service will they try to build? How will this site or service connect young adults in eastern Iowa? What role will news or journalism play?

Stay tuned. And watch the Crunchberry Project site for updates.