The Crunchberry Project — six graduate journalism students, including two "programmer-journalists" attending the Medill School on Knight News Challenge scholarships — set out this fall to solve two challenging problems: Improving conversations around news, and building news engagement among young adults.

Here’s what they came up with: News Mixer. 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.

News Mixer is already getting some positive buzz thanks to some Twittering last week after Team Crunchberry presented the site to Medill faculty and to the class’s sponsor, Gazette Communications in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Patrick Beeson, a content manager for E.W. Scripps Interactive Newspaper Group, wrote that News Mixer "could be a game-changing effort for news story comments." Blogger Nick Gehring wrote that News Mixer "takes news-story commenting out of the ghetto."

What’s online now is a demonstration site. Log in with your Facebook ID and you can see how it works (and help us load-test the software). Invite your Facebook friends to use the site and you can get a sense of the interesting possibilities. Here are some of the highlights:

Facebook Connect. Using a Facebook ID means you don’t need to establish a new login and password to use News Mixer. Beyond that, Facebook Connect allows the site to display comments from your social network, meaning that every user has a different — and personalized — experience. We’re thinking that this will stimulate more intelligent discussion than generally occurs via the open-ended comment box that appears at the end of articles on most news sites. Also, every time you post to News Mixer, you are given the option of cross-posting that comment to your Facebook feed, which exposes it to friends not using our site and potentially draws them to participate as well.

Three options to comment. Team Crunchberry decided to offer three very different options for reader response:

  • Questions and Answers: Displayed like annotations in the margin of an article, readers can ask a question about any paragraph of the article — or answer questions left behind by other people.

  • Quips: Displayed as a small talk-bubble in a live feed on the home page and on article pages, quips are short-form comments that allow people to leave feedback in a quick, to-the-point form. They’re modeled after Twitter and instant-messaging.

  • Letters to the Editor: A very old idea, but with a few new twists. News Mixer calls on letter writers to "Add your voice to the marketplace of ideas. Offer a thoughtful point of view in 250 words or less." Once written, letters are treated equivalently to articles in News Mixer. Each letter gets its own page, and people are allowed to write letters in response. When a letter is particularly insightful, an editor can use the News Mixer content management system to designate it as an "editor highlight." The "editor highlight" letters are given prominence on the main Letters to the Editor page, and also appear on the home page, intermingled with news articles. The idea is to encourage and reward the most thoughtful responses.

User profiles. 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 people you’re following on News Mixer are aggregated and quantified in your user profile, which serves as the nexus for the News Mixer social community.

A personalized home page. The News Mixer home page highlights recent comments and "quips" from your social network. It also highlights a question that has recently generated a lot of activity.

Gazette Communications is interested in launching a version of the site, geared to young adults in eastern Iowa, in 2009. The code that powers the site is available on Google Code, and we’ve already gotten some interest in using it for other sites.

I’m really proud of the student team that developed this site in just 11 weeks (about six weeks of hard-core coding): Andrea Nitzke, Joshua Pollock, Stuart Tiffen, Kayla Webley and "programmer-journalists" Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark. We’ve never done original software development in a Medill "innovation project" class before, so the students (and their instructors, me and Jeremy Gilbert) learned a lot. And I think it really does offer some provocative new ideas for approaching conversations around news.

If nothing else, I think News Mixer is "proof of concept" that enrolling programmers in journalism schools — and teaming them up with journalism students to develop an innovation relevant to the future of journalism — is a good idea. We’re still looking for applicants for the remaining Knight News Challenge scholarships — if you’re a coder interested in applying your skills to inventing the future of journalism, please check us out.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing more about the lessons learned from the News Mixer project, and about other features that Team Crunchberry would add if they had more time. We welcome your feedback on News Mixer.