What’s next for News Mixer?

The demonstration Web site, launched in December by a team of Medill students, shows off some interesting new ideas for engaging people in online conversations around news. The site has attracted quite a bit of attention from people interested in the future of journalism, social media and new technology.

More than just attention, in fact. There are now at least two separate organizations actively working with News Mixer’s open-source code.

One is the (Knight News Challenge-funded) Populous Project, which announced recently that it will incorporate News Mixer’s functionality into the Populous open-source publishing platform for collegiate newspapers.

And just this past week, e-Me Ventures (a Chicago-based technology firm affiliated with Gazette Communications, which sponsored the class that developed News Mixer) announced it had deployed a portion of the News Mixer code as an add-in to a test site, powered by WordPress.

"The News Mixer idea was huge. I was really blown away by the work that [the students] did," said Abe Abreu, CEO of e-Me. "We wanted to be the first to do something with it."

With these new developments, it seems like a good time to lay out some of the ways News Mixer — and/or its functionality — might be implemented on a production Web site.

Option 1: Deploy News Mixer as a complete publishing/interaction platform

News Mixer was developed, in partnership with Gazette Communications, as a standalone site geared to young adults in eastern Iowa. It was intended to achieve two goals: build connections with and among young adults, and improve the caliber of conversations around news. The combination of those those two goals explains why the site uses Facebook Connect to leverage the value of participants’ existing online social networks, as well as why the site offers new commenting approaches (short format "quips" and paragraph-based questions and answers). Team Crunchberry (as the student team called themselves) hopes that this combination of features can address some of the well-established limitations of the open-ended comment box that is now the main vehicle for user interaction on news sites.

I think News Mixer remains a solid idea worth implementing as a stand-alone site. Online news sites, especially locally oriented ones, need to increase user engagement and to find ways to connect with young adults. But we won’t really know whether the News Mixer approach achieves those goals until someone launches a site and promotes it to the target audience.

Gazette Communications, which owns the newspaper and ABC-TV affiliate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has applied for a Knight News Challenge grant to deploy a version of News Mixer, test it with users in eastern Iowa and refine it based on user experience and feedback. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

In terms of functionality, the site appears close to production-ready. In the class’s final report (80 pages – 2.7MB PDF), the student team suggests a few desirable, and relatively simple, improvements before launch:

  • Paginate or content on users’ profile/feed pages, which list quips, questions and letters posted by your Facebook friends or others you follow on News Mixer. (Right now, new postings are added to the top of your profile/feed page, which just grows longer and longer.)
  • Add photo handling capabilities to the content management system behind the site. The CMS, based on the Django Pressroom application, currently allows text content only. But there are other Django applications geared to photo handling, so incorporating this should be straightforward.
  • Anticipating that at some point the site might have contain many articles on many topics, add the capacity to put articles and letters into categories. This would allow the site to, say, have separate sections for sports, business and local news. Again, this should be relatively simple.
  • Consider adding "flag as offensive" options for answers and quips. (The capability is already in place for letters.)

In addition to these improvements, someone launching a version of News Mixer should expect to fix some bugs and load-test the site. If traffic grows, it may be necessary to make adjustments (in caching, for instance) to ensure good performance.

The student team also suggests consideration of several enhancements: (1) email notifications when your question or letter is answered; (2) addition of a site search engine; (3) some kind of highlighting for question answers provided by the news organization’s staff.

Another issue to consider is browser compatibility. Right now the site is optimized for Firefox 3.0 and Internet Explorer 7.0. Facebook Connect (and News Mixer) rely on JavaScript, and there were significant JavaScript changes between IE6 and IE7. Making the site compatible with earlier browser versions will require testing and additional code.

Option 2: Incorporate one or more parts of the News Mixer code into an existing Web site

This is the approach taken by e-Me Ventures. The company engaged Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark, the two programmer-journalists who wrote the code that powers News Mixer, to migrate some of News Mixer’s functionality to other sites. The first piece, programmed by Boyer and financed and supported by the e-Me team, is based on News Mixer code. It incorporates Facebook Connect and the quips into a test site, Iowa Content Experiment.

Some of the key functionality of News Mixer fits beautifully into the strategy being developed by e-Me Ventures, Abreu said. The company seeks to develop a content platform that will aggregate content, apply "semantic Web" technologies to increase relevance, then "make it all social." News Mixer is an example of "innovation around the integration of the content and the social," Abreu said.

E-Me Ventures is funded by Gazette Communications and other investors, and the company is seeking additional funding. The company doesn’t want to create a News Mixer site, but rather is trying to "widgetize" interesting functionality that investors such as Gazette Communications can use on their existing sites. The Facebook Connect-powered "quips" are an example of a widget that could now be used by the Gazette or by other companies, Abreu said.

The quips widget will be made available on an open-source basis, as will other widgets based on the News Mixer code, Abreu said. He said e-Me will first make the widget code available for beta testing to his company’s partners and investors, then release it generally. He said the code would be released on an open-source basis shortly after the launch, scheduled for March, of a site using the quips widget.

Regardless of what e-Me Ventures does, Boyer says the News Mixer (Python) code is "relatively modular," so a good Web developer should be able to use it to incorporate the site’s functionality into a different site, even one based on something other than Python/Django.

Option 3: Take inspiration from News Mixer, write your own code

The News Mixer demonstration site applies four novel approaches — novel, at least, for news sites — to building engagement. They are:

  1. Facebook Connect. While there are many sites using Facebook Connect to authenticate users, few are doing more than that. But Facebook Connect can be much more than a "single sign-on" service that makes establishing a new site-specific login ID unnecessary. All Facebook Connect applications allow users to sign with a Facebook ID, and have the option of cross-posting content to Facebook. News Mixer does more. Every user gets a page where contributions from Facebook friends are aggregated, and it’s easy to invite your friends to participate on News Mixer. On the home page, contributions from your friends are highlighted.
  2. Quips. This is the most visible new "commenting structure" on News Mixer, and people really seem to think they’re cool. Allowing IM- or Twitter-like comments, and displaying them alongside the content (instead of at the bottom) is worth trying on other sites.
  3. Questions and answers. This feature allows people to ask questions about the content in any individual paragraph in an article — and then lets other users, including the journalist who wrote the article, respond to those questions. As with quips, the idea is to put some structure around the way users comment on the site, in hopes that this will lead to more substantive conversations. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea that this is a way of increasing the engagement between journalists and their readers — and spawning follow-up reporting that the journalist might not otherwise have thought of.
  4. The display of letters to the editor. The idea of letters to the editor is, of course, not novel at all. But their treatment on News Mixer is different than on other news sites. The key difference lies in the way News Mixer allows a site manager to designate letters as "editor’s picks." Once a letter is chosen as an editor’s pick, the site treats it equivalently to an article. So a site visitor will see a feed of articles intermingled with "editor’s pick" letters. It’s a way of rewarding letter writers who make particularly strong or cogent points.

Each of these ideas can be implemented separately, using technology platforms other than Python/Django. If your site relies on a different programming language or Web framework, you wouldn’t be able to reuse the News Mixer code, but that shouldn’t prevent you from using one or more of these ideas.