If you want to follow the news, the web has a lot to offer: a wide variety of information sources, powerful search tools, and no shortage of sites where people can voice their opinions.

At the same time, though, the web can be overwhelming. Hundreds of links turn up in a Google search. Relevant information can be scattered across dozens of sites. Online conversations often generate more heat than light. And if you have a question about a news topic, it’s hard to find the answer.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a website that made it easier to keep up with and understand the news?

Soon, there could be. Let me introduce you to Sourcerer, a website prototype developed this fall by a team of graduate journalism students, including five Knight "programmer-journalist" scholarship winners.

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Sourcerer is a "context management system" designed to help people learn more about a topic by asking questions, answering them, backing up those answers with links, and navigating through previous coverage via a timeline.

Sourcerer emerged out of Medill’s Community Media Innovation Project class, which studied the news and information needs of local audiences and the challenges facing online publishers who want to serve them.

Problems

Two of the key problems identified by the students:

  • People who don’t follow every twist and turn in an ongoing story — especially one that has deep historical context, such as the achievement gap between white and minority students in public schools — have difficulty understanding the context of that story. Others have noted this problem as well: Matt Thompson, now of NPR, has written and spoken eloquently about "how journalists might start winning at the context game."
  • At the same time, in every community, there are knowledgeable citizens who dominate discussion boards and comment threads — often mixing fact with opinion and intimidating those who want to learn more but are afraid of displaying their lack of understanding by asking questions. The Medill team wanted communities to benefit from the expertise of these knowledgeable citizens while creating an environment where discussion could be organized around facts, not just opinions.

Sourcerer seeks to serve people just trying to understand an issue as well as those who already have that understanding. It could be launched as part of an existing news site, or as a collaboration among multiple publishers covering a community or topic.

Key Features

While the site is not quite ready for a public rollout yet, let me walk you through Sourcerer’s key features:

1) Topics

The Medill team concluded that Sourcerer should be organized around topics, rather than stories. Their first challenge was figuring out how to present a complex topic in a way that is not intimidating to someone who hasn’t followed the story before. After testing several approaches with users, the students settled on short summaries of key elements, with bold-face highlights and links to external sites providing background.

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2) Questions

The second key element of Sourcerer is an interface for people to ask questions about the topic. Like many question-and-answer sites, Sourcerer allows users to "upvote" questions they think are particularly good. Questions with the most votes appear at the top, and a Sourcerer site covering multiple topics would highlight the most popular questions.

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3) Answers and clips

What differentiates Sourcerer from other Q&A sites is the fact that answers can be posted only if the answerer provides a link to source material backing up the answer. A key feature of the site is the News Clipper, which enables users to provide a link and also grab a key excerpt of the linked-to page for insertion into the answer on Sourcerer.

4) Voting and flagging

In addition to "upvoting" questions, Sourcerer users can also render their opinions about the answers. As with questions, users can register a "thumbs up" for answers they approve of. They can also flag answers as opinions rather than facts.

5) The timeline

One of the coolest features of Sourcerer is a timeline constructed out of the articles that are linked from the site. The timeline is built dynamically — as answerers provide links to source material, the linked-to articles are added to the timeline.

The timeline displays the articles as a series of vertical bars. The higher the bar, the more popular the linked-to article. The timeline also shades the articles based on whether users deem them factual or opinion-based.

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The timeline displays the articles in chronological order, left to right. Mousing over the timeline displays the article headline and summary. The beauty of this interface is that it provides an easy way to navigate chronologically through articles published about a particular topic — even articles published on multiple external sites.

You can get a sense of how Sourcerer works by checking out a screencast prepared by Shane Shifflett of the Sourcerer development team. The other developers were Steven Melendez, Geoffrey Hing and Andrew Paley.

We’re looking for sites — and users — interested in participating in a beta launch. If you’re interested, go to Sourcerer.US and sign up.

If you want to know a lot more about Sourcerer, the class’ final report provides much more detail about the site as well as the research that led to its development. The report includes a lot of good advice for hyperlocal publishers about audience research and revenue strategies. The class also produced a separate revenue "cookbook" for hyperlocal publishers.

You can see the students present Sourcerer and their other findings and recommendations here. For even more background and context, check out LocalFourth.com, the blog the students maintained during the class. The "Fourth" is a reference to the press — the Fourth Estate.