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Tools to Engage Young Adults in News Make Use of Facebook

December 18, 2008 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- What has computer programming got to do with journalism? Everything, according to Northwestern University journalism professor Rich Gordon, who two years ago was among the first winners of the Knight Foundation News Challenge grants. The grant allowed the Medill School of Journalism to offer full scholarships to computer programmers interested in pursuing a master's degree in journalism.

Last week, a student team -- made up of the first two "programmer-journalist" scholarship winners and four other Medill graduate students -- launched a demonstration news interaction site that they developed in collaboration with Iowa's Cedar Rapids Gazette. Called News Mixer and available at http://www.newsmixer.us, the site provides three ways for users to discuss local news with other readers and their Facebook friends.

By making use of Facebook Connect, a newly released feature of Facebook, News Mixer allows its users to log in with their Facebook ID. Facebook Connect also allows News Mixer to become personalized automatically by highlighting comments from each user's social network.

Impressed by the efforts of the student journalists, Gazette Communications -- parent company of the Cedar Rapids Gazette -- has applied for a Knight News Challenge grant to continue the work begun by the Medill students. According to Annette Schulte, who holds the position of "content ninja" at Gazette, the commenting structures developed by the students "hold great promise for audience building."

And the Gazette is not alone in its admiration for the students' work. Last week, Patrick Beeson, content manager specializing in media strategy and Web development for E. W. Scripps Interactive Newspaper Group, wrote on his blog that "the Knight Foundation grant-backed graduate program at Medill has birthed what could be game-changing efforts for news comments."

New York Times interactive news technologies editor Aron Pilhofer encouraged media industry members to look at News Mixer, adding that there were "bits and pieces of it I'd like to steal right now."

News Mixer was created in Medill's New Media Publishing Project class, which gives students the opportunity to create innovations relevant to the future of media and journalism. This was the first time the class has developed a software-powered Web site -- a possibility thanks to the enrollment of Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark, the first two Knight "programmer-journalist" scholarship winners.

Gordon, director of digital education at Medill, challenged the class to find a better way of encouraging news-based conversations than the open-ended comment boxes typically found at the end of articles on online news sites.

"Nobody has been particularly happy with the remarks appearing in comment boxes or thinks they further public discourse," Gordon says. "By creating a site with richer opportunities for interactive comment, we hope to improve the quality of online discussion that takes place around local news content.

The Medill team also hopes the Facebook connection will increase young adults' engagement with local news. They decided to focus on the 20- to 34-year-old demographic because it is an audience that local media companies are desperate to connect with and the group most technologically savvy and most familiar with online social networking.

The Medill students worked on what they fondly called the Crunchberry Project for 11 weeks in their New Media Publishing Project class, directed by Gordon and Jeremy Gilbert, Medill assistant professor. Last week, at Gazette's Iowa headquarters, the team presented News Mixer's three tools for promoting structured, interactive engagement around news.

The interaction tools developed by the student team consist of "quips," a short-answer format that lets users briefly respond to what they've read; Q&A, a commenting structure that allows readers to leave questions about an article and lets the reporter or other readers post an answer; and a letters to the editor feature that lets readers offer their thoughtful point of view in 250 words or less. An editor can select and highlight the best letters, which appear intermingled with news articles on the site.

Gordon views the class project's integration of philanthropic investment, academic research, student-led innovation and industry partnership as a model that can spur media research and development.

Medill is still seeking programmer-developers to apply for the Knight News Challenge scholarship program. The program provides a fully funded master's degree at Medill and an opportunity to participate in a future innovation class similar to the one that spawned News Mixer.

In addition to programmer-journalists Boyer and Mark, the Crunchberry team consisted of master's degree students Angela Nitzke, Joshua Pollock, Stuart Tiffen and Kayla Webley. Gordon and Gilbert directed the class. The project and team's name, Crunchberry, was borrowed from a cereal produced by the Quaker Oats plant in downtown Cedar Rapids.

For more information about the Crunchberry Project, visit http://crunchberry.org/ and the PBS Ideablog at http://www.pbs.org/idealab/author/rich_gordon/. For information about the Knight programmer-scholarships, visit http://www.medill.northwestern.edu/admissions/page.aspx?id=58645
Topics: Research, People, University News