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Iowa's 'Gazette,' Medill Students Build Interactive Site

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Anyone who has dared to delve into the comments section of their favorite newspaper Web site has surely been struck more by the limitations — and then the level — of discourse. As Chuck Peters, CEO of Gazette Communications, pithily sums up his experience: "I call it The Sewer!"

A technophobe Peters is not. This is the man who bravely twittered an off-the-record American Press Institute meeting in November for several high-level newspaper executives, and he blogs regularly at http://cpetersia.wordpress.com.

But he and his team at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, were intrigued to work with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The graduate class headed by Associate Professor Rich Gordon was in the throes of completing a project that takes advantage of a three-year News Challenge grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The school got the money — $639,000 — in May 2007, which allows for nine scholarships related to computer programming.

"The premise was that the world of journalism needs more people who are bilingual in journalism and technology," Gordon explains. Translation: You can teach a programmer to report, but teaching a reporter to program is more problematic.

Gordon's fall project needed a hook, and he got to thinking about the greater mission of newspapers. Historically it has been a forum for conversation, like letters to the editor. But by 2008, the online conversation had turned into cacophony. "Every newspaper was allowing comments on their site, but they didn't think it was going so great," he says.

So he issued a challenge to his class to think about the online conversation around news. It was stamped the "Crunchberry Project."

The assignment's parameters were pretty wide. After the Gazette signed on to help with the project, fronting some of the cost, the students wanted to know the interests of the Iowa daily's readers. "In a general sense we wanted to do something that helps us connect with the community better," says Annette Schulte, the self- described "content ninja" at the Gazette who also helped the class.

She made it clear that they gave the class wide latitude. "It's not a lunch counter, we weren't putting in an order," she says, adding that finding the ability to better engage and connect with young adults would be a major plus.

The Gazette provided the Crunchberry team — Gordon, Assistant Professor Jeremy Gilbert, and scholarship winners Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark, as well as Angela Nitzke, Joshua Pollock, Stuart Tiffen and Kayla Webley — with a focus group of 20 young adults in the Cedar Rapids market.

The students surmised that it's best to go where the community goes. Young adults love Facebook, and Facebook Connect — an application that allows people to utilize their Facebook IDs elsewhere — seemed perfect.

The class ended up building a separate site incorporating the Gazette's content, which it named Newsmixer. Imagine it as a blend of Twitter, Facebook and a news Web site.

It works like this: A person logs onto the site (www.newsmixer.us) using their Facebook ID. A list of stories — including headlines and news teases — is displayed. On the right rail are "quips," Facebook user comments accompanied by profile pictures. Users can pose questions in a particular story: Each paragraph provides a little pop-up featuring queries along with answers. Readers also can write a letter to the editor providing a "thoughtful view in 250 words or less."

The site can also be personalized based on social network. Says Gordon, "If people in your social network have participated on the site (posting a quip, question or letter), there is a section of the home page that displays the most recent activity by your friend and a summary of other activities by your friends."

Newsmixer was set up as a prototype, and the hope is that the Gazette and other newspapers will incorporate the idea. The site is still more of a road map, and the Gazette is applying for a Knight grant to continue working on it. "We intend to integrate it as it exists and test it," says Schulte, adding that, ideally, they would use the site for different projects.

Anyone can use Newsmixer, says Gordon, stressing it's not just for the Gazette: "It's our hope — and it's a theory — it will create a more civil conversation. But we won't know until it's launched in a real community."