Medill's News Mixer remixes story comments

The Knight Foundation grant-backed graduate program at Medill’s School of Journalism has birthed what could be a game-changing effort for news story comments.

Their effort, called News Mixer, leverages traditional news content, Facebook’s Connect feature and offers three methods of user feedback:

  • Questions and answers: Allows a reader to leave a question about the story, and allows other readers, including the reporter, to leave an answer.
  • Quips: A short-answer, or Twitter-like format that allows you to offer a quick response, limited to 140 characters.
  • Letters to the editor: An outlet for readers to send their thoughts in 250 words or less, whether about an article, another letter someone wrote, or on any subject the author deems important. An editor can then select and highlight the best letters.

But what’s unique about News Mixer is how it uses these three types of functionality to channel user comments in a more meaningful way.

Why News Mixer is different

Traditional Web story comments are wrought with problems, especially when editors and content producers are hands-off in their management style.

This style of commenting usually consists of a form located at the end of a story or content and contains the following components:

  • Name (or username if registration is required)
  • Comment

Blogs will usually offer two other fields for e-mail address and personal Web site.

But because traditional story comments are detached from the story, they tend to veer on and off topic, and are rife with personal attacks and false information. Editors and reporters rarely take the time to manage the community due to the time required or fear of losing objectivity.

News Mixer seems to have solved these problems by limiting “comments” to a question/answer session on each paragraph of a given story. It works remarkable similar to the Django Book Web site, where a user hovers over a paragraph, and then clicks the icon that appears, triggering a modal window with a form. After the question has been posed, another user or reporter can answer the question.

If the comment is off-topic, the user can presumably use the letter to the editor function to contact the editor directly. Or they can post their thoughts in the Twitter-style “quip” form.

In any case, News Mixer has put together a great method of directing user participation on their site.

What Facebook Connect brings to News Mixer

Facebook Connect, for those that aren’t aware, is a service designed to make it easy for Facebook’s more than 130 million active users to combine their Facebook experience with any participating Website, desktop application or mobile device.

After site managers develop the Facebook Connect hooks into their code, users can log in to comment or otherwise using their Facebook account rather than creating a new account for the given site.

Also important to the site manager is that the identity of the user is more often than not real because of the closed nature of Facebok. All of Facebook’s privacy controls remain in the hands of users to allow or not allow folks to view their information.

Users can share content and actions on a third party site with friends back on Facebook, which helps spread engagement with the site on which they’re involved.

Facebook’s press release on Connect claims that early results for several of beta sites show that two out of three new registrations are generated through Connect, and these users have about 50 percent more engagement when compared to non-Facebook Connect users of a Website.

Google and a slew of others have developed a similar technology called Friend Connect.

Future development for News Mixer

While the team behind News Mixer has yet to report their lessons learned, I hope they will continue to flesh out certain features.

I’m curious about the following:

  • How does their new commenting system combat spam?
  • How are comments moderated on the back end?

Although News Mixer don’t change the traditional story format — stories are still stories that don’t work as well online as they do in print — I think their radical take on user participation is a great step forward for news sites.

And because News Mixer is built in Django, I plan on using their open-sourced code for my own project very soon, in fact. 🙂

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