Developed for and with sponsorship from Iowa's Cedar Rapids Gazette, the ideas behind the system, which is entirely open source, have been blogged by the students and tested by a panel of users as part of the design process.
Brian Boyer, one of the journalist-programmers enrolled as a Knight Foundation scholar at Medill and part of the team behind the project, told Journalism.co.uk that News Mixer should be used and adapted by other news organisations, who want to think outside of the comment box.
What is News Mixer?
News Mixer is an effort to improve the quality of comments on news websites.
To that end, we worked with the folks at the Gazette, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to create a product that addresses issues that discourage comments and participation on news sites among users in a target demographic - 20-30-year-olds in Eastern Iowa.
In the end, we devised three somewhat novel commenting systems [letters to the editor, open questions and answers and 140-character quips], that we hope are more valuable than the usual box at the end of an article.
We integrated with Facebook Connect to make logging in simple and take advantage of the benefits of using one's own real identity when commenting.
Did you spot a gap in how news websites were handling user interaction?
We definitely saw barriers to entry related to identity: either folks didn't believe comments they read because they were anonymous, or they didn't want to comment because they had to register. Neither way works.
Using Connect - which, I should add, we selected because of its usefulness, current availability, and cache with the 20-30 year-old set, not because we like Facebook all that much - gave us the ability to kill the registration process and give posts real identity: names, pictures, and links back to their profile.
Has the launch of Facebook Connect made News Mixer possible?
Facebook Connect is just the hot demo. As other portable identity providers launch, I'd prefer to use another or all of them. We didn't use OpenID or another federated authentication system because it only solves one problem, single sign on, and the majority of folks in CR would be signing up for the first time, re-creating that barrier to entry.
In your opinion, why do news sites need to allow greater user participation?
Journalism is about democracy. We're trying to create a better-informed populace by delivering the news.
Giving people the opportunity to ask questions and otherwise react to the news enriches that experience.
There are certainly other reasons a news organization might want people wandering around their websites longer, but those were not of our concern.
What are the benefits of starting News Mixer focusing on the Eastern Iowa area?
Ryan Mark's and my own scholarship for Medill mandated us to create something rooted in a place. That said, it's important in the process of building any product to focus on a specific audience, geographic [or otherwise].
We developed three personas based on demographic information and the interviews we conducted, and assessed every detail we designed with those personas in mind.
How are you hoping to develop the site?
The Gazette will be launching a site based on News Mixer early next year. We released all the source under the GPL (General Public Licence), we're hoping that our work will sneak into other sites without our direct involvement.
We're all quite happy with how the project turned out and we're really hoping that others will take what we've built and run with it.
We got a lot of the hard work out of the way and the code is out there for anyone to play with. It would take a Django developer 10 minutes to set up her very own News Mixer on any topic. I don't know if we've made that clear enough - it's free. Use it.