Built by CrowdyNews, a Dutch technology company, the 'social-wire' pulls in hand-picked reports from Twitter, RSS feeds and YouTube accounts and displays them on the front of the site.
"What it gives us is a curated, real-time social media news feed to supplement what we are doing," Matt DeRienzo, group editor for Connecticut at 21st Century Media, which is managed by Digital First Media, told Journalism.co.uk.
The New Haven Register, one of the papers under DeRienzo's regional stewardship, was the first outlet to start using the feature from last August. During that time the paper has covered a hurricane, a "100-year blizzard", the Boston marathon shootings and the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, said DeRienzo.
"It was there on our site to curate what other news organisations, and even readers and public officials, were doing: providing information during those events in super real-time," he said. "It was particularly important in the hurricane and the blizzard to show what public officials using Facebook and Twitter and the like wanted to communicate about road closures, evacuations and so forth."
Digital First Media's interactive editor, Mandy Jenkins, has been fully involved with rolling out the feature since she started at the company last February. Drawing on an idea she had worked on but never had a chance to finish in her previous job with Jim Brady, now Digital First's editor-in-chief, the pair contacted CrowdyNews to help turn the network of online sources at each of Digital First's 75 dailies into something tangible they could use on the site.
"They have a bunch of social media contacts in their communities," explained Jenkins. "People they've been watching, that they are then able to share with readers about what's happening in the social sphere in their local area.
"So we've got a collection of Twitter accounts that are active, RSS feeders from local news sites, local blogs, our own websites and blogs, anything that they think would fit into 'showing you what's happening locally'."Now we're not just on the web, we're of the web, we're part of a news ecosystem that is open and connected to each other and collaborativeMatt DeRienzo, group editor for Connecticut, 21st Century Media
Alongside this, said Jenkins, the visual media section of the feature is expanding to include Vimeo, Flickr and an Instagram integration that they are still "working on".
"What we've seen from readers and what we've heard as an industry is there's so much out here, there's so much noise on social media and blogs and there's so much news happening all the time and I'd really like for someone to help me figure out how I can manage this to know what's happening without having to be overwhelmed," said Jenkins.
"And I think a tool like this that's been curated, but not to the extreme, where we say you're not just reading our stuff but here's your local social media web who we've said are reliable sources, people we trust and people who you can go to to know what's happening, this is where you can get it."
The feature, or "widget" as it is more often described, is located in the side bar of every page as a rolling ticker of reports from the various sources, categorised into sections. News and sport are ubiquitous, as are entertainment and lifestyle, while relevant sections are added depending on breaking news stories or local interests.
Should readers want to delve deeper they can enter the full page format, where tweets, RSS feeds and media are displayed in three scrollable bars, allowing users to get a fuller, more immediate picture of the reports sourced from around their local area.
Being a more outward-facing organisation that plays a bigger role in connecting the community around a newspaper is part of a "big philosophical shift" that Digital First is going through, according to DeRienzo. Previously they had come from "a point of arrogance and monopoly" in which Digital First papers "wouldn't even credit a news organisation" if they'd broken a story first, he said, but now that is changing.Even if we had a newsroom two times, five times, ten times bigger, we still wouldn't be able to cover everything going onDan Petty, social media editor, Denver Post
"Now we're not just on the web, we're of the web," said DeRienzo. "We're part of a news ecosystem that is open and connected to each other and collaborative, in a way, and working on behalf of our readers to point them in the right direction for the type of information that they need to be informed."
The role that the newspaper, and CrowdyNews's social wire widget, played in informing readers during the incidents of extreme weather over the last year was "one of the biggest justifications for our philosophy", he said, in playing the role of a news service in its purest and most important form.
"It puts the reader first. That's life and death right there. It's not the time to say 'it didn't come from us, we're not going to tell you about it' or 'we're going to wait half an hour so we can filter it through our team'."
Being able to display relevant news from where it breaks in real-time, even if this directs readers away from the news outlet, is still central to the organisation's wider role as a provider of information in the area, said Dan Petty, social media editor at the Denver Post, another of Digital First's newspapers.
"I think the Huffington Post and others have shown the power of this," he said, "in that if you make yourself the central repository of news on everything that is going on in Colorado, and being humble enough to send people away then that means more people will be coming back.
"And even if we had a newsroom two times, five times, ten times bigger, we still wouldn't be able to cover everything going on and it's important to recognise that."
The organic nature of the widget and its content, which Petty describes as something they "tend to like a garden", still means that it needs a lot of attention on top all the other responsibilities in the newsroom.
But this process is constantly discussed between the newsrooms, Digital First leadership and the CrowdyNews team "because you're testing a new product that hasn't been done before so you're not going to get it right first time" he said.
Edwin Kuipers, chief executive and co-founder of CrowdyNews, is aware of a need to take the platform further and build on the progress and response that it has already achieved.
"We really see things moving forward with a complete package, a combination of a widget, a full page tablet and mobile. And really moving forward to 'inline' stories, so when you're reading a story, you get passed the social media in there already and that's what we're talking about with Digital First at this stage," he said.
"Trying to really fold an article and social media content, fold them into each other. That's something we really see in this, combining web content and social."
For the two companies, this process of making the "websites less cluttered", according to Petty, is an ongoing conversation that will see the CrowdyNews widget play a more central role on the site. But the combination of content and social, and a degree of automated customisation, is where DeRienzo sees the technology heading.
"What I'd like to be able to see is our website be able to, through readers setting preferences and interests – or us knowing based on what they read and their habits, even by time of day – show what they want and be able to customise based on their IP address or whatever," he said.
"So if I go to the homepage of the New Haven Register, my social media wire is going to have the latest sports news or the road closure on my commute, without me having to fill out a 20 page survey. But if you follow me around on the web a bit then you'll know that."
Such a level of monitoring may seem intrusive to some, but that is the trade-off for immediate access to personally relevant information.
"It's funny how readers expectations change," said DeRienzo. "They get used to it and now if they hear a siren they expect to be able to go on our site and know what's going on."
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