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A collaborative enterprise to develop reader interactions on news sites through free and open-source tools is making new hires, with the aim of having new products available to test by the end of the year.

The Coral Project is led by staff from The New York Times, the Washington Post, and Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, and received a $3.89 million (£2.54 million) Knight Foundation grant last summer.

"We want to make it easier for publishers to connect with their audiences, and for audiences to connect with each other," explained Greg Barber, director of digital news at the Washington Post.

Speaking to at this week's World News Media Congress, Barber said he believed there is "still a lot of currency in the notion of a 'public square,' and of a place where people who are interested in the news can freely discuss it in a place that's safe and simple".

However, what The Coral Project hopes to achieve is a more sophisticated model than the current 'below the line' comment systems with which many publishers are still attempting to engage audiences.

"We want to give publishers the tools they need to host the kind of interactive spaces they want to have, that's right for them," added Barber.

Since last spoke to Barber not long after the Knight funding was awarded, much has changed.

Coral has made its first full-time hire in the shape of project lead Andrew Losowsky, adjunct professor in Journalism and Design at The New School.

He joins Barber, Dan Sinker of Knight-Mozilla OpenNews and Marc Lavallee, editor of interactive news at the Times.

Those discussions can have a direct practical application in what we buildGreg Barber, Washington Post
And Coral is in the process of hiring a lead engineer to oversee development, and a community lead who will be focused on connecting with publishers, contributors, developers and designers.

"The most exciting thing to me is, those discussions can have a direct practical application in what we build," said Barber.

He believes methods of encouraging online communities around news have "stagnated" with the structure of traditional comments, which are typically not very good or insightful.

Reuters announced it was no longer allowing comments on stories at the end of last year, while the Las Vegas Journal-Review also banned comments earlier this year, albeit temporarily.

And although there are exceptions – Barber noted that comments on The New York Times, are "consistently high quality" – achieving this is costly both in terms of money and staff resources.

The Coral Project does not yet have a clear idea of what tools it will build, as that process will start to happen once a lead engineer has been recruited. But there are a few elements central to the core idea of the collaboration.

One is that the tools will be flexible, allowing publishers to customise them and build on the open-source software to suit their own needs.

"We don't want to have a monolithic system where you have to use the whole thing, or otherwise you can't use it," explained Barber.

It is vitally important for journalism that publishers establish direct connections with readersGreg Barber, Washington Post
There is also unlikely to be a day when Coral is released as a singular, all-encompassing project.

Instead, there will be a series of apps available to test, which may also be focused around different themes such as user reputation or analytics – for both publishers and contributors.

The project will also aim to create new best practices, to help publishers think about how they want to connect with readers and organise their interactive spaces.

"I think it is vitally important for journalism that publishers establish, maintain, foster direct connections with readers," said Barber.

"It's one of the things that differentiates us from aggregators and algorithms and social media taken as a whole, because we're people."

Not only does this connection offer audiences an opportunity to play a larger part in the news-making process by providing additional context to stories or influencing what stories are covered, for example, it also enable publishers to better listen to their readers and provide them with more relevant experiences.

As far as the future is concerned, Barber said the plan is to hire now, start coding over the summer and hopefully be testing "on some level" come autumn.

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