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The Washington Post, New York Times and Mozilla OpenNews project are collaborating to build new systems of engagement between news organisation websites and their readers, they announced yesterday.

Backed by a $3.9 million (£2.3 million) grant from the Knight Foundation, the aim is to develop 'building blocks' by which news organisations and other developers will be able to foster greater engagement and personalisation among their readers.

"We want to create a contribution management system, a CMS for readers," said Greg Barber, director of digital news projects at the Post.

"It's broader than just comments, we want to create a system that allows readers to get in on the action with the reporters, not just respond to the conversation but maybe start a new conversation and maybe take the conversation in a different direction."

But, as Barber noted, being able to identify more positive comments and contributors among the potential torrent of opinions below the line is just a potential use for the system.

Dan Sinker, the director of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews program who is leading the project at Mozilla, sees the end result as "a series of building blocks that are made around community engagement".
"At the core are methods and ways to engage with users and with the community of users that emerge around topics and sites," Sinker told

As an example, he highlighted the recent series of 'spot the ball' interactives from the New York Times, which readers can share on social media and compare scores.

nyt spot ball
Screenshot from the New York Times's spot the ball interactive

"That's not what you would traditionally consider to be a comment system," Sinker said, "but it's absolutely a community engagement system."

I think that if you look at the web now versus the web of even just a few years ago it is made of peopleDan Sinker, Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project
While such an interactive is becoming increasingly common for news organisations that have the resources and talent to produce them, newsrooms have no way of connecting the dots between which readers visit which pages, and share or engage with particular pieces of content.

This is the blind spot he hopes the project will illuminate.

"What that means is that they can't actually get a good and accurate picture of who their most engaged people are," Sinker continued, "and a system that has the user at the core of it all allows for a publisher to really say 'we're building all kinds of cool things, there's persistent identity across those things and as a result we can really start to say, wow, how can we build even more with the community of folks that are really engaged with what we do?'

"I think that if you look at the web now versus the web of even just a few years ago it is made of people," he said. "That is everything."

Other news organisations have been looking at ways to personalise their online output for some time.

Aside from the relationship that digital subscriptions can bring between a reader and their chosen publications, an area the Times are already looking to develop, AOL publications like the Huffington Post and Tech Crunch have been looking into so-called 'passive personalisation' since acquiring data firm Gravity in January.

Although announced yesterday, The Times and Post began discussing the idea of collaborating on such a project last November, before Mozilla joined the conversation at the start of the year.

If we do this right, we're creating an identity layer for the webDan Sinker, Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project
Barber describes keeping such an ambitious project under the collective hats of two of the largest newsrooms in the world as "'miracle count: one".

"We've had a research phase that's been going on for the last few months," he said.

"Talking to publishers, readers, high-level editors and folks that work with user engagement all the time. The plan is to move forward and continue to talk to as many folks as we can to build a system that is flexible and, of course, open source."

The key to the open source nature of the project is the idea of "building blocks", said Sinker, that could be used "by organisations that don't have a dev team".

"This is a few different organisations coming together and saying 'hey, instead of building things that are similar and just work on our own system, let's collaborate and build things that are able to be used by anyone that is going to try to work in this kind of space'."

The team, to be made up of between two and five developers from each organisation, has a two year window to work on the project but both Barber and Sinker said the plan was to be able to release parts of the project as and when they are ready, and let global community toy with the results as they see fit.

"One of the really stretch goals on this is that the identity system isn't just an identity system for a single site or system," said Sinker.

"If we do this right we're creating an identity layer for the web."

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