More ideas for “unsucking” commenting

A post on Xark! today discusses why newspaper website comments suck and what might be done to “unsuck” them. The synthesis of why they suck is that newspapers don’t allocate enough time or staff resources to participating in the conversation and, when they do, newspapers take the wrong approach to community management. In short, there is generally a lot of room for improvement.

Upgrading newsroom culture is one part of it, I believe, but the right tools have to be in place first so that participants in this new culture shift doesn’t run into barriers of frustration. I think strides can be made on both the frontend and backend of a news organization website. As a part of the user experience, comments shouldn’t require user registration but rather should be able to “sign in” with Facebook Connect or OpenID, or leave a comment with an email address to be verified once. If someone wants to add information to the discussion anonymously, I think that should be a submission form separate from the comment thread. The web is a global commons where news organizations should be facilitating intelligent conversations.

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Idea for News Mixer: Unique URLs for anything

From an email conversation earlier today, I think it would be sweet if News Mixer, a Knight-funded open source commenting project built on Django, had the ability to generate a unique, static URL for any bit of content in the content management system. I really like the things that News Mixer is doing to take commenting forward because, all too often with the “normal” types of threads, the diamonds are lost in the rough (especially when the comments number in the hundreds and thousands). News Mixer is experimenting with the radical changes necessary for comments to be useful again. Being able to generate a unique URL to a paragraph or sentence would allow the community to respond on their own blogs in direct response (and make trackbacks more granular).

On another note, I believe we interviewed Rich Gordon for tomorrow’s edition of This Week in CoPress. I was out in the field doing research, but am definitely looking forward to hearing about his future plans for the project.

Greg Linch on CoPress

Greg Linch was interviewed by David Cohn in the past week about CoPress which is way, way cool:


As the project has been a very, uh, organic process, I thought I might clarify on a few points Greg made.

First off, it is of my humble opinion that open source content management systems are philosophically better than proprietary. The key component to this argument is that you, as the developer or end user, are allowed to edit the source code with a platform such as Drupal, WordPress, or Django, whereas with a proprietary system like College Publisher you are limited to their ideas and their development cycle. News organizations not only need to be online, but they need to be able to innovate online. On top of that, in choosing an open source CMS we’re actually hoping student news organizations will take the initiative and start experimenting with how “news” or  “journalism” is delivered. We’re different at the core because of this.

This conversation is especially timely, too. I’m in the process of drafting documents to define what the specific vision of CoPress will be for the next couple of years. Really, we’re a lot more than hosting. CoPress Hosting is an attempt to get student news organizations to be on the same platform so that they can collaborate. The core of what CoPress stands for is the network of collaboration, and we’ll be experimenting with the best tools to make this possible. In the video, Greg mentions a conversation that arose organically in our Google Group. We want to create a platform, something I’m calling a social intelligence tool, that allows those types of conversations to happen more often and to create more value. The short goal is this: the tool will connect you with the person most likely to be able to answer your question (whether it’s troubleshooting a faulty plugin or install Apache). To my knowledge, this has never been done. We’re a pretty ambitious bunch, though, and I figure we’ll give it a shot.

Greg also discusses the long-haul for the team. Personally, I never expected the project to get this big (it was originally going to be a 20% project at the Daily Emerald), so we’ve largely been making this up as we go along. We’re currently in the process of establishing six month, more formal positions, and my hope is that, if we start generating some sort of revenue stream, the core team will all be part-time positions. This is a bit different than what Greg said, but my logic is that I don’t think any of us (no offense to the team) is really qualified to do what we want to do. Part of it will be a learning experience, which will be valuable on its own, and part of it will be work, which it would be nice to be reimbursed for. 

On the plus side, we’ll be using the full genius of Joey Baker to put together a business plan and identify methods for long-term financial sustainability.

Built from scratch

If you wanted to build a completely digital student news organization from scratch, how would you do it?

Which beats would you cover right off the bat? Would you cover club sports and campus sustainability, or the common news the student newspaper already covers?

What form would your content take? Would you focus on text, images, audio, or video? For video, would you put together technically high quality multimedia pieces, or stream via Qik? How can you balance quality and quantity?

How quickly would you try to scale? What benchmarks do you have for your organization at one month, three months, and six months? What would you do to advertise and get the community involved?

What would the business side look like? Where would your funding come from? Would you sell advertising and/or have premium features? How much would you pay your staff?

How would your platform compliment the stories you’re trying to tell? Would you start off simple with WordPress, or launch with something Django-based? What type of features would you want in your site to increase engagement with your product? Would you offer RSS, email newsletters, or content through social media?

Most importantly, what type of people do you look for to help you build your vision?

Introducing CoPress

One of the rather positive outcomes of my case against College Publisher from a few weeks back has been the formation of a diverse group of people around a new project to provide an alternative: CoPress. A product of the sudden realization that many online editors across the country have many of the same opinions I do, CoPress is an initiative to build a technical eco-system of student newspapers working together and supporting each other on a common, open source content management system. Until this point, it has been largely the case that, when building and maintaining digital platforms, student newspapers have found only success on their own, with their own developers, creativity, and fortitude.

We hope to change things up. 

Together we have strength. I think I can speak for everyone involved when I say that the collective vision of CoPress emphasizes the community, and how the community can work in harmony. Innovative, standards-compliant software is one immediate issue we’re trying to solve, but it isn’t the only one. Brian Murley, of the Center for Innovation in College Media, forwards that hosting is also an issue. From that discussion, we’ve also learned that supporting a piece of software with the technical expertise to keep it updated is critical. These problems will have to be addressed in order for any student newspaper to survive. It’s more powerful to work together than individually. We’re not profit driven, although the consortium will need to be financially sustainable. We’re driven by a genuine interest to work together because, when we do, we can create beautiful ways for student newspapers to flourish in the digital age. 

In the interest of radical collaborative openness, we’re doing as many things as transparently as possible. The motivation for this comes from a concept I call an “open source organization,” although I’m well aware “open source” has become a buzzword for many recent projects. It started with Whitman Direct Action, I’m evolving it with Oregon Direct Action, and I think is applicable here, too. The idea is simple: put all of the data about what you’re doing online, and structure the data such that your audience, let it be the team, the partners, or the community, can follow along to the degree they would like to participate. Clay Shirky says we have a lot of cognitive surplus floating around. It’s time we put it to use.

Our conference calls are recorded and available as a MP3 download, with near future plans to create a podcast that will make listening in even easier. We synthesize research and coordinate efforts on our wiki. Information is also expressed with Twitter, delicious, and Flickr. We connect via a Google Group and, if you don’t find a piece of information you need, you’re more than welcome to contact CoPress.

At the moment, we’re working on a few things. First, we’re beginning to research the software options we’re most interested in: WordPress, Drupal, and the Populous Project (built on Django). CoPress would love to support the Populous Project, another student project, and eagerly awaits their alpha release in the coming weeks. WordPress and Drupal, however, have deployability and hackability characteristics that will be hard to match. Second, we’re compiling the names of online editors, webmasters, and internet geeks at student newspapers around the country who might have interest in what CoPress will have to offer. From this, our hope is to do a series of surveys gauging the technical expertise in today’s newsroom. We want to make sure as best we can that we’re serving the needs of everyone, not just ourselves. Last but not least, we’re continually evolving our web presence as a tool to help better achieve our aims.

And this is just the beginning. Thanks to Adam Hemphill, Greg Linch, Kevin Koehler, Joey Baker, Bryan Murley, Jared Silfies, Albert Sun, the Populous Team, and anyone I’ve missed. I look forward to working closely with you and others in the coming months to make all of these ideas and more our collective reality.

The plot thickens

On my argument against College Publisher, and for an open source coalition of student newspapers, Brad Arendt of The Arbiter presents several good points about the advantages of using College Publisher.  Considering the time he took writing a well-detailed comment, I thought I would clarify on a several things I think he missed.

First, I think student newspapers should actively work on developing 1 or 2 alternatives to CP. This may not mean collaboratively building a CMS from scratch, rather it’s more likely to be facilitating a developer ecosystem specific to our needs around common platforms. For anyone familiar with WordPress, which I’ve helped implement for the Whitman Pioneer and most recently, Oregon Direct Action (which is a work in progress), it’s strength is an abundance of plugins and themes you can add to your install. A developer ecosystem is important for continued innovation and, as far as I can tell, CP doesn’t have one.

Cost is certainly an issue. Both CP and WordPress, Django, or Drupal are “free,” but the critical difference is that CP comes working out of the box for student newspapers and the others require a developer. One stated goal is to have an open source alternative that can be quickly up and running with full functionality. If the paper has resources to develop their platform beyond point, they would be able to do so with the support of other developers across the country. This platform would also be available to local papers, although that is not the intended market. Furthermore, I do see a business model in this, in a very Ubuntu and WordPress-esque fashion.

Quoting Brad,

There are some rather innovative and creative things which the CP4.0 system does offer. I would not say it limits creativity, rather it is the students you have on staff who know what to do with the tools that limits your creativity more than CP4.0. The Daily Pennsylvanian has done some very creative stuff in the LAMP environment, which is open source. The Daily Tar Heel has also figured out an interesting work around for blogs, granted done via WordPress but the 4.0 system and the students figured out how to “fit” it in.

Personally, I think arguing that College Publisher allows for innovation is completely erroneous. LAMP, which means Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP, is an open source stack and doesn’t stand for anything specific. I don’t mean to discount your example, I’m just not sure how you mean to imply CP is innovative by allowing hacking outside the platform. Furthermore, any server environment should allow working with and around the software running on it. Allowing WordPress to be installed as a blogging platform is not a sellable strength of College Publisher

Brian also mentions that CP does provide backups of your site for the scenario in which it disappears.  Unfortunately, these, I imagine, are only backups of your data, not the content management system your data is living in. If your site were to go down, you would have to install and develop an alternative CMS, as well as port your database, before you have a live site.  You shouldn’t have to completely rebuild your website if College Publisher disappears.  When the web presence becomes the only presence, having your site suddenly not exist would have very real consequences.