Last year, Nate Matias, spend the summer at our lab developing and experimenting with NewsPad, a collaborative editor for neighborhood news articles. Today, together with our work-in-progress paper (to be presented at CHI 2014), we are releasing the source code of the project on GitHub under the Apache license.
NewsPad is a web app that helps communities of people collaborate on news articles, even when they don’t see themselves as writers. It helps people choose a headline, structure their article, and ask others to add material. The software, which supports real-time collaborative editing and content curation, incorporates the best ideas from Wikipedia, Storify, and online text editors. Here’s how it works:
Articles Written with NewsPad
- Use NewsPad to take notes on Ignite style talks: 13 Latest Projects at the MIT Center for Civic Media
- Collect community media from a public festival: 11 Craymazing Moments at the Seattle Zombie Walk
- Ask speakers to add notes to your post about their talks: Society, Politics, and the Algorithm: Social Science in the Lab
- Summarize the main points from a community meeting: 6 Things You Missed if You Didn’t Attend the ICWSM Town Hall
As research software, we built NewsPad to find the easiest way for community members to create stories together. It combines four powerful design ideas:
- sharing effort with real-time collaborative editing. In a local story, information and media can come from multiple people. Local bloggers, where they exist, don’t have time to write a story for everything the community wants to know. NewsPad allows anyone to create and edit articles in real-time.
- structured stories establish purpose. Since contributors may not be experienced writers, NewsPad provides helpful structure for stories. A headline generator helps creators focus on the main point. NewsPad articles are listicles, a simple sequence of media and information that is easy to expand.
- improving stories with social recruitment: in a community news story, people in your network probably have important details and questions to share. In NewsPad, readers can share specific requests for improvement: add a photo, explain an issue, caption a gif. These requests can be sent to individuals or broadcast to an entire network.
- reaching communities with real-time syndication: instead of fragmenting local media with yet another website, NewsPad embeds into existing content systems. Since any reader can make requests and edit the article, real-time syndication becomes a powerful way to build the story while also sharing information to multiple audiences.
What Makes NewsPad Special
Most content systems are designed for individual authors with large audiences. Even WikiNews tends only to cover mainstream stories. We spent the summer interviewing local bloggers in Seattle; we found that in the few communities that have a hyperlocal blogger, those people tend to be overwhelmed with more stories than they can possibly cover. NewsPad is designed for the long tail of interest of participation, a system that works well with stories that are too small for newspapers, where it might take a casual volunteer effort to create any news at all.
Our focus on small scale enables us to build much higher tech designs than commonly appear in content management software. Real-time collaboration is costly to maintain with large numbers of users, but it’s easily handled at small numbers of participation — where the reduced barriers to contribution are even more critical.
NewsPad also incorporates lessons from the network structure of local communities. During the summer, as we built NewsPad, we were also learning from research by Shelly Farnham and Emma Spiro to map out local Twitter networks, in combination to deep qualitative research on the health and information resources of Seattle’s communities. By comparing Seattle neighborhoods’ Twitter networks to blogging networks, we were able to identify patterns of interaction and information access across dozens of Seattle neighborhoods.
Intra-neighborhood Interactions (@mentions) used by Whooly, showing different network dynamics for each neighborhood.
Looking at these networks, we noticed that neighborhoods with bloggers tended to have tight clusters of interaction around people in the community who were producing content. Even if conversation was mostly happening among bloggers, business, government, and law enforcement, the Twitter network reflected shared awareness that could then be passed on to a blog’s audience. NewsPad, with its system of social requests, capitalizes on these existing networks. Even if your neighborhood blogger or the corner shop doesn’t have an answer, they can retweet it to others in the community who might. Those people can then cooperate to finish a story without taking up the blogger’s limited time.
Try Out NewsPad
NewsPad is open source research software. It’s working well enough for us to test the theories we have developed about collaboration and networks in local news creation. For communities to rely on it every day will require more work to create a robust system. If you’re interested, here are two things you can do:
Are you a local blogger, or do you want to test NewsPad in your community? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to register interest. We’re about to start a new round of tests.
Are you a software developer or news organization who wants to take NewsPad further? Email us; we are excited to take this project forward!