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Nov. 16, 2010, 10 a.m.

NewsWorks: Back-to-the-future community news

Yesterday brought the launch of a news site with a promising tagline: “For you. With you. By you.”

The evocative motto belongs to NewsWorks, a web portal overseen by WHYY, the public radio station serving metro Philadelphia. Though it’s been built under corporate-parent oversight, the site sees itself primarily as a network, Chris Satullo, WHYY’s executive director for news and civic dialogue, told me. In addition to reporting that comes courtesy of WHYY staff, NewsWorks will both rely on content provided by its community and aim to amplify it. And, in that, it will make a point of featuring the kind of news that often gets lost in the rush of gossip-based, conflictastic stories, providing “balanced journalism that is as interested in solutions and heroes as problems and scandals.”

In other words, Satullo says, the site will be “everything you love about NPR, only on the web.”

It will also be, from the looks of things, everything you love about the web: NewsWorks is something of a proof-of-concept when it comes to the new compact the Internet allows between journalism and its users. The site will emphasize, in addition to information about politics, health, culture, and the like, neighborhood news (with an early focus on northwest Philadelphia, but with plans to expand). User-produced stuff will factor heavily into the site’s content. And conversation will be key. Indeed, NewsWorks’ vision for itself is the product of several little revolutions going on at once — and another step toward the normalization of the pro-am model of journalistic output.

Pretty much every feature of the new site aims at user engagement; for NewsWorks, all roads come from, and lead to, community. In addition to its planned reliance on user-provided content, the site is also experimenting with ways to encourage engagement — and good behavior — in online discussions. Its Sixth Square space (“William Penn designed our city with five public squares. You can build the sixth”) provides a moderated area for community discussion, bringing together six different features — and, really, concepts — into one piece of conversational real estate. Junto (so named for Ben Franklin’s storied discussion club) is a discussion area that emphasizes “civil, knowledgeable posts”; Props (“good words for good people”) invites compliments for community members; MindMap offers a self-generated profile of a user’s tastes and preferences; influences and tastes; Snarl (coming soon) will be a blog dedicated entirely to the vagaries — and frustrations — of traffic; Sleuth provides a space for people to ask questions about, and solve, “local mysteries”; and Sixes, taking a cue from Newsweek, asks users to summarize news events — in six words or less.

Though the features range on the scale from silly to serious, the common thread is their earnestness — and their commitment to community. The site offers an ideal vision of the public square as a place not only of community, but of harmony. And that’s evident in NewsWorks’ commenting system, as well. Its experimental approach to enforcing civility involves rating individual comments according to a karma system, which will ask users to rate each others’ comments according to their relevance, propriety, etc. (Karma systems have, of course, been around in various forms for years.) And from the consumer side of things, users can also customize their site settings to display, for example, only those comments with higher user ratings, bypassing the low — and thus, ostensibly, the low-quality.

Though NewsWorks, with its focus on engagement and empowerment of users, is experimenting with of-the-moment ideas about journalism, there’s also a distinctly back-to-the-future feel to all of this — a sense of return to the early days of the newspaper, and of journalism in general, as a vehicle for community discussion as much as anything else. Days in which journalism was the people who consumed it. As Satullo put it in the site’s welcome note yesterday:

We won’t be able to do any of this without you. Newsrooms aren’t the teeming masses of eager reporters they were back when I first walked into The Inquirer in 1989, as the 560th employee on the newsroom rolls.

Nor are today’s readers willing to settle for having formulaic news shoved at them, by reporters who have no time to answer questions because they’re already racing to the next bit of fluff or sensation. Rightfully, you want journalism to be a process of continuous engagement between you and those who claim to bring you the news you need.

That’s how journalism will get saved in these troubled times, by a new depth of connection between the reporter and the public.

POSTED     Nov. 16, 2010, 10 a.m.
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