Content Ninja's Weblog

An exploratory journey on the edge of newspaper evolution

Crunchberry Project rolls forward November 18, 2008

Filed under: innovation — contentninja @ 1:35 pm
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Word came Friday that the Crunchberry Project application for a Knight Foundation News Challenge grant is moving forward to the next step in the application process.

This doesn’t mean that we get a grant. It means I get to fill out a longer application. :) Due date is Nov. 30. Winners won’t be announced, however, until summer 2009. When you consider that more than 2,300 applications were made for $5 million in grants, we’re incredibly lucky to still be in the race.

Crunchberry is, of course, the name given to the project by professor Rich Gordon‘s master’s students at Medill, the J-school at Northwestern University. We partnered with them this semester for Gordon’s innovation class.

The students are Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark, recipients of Knight scholarships for programmer-journalists; Kayla Webley; Angela Nitzke; Joshua Pollock; and Stuart Tiffen. Pay attention to those names; they’re gonna go places.

What’s the project (besides cleverly named after one of Cedar Rapids’ signature scents)? The students have been exploring how news Web sites can improve upon community conversation around content. By the final presentation in early December, they will have prototyped three new styles of commenting, all using  Facebook integration via the developers’ beta Facebook Connect. Those comment structures are, in highly simplified terms, Q&A, short-form and letters to the editor.

One semester isn’t much time, actually, and while the project is off to a kick-butt start, it won’t be finished. That’s why we asked for a grant — to help fund the next phase of development. Things like bug fixing and integration with our clunky, er, fantabulous legacy systems. Even without the grant, though, we’ll test the features in some way on our content and collect user feedback.

I’ll be learning a handful about grant-writing in this application process, and our friends at Northwestern — Gordon and Medill Associate Dean Mary Nesbitt — will be helping. (To prevent me from messing it up too badly, thankfully.)

It’s important to note at this point that we (read: Gazette Communications Inc.) do not “own” this project. We sponsored the class and we’re applying for the grant, but the project is the result of the students’ hard work. We gave input that helped them determine a direction and focus for the project, but the ideas are theirs.  And the project is built on the promise that the end result is open source, meaning anybody can have the code.

I think the results of the Crunchberry Project will be impressive, and I admire the students’ entrepreneurial efforts. The speed at which they are delivering is enviable. (If only companies could be this nimble, eh?)

So keep your fingers crossed for the Crunchberry Project and the grant app.

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Facebook is the new Peyton Place September 8, 2008

Filed under: social media — contentninja @ 5:01 pm
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I hated growing up in small-town northwest Iowa. I could not wait to get out of that redneck, go-nowhere town and into the big, wide world where no one knew your business or even cared. I got out, but ironically, I’m now living in an even smaller town.

Clive Thompson, writing for NYT Magazine online Friday on the proliferation of “ambient awareness” and weak ties to many people, makes an interesting point. He’s talking predominantly about Facebook and Twitter and how they arrange the minutiae of our lives into revealing portraits of ourselves.

He notes: “This is the ultimate effect of the new awareness: It brings back the dynamics of small-town life, where everybody knows your business.”

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Lunch ladies (and lads) May 6, 2008

Filed under: innovation,journalism,social media — contentninja @ 4:48 pm
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I had lunch today with John and Sandra Hudson, a lovely retired couple from Iowa City who know exactly who they are, what they want for information and what they want from news sources. They also know a lot about the sociology of groups and creativity and structure building. It was a fascinating lunch.

We talked a bit about Facebook, and Sandra expressed the very real concern that it (and by extension, other social media) gets in the way of self-actualization.

With thanks to Jay Rosen, who blogs at Media Shift Lab about it, author Clay Shirky makes some rather interesting points along these lines. In a Web 2.0 Expo speech (see it here), Shirky talks about what he calls the “cognitive surplus.”

Shirky, author of “Here Comes Everybody,” argues that we can find the time for social media and wiki projects by taking it from the millions of hours spent watching TV, which he cleverly calls a “cognitive heat sink.”

He goes on to say that 20th-century media was conducted as a race (we produce, you consume), but today’s media is a triathlon — consuming, producing and sharing. Media must provide all three experiences for consumers or lose them. Because,  he argues, as any 4-year-old can tell you: “Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for.”

(Emphasis is mine.)

Now, I suspect Sandra and John don’t watch a lot of mindless sitcoms, so Shirky’s argument may not ease Sandra’s mind. And Sandra’s point about the obstacles to self-actualization are valid. This turning point in history, which Shirky argues is on par with the Industrial Revolution, will undoubtedly provide fertile soil for years for academic research and musings on the ramifications.

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Can ninja come out to play? May 5, 2008

Filed under: social media — contentninja @ 10:41 pm
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So now I’m on MySpace.

Actually, I registered at MySpace in mid-April to get our teenaged baby sitter off my case. She was adamant that being on Facebook was not enough. I did nothing with my MySpace profile, however, and I discovered today that it was deleted.

So I registered again. And invited a couple of friends so the page would appear active. (Ha. You signed up yet, Chuck?)

I can hear the snickers. Go ahead, scoff all you want; deride MySpace as the social media playground for kids. The kids may have the last laugh, though.

Jason Falls, blogging at Social Media Today, takes his tech peers to taskfor being social media snobs who, in his opinion, have erred by writing off MySpace as pedestrian or child’s play.

He cites figures that MySpace gets 66 million monthly visitors to Facebook’s 28 million monthly visitors.

“And those 66 million monthly visitors aren’t high school girls, either,” he writes, citing Quantcast stats that 62 percent of MySpace users are older than 24, they have a higher minority concentration than the Internet average and 49 percent of users live in households earning $60,000-plus.

He sums it up nicely: “Ignore MySpace because of its gaudiness and free expression and, ‘That is soooo 2006,’ if you like, but ignore it at your own peril. That’s where the majority of the world is and will be for the foreseeable future.”

I’ve been hammering my fellow journalists for being elitist snobs dreadfully out of touch with our audiences. Seems the gearheads have the same problem on occasion. Well, I want to get it right in both arenas.

So I’m on MySpace, because the kids are alright. And you. Won’t you come out and play?




Face the music March 26, 2008

I’m not just blogging as part of this experiment. I’m venturing into the social media wilderness in other ways, too.

Yesterday I joined Facebook. (Dun-dun-da!) You know what? It’s fun.

I quickly found a former co-worker from my college paper, The Daily Iowan, and we engaged in a game of comedic one-up-manship. I’d forgotten how good Jake is at one-liners. I laughed out loud at my desk like a complete ninnyhammer. 

I even did my part to populate Facebook with more grown-ups, sending invites to family and friends. A few have taken me up on the invite, a few more are promising to but haven’t yet. (You listening, girlies?)

I also discovered that, wow, Facebook can suck up time.

And there, folks, is the most valuable lesson learned, but perhaps not in the way you think. To wit: Facebook is fun, so it doesn’t feel like it’s eating up a lot of time. A healthy online community is not just a comfortable place to be (see previous post “Ciao, bella”), it’s a fun place to be. And that’s what drives people to spend more than 2 seconds there.

I know, I know. My “Eureka!” is someone else’s “Duh!”

I’ve also registered at Twitter, another place to be seen, but I confess I have not made time to explore its full capabilities. Have advice for me? Drop me a line. 



We got the beat March 15, 2008

And a third experiment: ( Here, 13 beat reporters, from 13 news organizations, are adding social media — from blogs to Facebook pages to Twitter ( — to their repertoire of reporting tools to maximize coverage of their diverse beats. For the best look at how it’s going, read the analysis section: 

This is the most academic experiment in the bunch I’m studying. It’s actually one of many experiments by ( The latter was started by Jay Rosen, an associate professor at New York University’s J-school and author of the PressThink blog (

Speaking of things to watch, Rosen’s blog is worth adding to your favorite feeds.