The slides from our presentation at AEJMC last week are below. Also, here are some of the additional links we mentioned about NewsCloud working with universities:
The slides from our presentation at AEJMC last week are below. Also, here are some of the additional links we mentioned about NewsCloud working with universities:
During the past few years, we've partnered with a number of news organizations. Here are the 10 things they commonly misunderstand about NewsCloud. Note: #10 is actually the most important.
1) You can use NewsCloud to host a virtual town hall, fostering community and engagement between readers. Our interactive features let your audience participate in new ways. Our Facebook Connect support connects readers with their real names and faces, fostering a more civil environment. Host your community's online hub before someone else does.
2) You can use NewsCloud to enhance and expand your storytelling. Our crowdsourcing features let participants contribute to your reporting or add value after publication. Your readers want to engage beyond the comment thread, there's a lot to gain by empowering them.
3) You can use NewsCloud to run community sites for columnists or show personalities, for topics such as sports or for beat reporting or for targeting specific demographics such as young people or college communities. However, the more vertically you segment your community - the more you'll need to pay attention to #10 below.
4) You can monetize your NewsCloud community with advertisements from your own ad services. And, you can integrate your favorite analytics/statistics engine e.g. Google Analytics or Overture in order to integrate activity from your community application into your overall web metrics. You fully own your site, not NewsCloud. So, you get to keep all the revenue. That's different than Facebook pages where Facebook gets to keep all the revenue it makes from your content. We also provide support for Outbrain and TrafficSpaces.
5. NewsCloud's software elevates your audience from reader to participant and community member. User generated content provides a new source of page views and serves as an ear to the ground for valuable story leads. Our integration with Facebook and Twitter lead to more viral sharing and helps you expand your audience.
6. NewsCloud's feature set includes unique Facebook-integrated classifieds which include a lending library for community members to share physical goods like DVDs and household items. In addition to user blogs, discussion forums and photo and video galleries, we've even got a news predictions game. Our optional email notifications keep participants engaged in the conversation.
7. Facebook pages are a great way to drive discussions off sites you own and onto Facebook. The best way to use your Facebook page is to link to activity pages on your NewsCloud application.
8. Newsroom staff need to participate in your community, helping curate content and occasionally interacting directly with readers. They should also be trained in using NewsCloud features to expand their storytelling. While high levels of marketing can seed a community without participation by newsroom personalities, you'll see increased levels of loyalty and satisfaction if your team engages directly in the community. You'll also see benefits from interacting with readers publicly through the community which aren't as easy to do through traditional website comment threads and personal off-site emails.
9. NewsCloud is available for free as open source software. It's funded by the Knight Foundation through April 2012. It can be installed in just a few steps by most software developers. You can also contact NewsCloud to manage it for you.
10. Promotion Promotion Promotion. The most important thing to know is that you absolutely must actively promote your NewsCloud site from your website if you want your community to grow. You'll need prominent navigational links to your NewsCloud site and features. You'll also need to regularly showcase headlines and features from your NewsCloud site on the front page of your web site. It's best if your NewsCloud site is included in all of your outreach e.g. print, email, web, etc. This is especially important at the beginning when you are seeding your community ... but this is always a best practice. While you may initially hesitate directing traffic from your primary web site to your NewsCloud community site, over time you will see a net increase in page views and activity. And, remember, you fully own your new community site and will realize all the financial rewards from its growth.
NewsCloud is a free, open source platform for building Facebook Connect community applications and web sites.
There are primarily two ways we recommend alternative weeklies use NewsCloud:
1) Use NewsCloud to launch a virtual town hall providing a place for your readers to connect with each other. Add interactive features such as user blogs, photo and video galleries, link sharing and discussion forums to give your readers new ways to interact with each other. NewsCloud even offers a Classifieds and Lending Library which allows readers to share physical goods such as books, DVDs and household items.
NewsCloud's integration with Facebook Connect allows readers to connect with their real names and faces, greatly improving the civility of these sites. Move beyond generic Facebook pages (learn how NewsCloud differs from Facebook pages) and give your readers a community home that they can get truly excited about to share.
2) Use NewsCloud's crowdsourcing features to extend your storytelling, giving readers creative ways to get involved. Move beyond comments. Give your readers creative ways to get involved with and augment your reporting. NewsCloud offers crowdsourcing features such as idea boards, questions and answers, resource directories and even a news predictions game. Set up photo and video galleries, discussion forums and link to user blogs to extend the conversation.
Every NewsCloud feature is tightly integrated into Facebook and Twitter for viral sharing. It also integrates your statistical tracking and advertising engines to allow you to leverage these interactive page views into new sources of revenue. It's also fully optimized for search engines to draw inbound traffic.
The Knight Foundation has generously funded NewsCloud through April 2012. Already as part of this grant, we've got the installation of NewsCloud down to a few easy steps on a Rackspace server that costs less than $45/month.
Check out some of our existing prototype sites. Seattle's The Needle. Minnesota Public Radio's MinnEcon (as Facebook application). Carolyn Hax of The Washington Post (as Facebook application). The Boston Globe's Your Boston (as Facebook application)
Update: The great folks at RackSpace are offering six months credited (a.k.a. free) services for hosting NewsCloud in the Rackspace Cloud.
NewsCloud can now be installed quickly, easily and affordably in just a few steps. Watch the video and follow the steps below:
1. Choose a server. Use an existing server or sign up for a hosting account. We recommend Rackspace's 1 GB Cloud server (configured with Linux Ubuntu 10.04) which costs $45/month (first six months can be credited, making it free). Make note of your server's IP address.
2. Point your domain name at your server. You can use an existing domain e.g. www.yoursite.com or any subdomain e.g. newscloud.yoursite.com or register a new domain. Learn more about mapping your domain name to your server.
4. Install NewsCloud. We've simplified the installation scripts to just a few lines. Note: be sure your computer is configured properly with Ruby on Rails. Also, here is a summary of the settings you'll need before you run the script.
> git clone git://github.com/newscloud/n2.git
> cd n2
> cap newscloud:run
Visit your website (e.g. www.yoursite.com) to see your fresh NewsCloud installation, then use our wizards to customize it at your administrative dashboard (e.g. www.yoursite.com/admin). This customization checklist may be helpful.
During the coming year, we will continue to make the NewsCloud platform simpler to install, customize, manage and moderate. Our work is funded through April 30, 2012 with the generous support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Stay tuned to this blog or follow us on Twitter (see button below) for updates.
Amy Gahran has a great post inspired by Scott Rosenberg pointing out that news organizations and journalists may be overrelying on Facebook, even giving up ownership of valued real estate and content. Honestly, I've never read a better argument for our Knight-funded open source platform, NewsCloud.
Says Rosenberg, "By moving so much of the conversation away from their own websites and out to Facebook, media companies are basically saying, ‘We did a lousy job of engaging readers under our own roof, so we’re going to encourage it to happen on someone else’s turf.’”
Says Gahran, "I do think news orgs should have a strong presence in the social media that are popular with their communities. But don’t make this an excuse to slack off on adapting your own tools, culture, and systems to engage more effectively on your own digital 'turf.'"
She continues: "The architecture of Facebook is also still mostly a 'walled garden'—much of the content and interaction is not easily or universally findable or linkable. This is appropriate for interpersonal social networking, but it makes less sense from a publisher’s perspective. It can make valuable content associated with your brand harder to find, track, and keep."
What NewsCloud Provides
What NewsCloud provides is an open source suite of tools for hosting interactive features simultaneously on Facebook applications and as Facebook Connect Websites (learn more about these). News organizations can leverage Facebook authentication and identity while essentially extending their own websites with NewsCloud and maintain complete ownership. They can even plug in their own advertising engine, statistical tracking and index the content with search engines.
If a reporter wants to gather ideas from readers, they can use our idea board. If they want to add a fun predictions game to a sports topic, they can use our predictions feature. If they want to collect crowdsourced links related to a particular story or topic, they can use our directory feature. These are just a few examples.
We've been shocked that news organizations are turning over their comment engines to proprietary Facebook plugins, giving ownership control and the advantages of open search to Facebook. NewsCloud is the kind of solution that provides integration with social media while maintaining openness and control.
NewsCloud allows news organizations to dramatically upgrade their websites with interactive social media connected features at very low cost.
Ready to learn more? Start with our community guide to the platform
For Immediate Release: May 4, 2011
You can also read this release at the Knight Foundation's Website
NewsCloud to Make Facebook-Connected Communities Easy
Knight Foundation grant will support improved simplicity and affordability
in innovative open source technology
SEATTLE, WA. — Social media developer NewsCloud will make its open source Facebook-connected platform easier and more affordable for communities and news organizations. The project is being made possible by a $190,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
For the last year, NewsCloud has launched Facebook-connected community applications for organizations as large as The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. “Cost and complexity remain the greatest barriers to adoption by a wider array of news and community organizations,” said Jeff Reifman, NewsCloud Founder. “With this grant, we’re going to eliminate these barriers and deliver an affordable turnkey solution.”
According to Facebook statistics, there are more than 500 million active Facebook members, who collectively spend 700 billion minutes per month on the service. To build informed and engaged online communities, developers like NewsCloud have to pair interactive community features closely with Facebook. NewsCloud’s platform connects users to one another with features such as blogging, forums, multimedia galleries, a predictions game, classifieds, questions and answers, idea gathering, and more.
“The new version of NewsCloud will be especially useful to local community news sites and community foundations supporting local journalism,” said Jose Zamora, Knight Foundation Journalism Program Associate. “NewsCloud’s next iteration will allow organizations interested in integrating their sites with Facebook to do it without having to invest in technical support. It will allow them to use social networks to increase their reach, inform, engage and interact with their communities online. The platform also opens new revenue opportunities for news sites of any size.”
NewsCloud plans to deliver the first iteration of its simplified, turnkey software by September 2011. Improvements will continue through April 2012. “Not only will the next release be easier to set up, manage and populate with content, but you can host it for less than $100 per month,” says Reifman. Software developers can install the current NewsCloud software used by larger news organizations by visiting http://opensource.newscloud.com.
The Knight Foundation has funded NewsCloud’s research efforts and development since 2008. Research into the engagement of young people with news in Facebook is available at http://newscloud.com/research. NewsCloud’s recent report on its work with news organizations is available here.
Launched in 2005, NewsCloud provides a robust open source community engagement platform for news and community organizations. The NewsCloud source code is available free to download. Visit opensource.newscloud.com or follow @newscloud on Twitter for additional information and updates.
About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation invests in journalism excellence worldwide and in the vitality of U.S. communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. Since 1950, the foundation has granted more than $400 million to advance quality journalism and freedom of expression. Knight Foundation focuses on projects with the potential to create transformational change. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.
We've created a status page which we'll regularly update showing the ways to host a NewsCloud community at the current time. As we move forward with our simplicity and affordability roadmap, we'll keep this page updated with new options.
Get the code for our third stable release of the NewsCloud Ruby on Rails platform - learn more at our open source blog.
Release 3 stable is almost here...
Update: Just to clarify, development of the open source NewsCloud platform will continue through April 2012! Thanks @niemanlab, @lavrusik, @chcktylr for sharing.
This is the postmortem report for our December 2009 - April 2011 "Launchpad" grant, generously given by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. If you prefer, you can download the PDF version. You may also be interested in Community Guide to the NewsCloud Open Source Facebook Platform and The Grant Application and Document Lifecycle - Managing Your Grant Project Series. Contact email@example.com or @newscloud with questions.
In December 2009, NewsCloud received a $249,942 grant from the Knight Foundation to work with twelve news organizations to help them launch interactive community sites based on our open source Facebook technology. In its final report form, the foundation asks, “What headline best summarizes the single most important outcome of your work?” Sadly, “Social Media Technology Fails to Save News Organizations from Themselves” is my response.
We’ve been told that the lessons we’ve learned about how to work with media organizations in the age of social media are the most valuable outcome of this project. It’s for this reason that we think it’s important to be open about our successes and failures.
Our primary belief is that news organizations have evolved to favor a culture of one-way publishing. In other words, they gather the news and publish it to their paper and website. They encourage readers to interact by sharing stories and adding comments, but that's often the horizon of their vision and technical capacity. They often view social media as a tactic for driving page views, not as a fundamentally new way of engaging their audience. The NewsCloud platform has a larger vision for news organizations' role and social media.
Our platform is designed to help news organizations host vibrant communities for their readers to meet each other and engage with published content and also to generate and interact with their own content. Our integration with the Facebook platform helps readers see each other's names and faces and fosters a more civil environment than the web's typical anonymous content.
Some of the features we offer include end user blogs, discussion forums, questions and answers, a directory of resources, events, multimedia galleries, idea gathering and even a predictions game. We recently added a classifieds system, which allows for lending of physical goods within communities. You can see a variety of these features at our Seattle prototype site, The Needle (http://theneedle.us).
A big part of our vision is for journalists to integrate the interactive features of our application into their storytelling, expanding the space for reader participation. For example, The Washington Post's advice columnist Carolyn Hax is creating resource directories of links relevant to her daily columns. We foresee reporters setting up idea gathering boards for ongoing series on civic issues or setting up prediction topics and questions on political stories, e.g. Will President Obama be re-elected?
Our model aims to increase user engagement and brand loyalty, which we believe will ultimately lead to increased traffic and revenue.
It’s useful to note that in our earlier Knight Foundation-funded research study on the engagement of young people in news, we found that our Facebook technology laid the groundwork for this vision: 1) It created a platform for the audience to become familiar with each other’s names and faces and drove return visits to see what these new people were posting and 2) It created a ladder of engagement from lightweight to more involved which allowed the audience to connect with the community in ways that fit their initial level of interest. This held the potential for moving them along the ladder towards deeper engagement over time. See http://newscloud.com/research
Working with fifteen carefully screened organizations, we designed and activated sites for eleven media partners. Five of these sites remain active: Advice columnist Carolyn Hax of The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Charlotte Observer, Minnesota Public Radio’s MinnEcon and Baristanet. By mutual agreement, KPCC Radio of Southern California turned off their site in January 2011. Five partners walked away from their sites without launching: A Cuba site community of The Miami Herald, The State Press of Arizona State University, an oil spill community site for the gulf coast by the Society for Environmental Journalists and two Gannett-owned sites, The Detroit Free Press and WKYC NBC 3 of Ohio.
Of the five active sites, only a few have been actively promoted – and generally, only occasionally. For the most part, we feel that the NewsCloud platform has yet to be thoroughly experimented with in a way that will both provide the feedback needed for improving its feature set and identifying best practices. In a word, the jury on this kind of community technology is still out – it remains a vision of community building that most of our partners say they believe in, but rarely put the resources required into turning the vision into reality.
We acknowledge that our partners faced many technical challenges working with our small grant funded team, tight on resources, building an emerging community technology. The biggest technical barriers dealt with design aesthetics and usability, feature limitations and bugs. These gaps made it difficult for our media contacts to wholly embrace our technology consistently and slowed adoption and evangelization in their organizations. However, these kinds of challenges are fairly typical of all software projects.
In an age of social media and a plethora of new technology tools, it’s useful for media organizations to become savvy working with software developers and actively participating in the path towards higher quality inherent in these kinds of projects. Some of our partners were more experienced with this process than others.
It’s possible that we could have screened partners more carefully and asked that they make more explicit contractually binding commitments. However, given my experience on this grant, it would have been extremely difficult to recruit any partners if this were the case.
To be perfectly clear, while we’re very satisfied with the technical progress on our project, we are not satisfied with the results from our work with media organizations. Most of our partner sites remain idle awaiting deeper promotion.
Our goal for this post-mortem is to transparently highlight the barriers that we encountered for everyone to benefit from; we are not trying to single out partners nor point fingers. Furthermore, we acknowledge that this represents our biased point of view. In the next section, we’ll highlight how the points of view of our partners vary.
Here are some of the more significant challenges we’ve encountered:
Our belief is that by far the biggest limitation to progress and growth on our partners’ sites was a lack of promotion and visibility. While The Boston Globe and The Charlotte Observer briefly experimented with posting links to application content on their home page, none of the partners regularly promoted their sites in front of their web audiences. None of the partners provided clear, meaningful links from their home page to the application or its features.
Just as the sound of a tree falling in the forest is lost if no one is there to hear it – similarly, a community Facebook application is useless if no one knows it’s there or why to visit. Many of our partners felt that these sites would grow on their own accord without significant promotion. It’s been a year of magical thinking.
We regularly tried to educate partners on how to promote these kinds of applications and have written up some basic guidelines. For the most part, our advice has been ignored.
In general, our partners would try to promote their community site by posting links on their Facebook page. However, the audience of their Facebook page was only a tiny fraction of the audience of their website. So, while they did indeed see a typical 2 percent response rate from their Facebook page audience, this was not enough to seed their community. They were essentially expecting a fraction of a fractional audience would be sufficient to launch a new community site.
Our radio partner KPCC said they used a significant number of on air promotional spots. However, it’s difficult to get listeners to go online to a Facebook application from a radio spot. KPCC did not link to their community site from their website until very late in the project, and then only from the very bottom of a secondary social media page. Also, the KPCC site concept was based on a group of volunteer bloggers who created daily content. In their post mortem report, KPCC reported struggling with deciding whether to promote the user generated content from their website as well as technical challenges with the content management system. This decision likely doomed its application.
As early partners left their sites un-promoted and idle, later partners drew conclusions about the platform’s efficacy and seemed to slow their efforts and lessen their own commitment.
We’ve also come to see the limitations in partnerships when a media partner is given something for free. We put a lot of work into screening partners so that they knew what to expect and that we knew what resources they would commit. However, in most cases, the initial enthusiasm of media partners to work with a Knight Foundation grantee project did not translate into long-term organizational adoption.
In the case of our grant, media partners essentially received a “gift” of our open source Facebook community site, fully hosted and supported as well as a team responsive to their feedback and feature requests. But, because the organization wasn’t paying for their site, their commitment to the project seemed to wane over time. Most of our partners did not follow through with their commitments to promote and participate in the project.
Yet, if we had required partners to pay to participate in the project, it’s unlikely any would have signed up. Because of the financial and organizational strains in the media industry, almost none of our partners would have contributed matching dollars to our project. However, some partners dedicated moderate staff time – often beyond our appointed contact.
At the beginning of our grant, it took us several months to prepare the Ruby on Rails source code to be able to launch the first partner. But, in general, many of our partners took a significantly extended timeframe to launch.
It generally took NewsCloud only two to three weeks to design, set up and prepare a site for launch. However, our most active partners still took between three to five months to launch. This was often due to bureaucratic challenges with legal, IT or other organizational issues (addressed below). Partners that withdrew often took between three to nine months to make the decision to exit.
Our grant period was eighteen months. Having partners take up to 5 months to launch took significant time away from the length of time a site would be live for audience feedback. Similarly, the extended timeframe prior to withdrawal used up spots that other news organizations might have benefited from.
Overall, the inertia required to instill institutional expertise in social media and create behavioral changes in these organizations seemed insurmountable at times. The sites we built for our media partners often remained in a silo with our primary contact and there was rarely crossover awareness or adoption of the site within the overall organization.
Many of our media contacts we trained did not have the forum, influence or charter within their organizations to share what they learned about our application platform with their peers. This made it especially hard to connect with our partners’ reporters to help them think about the potential of using our interactive features to engage readers in the storytelling process (described later in the Looking Ahead section).
Surprisingly, we had an enormously difficult time explaining to the organizations that they wholly owned their Knight-subsidized sites. They could both fully realize any advertising revenue generated by the applications and they could also track and include page views from the application in their overall activity statistics that they use for ad sales. Despite this, many organizations stalled at providing the information we needed to integrate advertising and statistics. We are still routinely told by partners that their organizations are hesitant to promote or link to their application for fear of diverting page views from their website. We have not been successfully able to convince the institutions that they wholly own these community sites. Nor, have we been able to instill in them our vision of the potential upside and revenue generating potential of a vibrant active social media community site.
The NewsCloud platform allows partners to layout their home page with a variety of different widgets. Almost without fail, our news partners would lay out their home pages to make their community sites look like identical copies of their news websites. This approach fails for a number of reasons.
Firstly, a community site is different than a news site – it should feature and highlight the best of user-generated content. Second, if the community site looks like a carbon copy of the news website, readers won’t understand the purpose of the community site and how they can participate.
Gradually, we’ve worked with partners to configure their community sites more effectively. The MinnEcon site is a good example of this. See http://minnecon.mprnews.org.
We repeatedly ran into bureaucratic delays that greatly hindered, hampered and doomed partnerships with some of our major media partners. Mainly, bureaucracy arrived in two areas: legal and IT.
The legal departments we worked with struggled with how to manage the liability issues of working with a small grantee on open source software. Despite the fact that these companies were getting our help installing and managing our open source software for free, they wanted us to assume all of the liability risks that they faced as billion dollar media companies. Obviously, our grant did not provide resources for this.
Some legal departments struggled with the very idea of using open source software despite it being widely used in other areas of their website.
IT departments struggled with how to allow an external project to proceed without their oversight. In many cases, it became impossible to get required information from internal IT departments. Simple things like analytics codes or advertising rotation scripts were just never delivered. In other cases, it would take weeks to get a sub-domain address mapped to our server for running our partner’s community site. Getting workable embed code from third party services like the awful and proprietary Brightcove video player proved insurmountable for several partners.
At the beginning of our project, some of our administration tools worked best with the Google Chrome browser. Some of our partners were prohibited from downloading the browser on their computer. One partner used Windows over Citrix for security (an operating system run over a network) and was unable to complete drag and drop operations required to feature content with our administrative tools.
Another partner was prohibited from using instant messaging in the newsroom, making it more difficult to work with us.
In general, our organizational contacts were already overburdened with a variety of responsibilities and focusing on promotion of their community site quickly fell to the bottom of their queue. Repeatedly through our project, numerous partners told us that they would return to focus on the application after this distraction or that distraction.
In some cases, staff was furloughed at different times during the project interrupting or delaying our progress. In some cases, budget and staff cuts were made in the middle of our partnerships. This seemed to contribute to some partners walking away from the project.
Said one partner: "In the midst of all this, multiple staff changes and cutbacks within our department left with left staff and more work than ever to do - meaning we had to prioritize and make hard choices about how to spend time and resources. Thus the decision to discontinue our part in the project."
We also had situations of key advocates in the organization leaving their company during the middle of our project. More recently, one of our contacts is leaving their company and it is unclear who will take over our partnership and who will manage their site community.
Most partners were concerned about the cost of hosting and managing the application after the grant ended. At least one partner seemed to lose interest after learning that it would cost approximately $4,000 per year to run the application. We always find it disappointing that news organizations will invest full time staff in a project but balk at reasonable technology costs, tiny in comparison to staff salaries and marketing investments.
Our grant provided approximately 1¼ software development resources. For a complex platform like ours, this is a relatively small amount.
We took the approach of working most actively with the partners who worked the most actively to test the site and provide feedback. The Boston Globe and KPCC were very active in this regard.
KPCC asked us to deepen our blogging capabilities. The Boston Globe worked with us to improve the level of polish in the application and its features.
The partners involved earlier in the grant suffered a bit from the challenges with the initial releases. These were stymied with a limited feature set as well as bugs.
We couldn’t make our platform do everything, nor could we make individual features as robust as some partners wanted them. For example, our blogging feature is not as sophisticated as WordPress, and this disappointed the KPCC volunteers. Similarly, the design decisions we made around image handling in the application complicated the layouts used by The Washington Post.
We always did our best to address the major barriers faced by our partners but at some level our overall resources limited us. In some cases, our partners accepted the shortcomings of the tool and the delays in meeting their needs. In other cases, these problems contributed to the lack of adoption, marketing and withdrawal by partners.
Working with the ever-changing Facebook application platform is also challenging. When Facebook disabled application notifications, they took away a major advantage of the platform. For example, notifications alert readers that someone has commented or liked their story or comment. We had to build our own notification system into our platform, but it’s only effective if readers visit regularly or opt in to receive email notifications. This change also greatly affected how our partners thought about our project, which we discuss in What Partners Say below.
Facebook’s ongoing tone deafness to end user privacy is also a barrier. A number of site visitors hesitate to register for the application because of concerns about privacy. We are regularly asked to allow non-Facebook users to log in to the application.
Over time, we will add other authentication systems to the platform, but in the meantime we rely on Facebook because it does an excellent job authenticating the identity of participants. We do not want our platform to be populated by anonymous readers who are not accountable on a real name basis for their content. This leads to the kind of hostile and uncivil comment threads seen on many major news sites. For now, we believe that the pool of five hundred million Facebook users leave a large audience for the initial experimentation with our platform.
Our interactions with the Facebook Media Team were mixed. Their team is mostly interested in getting news partners to integrate Facebook’s proprietary widgets into their websites. One blogger recently wrote “[Facebook] needs to work more on its actual publisher offering and tools and less on its PR campaign” (http://newscloud.net/edjoj1).
Our platform largely avoids Facebook’s proprietary widgets so that it can be used in the open source community and integrated easily into other systems such as Twitter. So, their team was not very eager to support our work as its open source code base is at cross-purposes with their organizational goals.
The Facebook platform team was also quite slow to respond to bugs. Recently, they began responding to bugs over a year old. And, in general, their first response is to say just about anything doesn’t reproduce rather than make a good faith effort to look into the problem. This is par for the course for large corporate platform providers.
Furthermore, Facebook makes regular changes to the platform that regularly break existing functionality in our application, even the functionality of commonly used open source Ruby plug-ins. They have improved the process of notifying developers before these changes are made but it continues to use up valuable development resources keeping up with their frequent adjustments.
One of the most interesting points partners have made highlights a gap in expectations between us about our project.
As we mentioned earlier, in spring 2010, Facebook removed the ability for applications to send notifications to users. This greatly reduced the viral nature of the default application experience.
Many partners joined our grant project to have a Facebook application provided for them. But, when application notifications went away, they felt that the application didn’t provide them viral advantages.
However, at NewsCloud, we never relied on Facebook’s application notifications to build our platform. Our goal was not to overload the friends of news readers with application alerts, but instead to build new kinds of interactive community features that engage the audience in ways that newspaper don’t today. This is one of the reasons why we’ve often encouraged partners to promote their Facebook Connect websites instead of their Facebook application. See http://newscloud.net/eVfG4e. We even built in pop up and email notifications to substitute for the old application notifications.
But, instead of linking to their NewsCloud-powered community sites, many news organizations just lost interest. For the most part, readers never learned about the new community features.
For me, this highlights how many news organizations think of social media simply as a tool for driving page views rather than as a fundamentally new model for engaging their audience and establishing online community hubs.
One partner spoke of Facebook’s outreach to media organizations which includes proprietary plug-ins:
“The real bad guy is Facebook in my book. When this process began, the concept was for as close to a total integration with Facebook as possible, which newspapers would crave. It was the selling point – a Facebook community news app. But, instead Facebook has essentially made it easy for the media to use plug-ins that get close to a social experience. A plug in that tells me what my friends are reading is 'good enough' for most of our audience.”
This is a good example of how our partners don’t seem to envision what interactive features like what a news prediction game or blogging or lending library could do for strengthening community and driving page views over time. Our platform’s set of interactive community features (http://newscloud.net/idLbRa) add so much more than a “what my friends are reading” widget.
Says another partner: “Facebook's platform evolved away from applications from when your grant was being planned until the point where we were ready to start implementation. In that period, applications went from being what seemed like the core of the Facebook-experience to being used mainly for social gaming. So the experience was unfamiliar to both the audience (who needed to try it and understand it) and stakeholders. At the same time, I am not sure that your straddle between open source and Facebook really works: Facebook users are instantly familiar with how a 'like' button works, but you're not using it. On the other hand, the application doesn't quite make sense on its own (or at least, was more easily understandable as 'this is a thing on Facebook').”
We’ve debated a lot on integrating Facebook’s proprietary Like button, and we may yet still. But, we feel that our current Like button provides more flexibility and doesn’t tie us into a proprietary voting service. We do allow readers to post anything they like to their Facebook wall. We may also allow future partners to choose to make Facebook Likes the default behavior in their application.
Some partners highlighted the resource and mindshare challenge:
“Another factor is that the organizations are risk-averse. Without a proven model of success, there's little to persuade the organization to mobilize behind something new. Especially to say ‘launch a new community website’. On the other hand, ‘launch something on Facebook’ is more understandable.”
“There is so much going on in the social media space, and so few resources devoted to it. People in my shoes need to decide whether it's more important to be working on NewsCloud or training folks on Twitter, building Facebook pages, tweeting and Facebooking for the company, building a Tumblr, working on Foursquare, pushing for better promotion of social media on stories, integrating registration with Facebook, pushing for better tweet this and share buttons, trying to measure all these things, trying to check out what other news (and general) sites are trying to do, and trying to see at least a few months down the road. I have a lot of battles to fight for resources and promotion.”
“Last year, we spent about $15-20,000 in staff time or small out of pocket promotion costs on your app. Our gross revenue from Google ads: $156. Now, could we have sold ads on the site? Sure, let’s just say we could have sold $4,000 and gotten some more traffic with heavier promotion. The commission on that, the processing costs, would cut that to about $2,000 net. Hmmmm. Certainly, not everything has to make money, but that’s a tough one. We want to satisfy the ‘Facebook need’ for our audience, but is this the way to do it? The problem is: we need millions of dollars especially in these nutty times”
One partner sums up our work together with a positive note: “From my point of view, I have learned a lot from this and sometimes learning is painful. You have also learned a lot from this, and that isn't a bad thing. Sometimes the path to innovation and change takes several turns and dips before lightning strikes.”
We were very excited to work with high profile partners such as Carolyn Hax at The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.
The Charlotte Observer found that their community site of bloggers provided an early warning system of sorts for stories which they later reported on their website. See http://newscloud.net/gv4TlA
Minnesota Public Radio’s Paul Tosto described the MinnEcon site as the ideal beat reporting toolkit, relating it to the vision that Jay Rosen has spoken about. See http://newscloud.net/ft2CkD
We added a large list of important community features http://newscloud.net/idLbRa and our platform provides support for key infrastructure features such as international language translation, SEO optimization including site maps and offline notifications via email.
We launched two particularly groundbreaking features: a predictions game, which allows readers to guess about future news events and includes a high scores list for the top predictors and a lending library component to our classifieds solution, which makes it easy for people to share physical goods such as movies, DVDs or household tools with their Facebook friends or the entire community. The lending library includes support for the Amazon product catalog API that streamlines adding items you want to share.
Furthermore, we delivered a wide variety of online support and guides for organizations adopting the NewsCloud platform to read sites. Some of this can be seen at our support site: http://support.newscloud.com and http://newscloud.net/gMvB3A
We rebuilt our code base in Ruby on Rails, which offered many advantages and a cleaner more secure architecture. You can read more about our decision here: http://newscloud.net/huCwIC
In December 2009, we delivered a more easily installable version of our PHP-based Facebook application (http://newscloud.net/hmNspW), which was used for the earlier research grant.
As we look ahead, we’re going to spend less energy and resources trying to manage the level of promotion and adoption by our news partners and more effort into reducing the barriers to entry for open source adoption, mainly making our platform easier to install, setup and manage, improving the design and making hosting more economical. We’re hoping that having a higher number of small adopters will lead to more visibility and adoption of our open source code base. See http://newscloud.net/gisw58
We’re also encouraging community foundations to work with grantees to provide local online hubs. See the Knight Foundation’s Report Creating Local Online Hubs http://newscloud.net/hmR0Yr and our guide for foundations wishing to have their grantees run social media communities: http://newscloud.net/gMvB3A
We’re also trying to showcase the potential of the platform here in Seattle, with our prototype site, The Needle (See http://theneedle.us). However, we also struggle with limited time and resources for leadership and promotion.
Here are a number of ideas we’ve given the foundation that might make this kind of grant proceed more smoothly in the future:
It’s difficult to provide constructive suggestions to the news organizations we worked with. In some ways, I feel that our report will fall on deaf ears. The very kinds of organizational challenges embedded inside today’s shrinking media companies make it difficult for it to internalize and act on these kinds of suggestions.
From our experience, most simply do not have the capacity to make long-term commitments to this kind of technical partnership. In general, organizations quickly scaled down or back away from the initial commitments they made – even commitments that were carefully screened and documented in our application approval process.
In the future, grantees seeking similar kinds of partnerships should be wary of organizations that jump at the chance to be a part of a Knight Foundation project, but quickly backpedal on their enthusiasm and commitment. We generally saw this across the board.
Our primary takeaway from this project is that most news organizations are not the best partners for this type of technology project. They are just too consumed by a broad set of challenges to their business and unable to engage effectively with a technology like ours.
From our vantage point, the downsizing and budget cutting at most news organizations are dealing a critical blow to their capacity to manage involvement in and invest in new opportunities.
Here are some takeaways we can offer:
Here are some promotional techniques that need to be applied consistently during the initial launch phase of a community site … not using at least some of these techniques guarantees failure (excerpted from What's required to successfully run our Facebook application community? http://newscloud.net/hxW7Oy):
Here are ten ways to involve readers in the story using NewsCloud’s interactive features:
10. Place widgets on the story page of your website highlighting some of the user generated content on your community site e.g. Newest questions, Recently Posted Free Items in Classifieds, Reader’s Favorite Pizza Places. These widgets can also have buttons to let readers add another entry.
Ended After Launch
Site Designed, Built, Activated but Not Launched
1) The Grant Application and Document Lifecycle - Managing Your Grant Project Series - http://newscloud.net/fE2ooc
2) Development, Outreach and Financial Tools We Use - Managing Your Grant Project Series - http://newscloud.net/f297j4