RJI Innovation Week – Massive Scale Online Conversations (my team!)


My capstone team, made up of Brent Davidson, Leanne Butkovich and myself, presented at RJI Innovation Week on Wednesday, April 25. We spoke about the project we have been working on this entire semester with MU computer scientist Ryanne Dolan. Ryanne has developed a commenting system that allows for thousands of people to be commenting simultaneously in real-time, without the system crashing. It also allows for automatic filtering of comments to scale down the potentially massive size of the conversation and detailed analytics. My team’s task was to research ways in which this technology could be useful in journalism and design a user interface for a website using this technology.

In our presentation, we discussed the current state of commenting. We described a comment as:

  • Useful content – useful content for the reader and the editor.
  • Additive – adds content, value and insight to the website at no cost to the news organization
  • Measurable – editors can glean analytics
  • A relationship – establishes a relationship both between readers and between readers and editors

…and a commenting system should be:

  • Easy – easy and intuitive to enter a comment
  • Fast – as few barriers to entering a comment as possible
  • Compelling – fresh user interface that allows for various interactions and intuitive options

Then we showed our prototype. Here’s our beta version, which we’ve embedded on a mock site we built called “The Pacific”.

Some features of our site include:

  • Comment placement inline with the article, off to the article’s right side
  • Ability to “pin” paragraphs of text in the article, marking them as interesting or something you’d like to comment on
  • Easy, one-step registration – enter a name or pseudonym when you submit your first comment
  • Separate tabs for all the comments, “my pins” (comments and parts of the article the reader finds interesting) and “hot topics” (most-pinned parts of the article)
  • Ability to look back at what a user has pinned by clicking on their profile picture, in order to see what they are interested in and have a more informed discussion with them.
  • Option to see comment threads, by clicking “replies” at the bottom of each comment.

We concluded our presentation by discussing what’s next…

  • Delving into the analytics – this system allows for many opportunities to view and analyze relationships formed between users and what they are discussing
  • Better threading of comments
  • Implementing a user dashboard
  • Developing a prototype we’ve created for commenting on videos and live events

RJI Innovation Week – Emerging Networks Project, Janet Coats


Today kicked off the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s 2012 Innovation Week. I attended my first presentation this morning – Emerging Networks Project from Janet Coats. This presentation was particularly interesting to me because it is right in line with my capstone project. Janet is working with MU computer scientist Ryanne Dolan (also my capstone client) to mine social networks for data, divulging hidden relationships and networks that aren’t immediately apparent to the typical user.

For example, someone may pose a question on Twitter. Users who respond to this question create a network of people who are interest in the topic the question surrounds.

This is a break from “old school” networks. Traditionally, a network is a group of people who belong to the same organization – i.e. I am a member of the Student Society of News Design, this is one of my networks. Now, in the “social age,” networks are not so formal or hierarchical. Take, for example, the network of people who joined in the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. This was no formal group, but a group of people with similar thoughts, organized by social media. Janet called these kinds of groups “communities of practice.”

Ultimately, this idea of “communities of practice” has huge potential benefits for the world of journalism. All editors need to do is listen. Listen to the ideas being evoked by your readers through, for example, social media or comments on their organization’s website. This can build sources and inspiration for stories. It can aide in giving your readership the news it needs and craves.

This is an idea my capstone team is hoping to harness in our project, which we will present at Innovation Week this Wednesday at 11:40 a.m. Check out our presentation or read my blog later this week for my thoughts on our specific project.

Jonathon Berlin’s 10 News Design Trends for 2012


This week, the University of Missouri’s chapter of the Student Society of News Design hosted the 2012 College News Design Contest. One of the perks – amazing news designers from across the U.S. came to campus to judge the contest. One of them was Jonathon Berlin, graphics editor at the Chicago Tribune. He gave a brown bag lunch presentation on the “10 News Design Trends for 2012”. Here are some of the exciting things he spoke about:

  • Use my paper. Berlin showed us examples of newspapers that were literally making their designs useful. For example, the National Post published a front page Thanksgiving week showing pictures of all the foods needed to make a Thanksgiving feast. The page read something to the effect of “take this page with you to the supermarket when you do your grocery shopping”. He also showed us examples of pages that had “keepsake value,” i.e. pages that could be used as posters.
  • Pictures as posters. Don’t be afraid to run pictures big. Like, really big. Berlin showed us an example of a spread run after the tornado in Alabama last year. The picture covered an entire page. Berlin said one design regret he had was not running this iconic photo of Lake Shore Drive from the “snowpocalypse” poster-sized in the Tribune’s print edition.
  • It all comes down to reporting. Brilliant reporting is a big part of what makes a graphic brilliant. During the London riots, The Guardian overlayed a map of income levels in London with a map of where arrests associated with the riots had been made to prove the two were related, despite the fact that the government was insisting they weren’t. It was reporting that data out that made that graphic great, more so than the design of the map. At National Geographic, they take a scientific approach to graphics. They are accurate to the tiniest detail, and that makes them great.
  • The web is good at playing. News organizations seem to forget this about the web. It’s great at interactivity and fun! We should offer people more of that.
  • Use data that is unexpected. Go beyond census stats. Some examples:  all the attack statements made by GOP candidates and who they attacked, how long a creature can live vs. how fast they can run, word count of Facebook privacy policy over time.
  • Responsive design. Whatever you think about it, the Boston Globe is changing web design with it’s highly responsive website.
  • Rise of the motion graphic. Some of the coolest work in graphics is being done in the form of motion graphics. Take a look at this one from NPR explaining how the earth’s population got so huge. Berlin said he never understood this as well as when he watched this motion graphic.

Communication is key


I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again. Communication is a huge key to success in a newsroom. I encountered a good example of this this week. I created a chart to accompany a story about personal costs to student athletes in high school. It showed how much equipment students are required to buy on their own costs, broken down by sport. The Missourian is a web-first publication, meaning content is published to the web as soon as it is finished and printed in the print edition later, sometimes days later, or not at all, depending on when it fits, both based on timeliness and physical space in the paper. This of course has its benefits – content becomes available to readers sooner. But when we focus so much on the web, design in print can be sacrificed. This has often been true for graphics. We create our web version of the graphic first and then simply shrink it to fit in the allotted space for print. This week I was approached by a print designer, and we collaborated on sizing and color schemes to make the graphic work with his layout. The story played out in print very nicely. It was an appealing and attractive layout, and I hope that drew readers in, because it was a very interesting and relevant story.

Here’s the web version of the graphic:

And here’s the print version:

Election night graphics


Columbia, Mo., held local elections on Tuesday, April 3. Citizens voted on two city council seats, two school board seats and two other ballot issues. As most newspapers do with elections, the Missourian created graphics showing the results of these local elections. Traditionally at the Missourian, we create an interactive graphic showing the results for each race, precinct-by-precinct. It’s a popular feature with the intent of showing voters how other people in their neighborhood voted. This year, we in the graphics department gave the main responsibilities of this project to one independent study student with the intent of her taking the reins of the project and staffing out anything she needed help with to me, our other graphics editor, and other students. We had a few glitches this year. This is what I learned.

  • PLAN AHEAD!!! Our biggest problems stemmed from the fact that most of the work for this project got left until the last minute. When you have a story that is very timely, like election results, it should be published as soon as you can guarantee that your information is accurate and explained in a way that is not misleading. This means getting everything done beforehand that you can. We didn’t do this. Since our graphic was an interactive map, the interactivity should have been coded and the map drawn before the results got in.
  • ANTICIPATE POTENTIAL PROBLEMS. On election night, the Boone County Clerk, Wendy Noren, sent our point person the results, like they had coordinated beforehand. But there was a problem. Wendy sent the results as a “.asc” file – something we had never heard of and couldn’t figure out how to read. When we tried to get her to send us a different file, she just kept sending the same format. We ended up having to send the file to IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors), and they were able to figure it out. But then we STILL had to clean the data. This problem could have been avoided if we had thought to ask Wendy what type of file she would be sending us.
  • FLASH IS CLUNKY. We encountered so many little issues with Adobe Flash on this graphic. The particular problem was creating buttons within a button. This could have been avoided if the Missourian wasn’t so stuck on Flash. Our CMS does not easily allow for us to upload javascript graphics, or use other mapping software that could have made this process much simpler and the user experience more intuitive and enjoyable. This is something that desperately needs to change at the Missourian if the newspaper has any hope of staying current in technology.
Here’s the graphic we ended up publishing two days after the election happened. Click the photo for the full interactive version.