The building of a $3.8m comment platform

The building of a $3.8m comment platform

In June, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Mozilla announced that they would be collaborating on a project to develop an open-source comment and user contribution platform.

The platform is funded by a $3.89 million investment from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a philanthropic organisation that issues grants to fund innovative journalistic ideas.

As The Washington Post wrote in an article reporting the project, the platform will be build with the aim to categorise and highlight the most pertinent user comments and “standardise the many different ‘community engagement’ systems that Web sites now use to collect and publish outside contributions, especially reader comments and photos”.

Project leads from the three organisations involved in the collaboration are Dan Sinker (director of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project), Marc Lavallee (editor of interactive news, The New York Times), Sasha Koren (deputy editor of interactive news, The New York Times) and Greg Barber (director of digital news projects at The Washington Post).

The Newspaper Works had a discussion with Mr Barber about the state of comment platforms online, the ambitions of the project and his own involvement in its development.

Here is a condensed and lightly edited transcript of our conversation, for the full interview click here.

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Considering that this platform will be open-source, how do you plan on building something that is adaptable to different publications and audiences?

That’s our challenge, the way we’re going to start is by talking to people and we’ve already done that to an extent. The grant that we received from Knight earlier this month, the $3.89 million grant, is actually the second grant that they’ve given us. The first grant we got back in March, which was $75,000 to fund a research portion of the project. So we worked with a group called Machine, based out of New York, and they helped us do some audience research by talking with users, readers and also with publishers.

There were a couple of ideas in play there. One was just to kind of help us firm up our ideas, especially since there were three major organisations coming to the table on this, The Post, The Times and Mozilla. But then also to test our assumptions and make sure that the solutions we thought were going to work for The Washington Post and The New York Times would also work for publishers of different sizes, many of them smaller than us, and also broadcasters. So I think it’s research like that and conversations that we’re having, which are obviously much easier to have now that the project is out in the open, that will make sure we’re gathering the kind of input we need from other publishers.

Was the grant given to an already developed partnership between the three companies? Or were Mozilla brought on later in the process to help develop the platform?

So actually it started out just by editors talking socially, so some of my colleagues here at The Post were talking with friends that had that worked at The Times about the challenges that they encountered in community building and in using community tools and it started striking folks on both sides that, ‘hey, actually we have really similar goals and really similar challenges even though we go about commenting in very different ways’.

Aron Pilhofer, who used to be an assistant managing editor at The New York Times and is now the executive editor for digital at The Guardian, was instrumental in getting us together. We met here in Washington in November, that was our first official meeting on this idea, and it was just to kind of get our staffs together and talk, and what wound up coming out of that meeting was that ‘yeah, we really should work together on this’. Which is obviously not typical for The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Do you know the kinds of functions that you’re trying to build into the platform and are there consistencies among publishers about what they would like to see from an enhanced commenting system?

There are a couple of things. One, and this is has been covered very well over the past few years and it’s a perennial concern, is the level of discourse in comment threads. Now we think this project is bigger than just comments, we want to build a system that allows for all sorts of different interactions between publishers and users – so that’s everything from comments, to full blog posts, full articles even, or smaller content in the form of annotations. We want to be able to take in reader contributions of different sizes as far as text is concerned…but then also, things like photos and video.

What are your views on the standard ‘comment at the bottom of article’ model that has typically been the most common style of comment organisation?

The comment at the bottom of the article model is a perfectly fine tool and it certainly has it’s uses, it’s one way that users can respond to a piece of writing or a story that a publisher puts out. But it’s not the only way and it shouldn’t be the only way, what we want to create is a system that allows publishers to choose the engagement method that sits best with their content. So maybe in some cases that’s a comment stream, maybe in some cases it’s annotations. We have some bloggers on Washingtonpost.com that use our comment streams basically as main well content. So they’ll say, you know, ‘here’s an open stream’ and they’ll help direct the conversation, or they’ll direct the conversation with a short blog post that basically just poses a question.

There are probably means of interaction that I haven’t thought of yet, that other publishers might have. We want to create a flexible platform that allows publishers to present their call-outs in creative ways and then to innovate in the ways that they display the contributions they get from users based on those call-outs.

Do you know where this thing will be six months from now, do you know where it’ll be in a year?

Sure, I mean it’s an iterative project so our plan is to continue to talk with publisher’s and readers, to scope this out, as seems to best fit the platform, and then my hope is we’ll be able to engage with the open-source community too, to help mould and refine it. Hopefully, as they usually do, once we put pieces out there they’ll be able to improve upon it. So that’s a really exciting notion for us.

Will the platform work as a plug-in to a publisher’s CMS (content management system), or will it operate as its own entity that is accessed separately from the publisher’s back-end?

You’ve got it right actually, it’s going to be a core piece of software that we’ll then build plug-ins onto and that publishers and open source developers and that sort of thing will also be able to build plug-ins onto. So the idea is that it will be like a set of building blocks, with a foundation in the core product and then a series of plug-ins that publishers can decide to use, not use, plug-ins that they could decide to also open source. So hopefully this is the project that never ends, in the sense that hopefully the core will continue to be improved upon, new plug-ins will continue to be made and the platform can continue to be updated and iterated upon to meet our future needs.

To be more specific; say you’re a comment moderator for The New York Times and you’re currently moderating comments through Scoop [The Times’ CMS], would you still be moderating through Scoop with this platform plugged-in to the CMS, or would this operate separately at an external site?

Those decisions will probably need to be made on the publisher level, because there is the potential that there could be some overlap between what we’re creating and what the publishers are creating. Our goal is to create a platform that will be easy to integrate into CMSs and if there are duplicate features, where someone has a system that they’ve built and then there’s the system that we’ve built, our plan is to make the system flexible enough that they can make decisions about what they would keep of their own and what they would use of ours.

Last thing, the $3.89 million investment, is that allocated for the two years of product development, or also for the ongoing existence of the platform?

“The money is allocated for the next two years, so that will fund the first two years of the project, which is the initial creation of the core and the base set of plug-ins and all of that – the initial project. And then we’ll see what happens from there.”

For a full transcript of our conversation, click here.

For more news from The Newspaper Works, click here.

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