Can NewsMixer be developed into a business?


Students at the Medill School of Journalism (Northwestern University) have built a web application, NewsMixer, that is a step forward in creating engagement between a news website and readers. Can this innovation be developed into a business?

Some of the innovative highlights of the project are:
  • Questions and Answers. Against each paragraph in any of the news stories, the readers can ask a question or reply to a question previously posed. This feature allows readers to dig into particular parts of stories to get into greater depth, creating a conversation with other users and writers. The news story almost becomes a piece of writing that develops through threads spinning off particular paragraphs.
  • Integration with Facebook Connect. Users comment with their Facebook identity, which for most people is synonymous with their real identity. This forces greater trust between participants and discourages flaming and other bad behaviour that anonymous commenting on the web usually encourages.
  • Letters To The Editor. You can reply to an article, in similar fashion to how you might post a comment on a blog, or even write a new article. The editors can then choose to display your reply or newly written news article on the front page as a new piece. How many newspapers allow readers to write stories that could be on the front page? This Letters To The Editor feature reflects the dynamic of the internet age, where anyone can start a blog, and almost anyone can be a journalist.
The ideas are interesting and thought-provoking. However, as a web site, NewsMixer is very much a sandbox for testing and playing with the features; it is clearly not production quality. It lacks news feeds, quality control for comments, production staff and a number of elements that would be needed to turn it into an operational business. Gazette Communications in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, plans to do this - creating a production version of the site in early 2009.

While it will be interesting to see how Gazette Communications' implementation unfolds, how might NewsMixer be developed into a business into its own right? I have the following thoughts on taking this forward: 
  • Add features to make the site self-sustaining. The Letters To The Editor functionality could be extended to allow users to post their own full news stories. Just as Wikipedia is moderated by users, users on NewsMixer could moderate the new stories, as well as the comments. A slashdot style Karma system could be used. The more that the site becomes self-sustaining, the lower the overhead costs will be in running the site. Given the plight that newspapers face, low overheads is particularly important.
  • Create barriers to reduce competition. The features of the NewsMixer site are sufficiently easy to be copied. As a business, this means competitors will easily be able to create copycat versions of the site, stealing readers and potential revenue from NewsMixer. If NewsMixer is to become a successful site and business, it needs to create some barriers that will make it difficult for copycats to prosper.
    • The best barrier would be that of a large user-base that finds it difficult to move to a competitor's site. In the same way that eBay buyers and sellers have invested large trading histories into eBay, building their brand and reputation on the eBay site, NewsMixer could further develop the ways in which users build their histories and preferences into the site. This could be done through the stories and comments that users post - building users' reputations on NewsMixer.
  • Develop a revenue model. Ultimately, any business will need to bring in revenue to pay for running costs and create a profit. The variety of current business models for online news is well documented. The larger the user base of NewsMixer becomes, the more it will be necessary for the articles on the site to be localised to communities. These communities could be centered around geographical locations, professions or anything else that makes sense. In the case of geographical locations, hyper-local advertising would seem to have the highest potential. In the case of professions, some professional communities may be willing to pay for articles, just as they pay for industry reports. Consequently, a mixed range of revenue models is likely to be necessary. Users can be motivated by providing them with a cut of the revenue, whether it be from advertising, user payment or elsewhere.

A more thorough analysis and business planning would be necessary to substantiate NewsMixer as a business, but the above provides my initial thoughts. The NewsMixer project is a great addition to the tradition of journalism innovation that comes out of the Medill. I'm looking forward to learning about the projects that will continue to arise from Medill's programmer-journalist scholarships.