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Iowa's 'Gazette,' Medill Students Build Interactive News Site

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Iowa's 'Gazette,' Medill Students Build Interactive News Site

Article excerpt

Anyone who has dared to delve into the comments section of their favorite newspaper Web site has surely been struck more by the limitations -- and then the level -- of discourse. As Chuck Peters, CEO of Gazette Communications, pithily sums up his experience: "I call it The Sewer!"

A technophobe Peters is not. This is the man who bravely twittered an off-the-record American Press Institute meeting in November for several high-level newspaper executives, and he blogs regularly at http://cpetersia.wordpress.com.

But he and his team at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, were intrigued to work with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The graduate class headed by Associate Professor Rich Gordon was in the throes of completing a project that takes advantage of a three-year News Challenge grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The school got the money -- $639,000 -- in May 2007, which allows for nine scholarships related to computer programming.

"The premise was that the world of journalism needs more people who are bilingual in journalism and technology," Gordon explains. Translation: You can teach a programmer to report, but teaching a reporter to program is more problematic.

Gordon's fall project needed a hook, and he got to thinking about the greater mission of newspapers. Historically it has been a forum for conversation, like letters to the editor. But by 2008, the online conversation had turned into cacophony. "Every newspaper was allowing comments on their site, but they didn't think it was going so great," he says.

So he issued a challenge to his class to think about the online conversation around news. It was stamped the "Crunchberry Project."

The assignment's parameters were pretty wide. After the Gazette signed on to help with the project, fronting some of the cost, the students wanted to know the interests of the Iowa daily's readers. "In a general sense we wanted to do something that helps us connect with the community better," says Annette Schulte, the self- described "content ninja" at the Gazette who also helped the class.

She made it clear that they gave the class wide latitude. "It's not a lunch counter, we weren't putting in an order," she says, adding that finding the ability to better engage and connect with young adults would be a major plus. …

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