Sarah Gomez is 29 years old and works in public relations. She enjoys local gossip and reading about trendy news stories. While she doesn’t actively seek news, she is a “news grazer” — she uses a variety of sites and publications but doesn’t stick around for long.
Here’s the catch: Gomez doesn’t actually exist. She is one of the many characters created by Local Fourth, a team of Medill graduates and faculty members, for their Community Media Innovation Project.
Yet, although Gomez’s existence is only validated by paper, she represents an entire generation of news consumers split between multiple platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and news apps offered on iPhones and iPads.
However, Local Fourth has come up with a solution that could help users navigate through news and become more engaged: Sourcerer.
Unlike news websites that organize around the latest reports, Sourcerer revolves around central topics such as the controversial “brothel law.” Sourcerer summarizes the top in one or two sentences and includes additional bullet points linking to other relevant stories. Users can then ask questions regarding the topic, which other members answer with “clippings” of a news source. Not only is there evidence to back up any claims made, but members can go directly to the information’s origin.
Medill graduate Jordan Turgeon is head of audience research for the project. She says news stories can be incomplete. “We wanted to create a site where they could find most there was to know about the issues and if they had questions they could ask it and get it right there,” she says. “We just wanted to make a news space that was easier to understand.”
Rich Gordon, professor and director of digital innovation at Medill, outlined two areas of concern the team identified over the 10-week course of their research:
- The average media consumer is not a news junkie who makes time to keep up with every twist and turn of stories that might affect them. As a result, readers frequently find themselves parachuting into the middle of some story, not knowing the context, the history or the different issues people have with that story.
- Knowledgeable citizens dominate news sites by filling discussion boards with opinionated verbal barrages. Those who are just looking for an answer may be too intimidated to reveal a lack of understanding by asking for further clarification.
“Part of the idea behind Sourcerer is there should be a place where someone who is arriving into a story in the middle can ask questions and get answers to those questions,” says Geoff Hing, a Medill graduate and one of the web developers for Sourcerer.
Will we soon begin seeing “Source It” buttons squeezed comfortably amongst “Likes” and “Tweets”? Gordon says it’s too soon to tell.
Bill Smith, founder of local publication Evanston Now, expressed some skepticism: “It’s a very interesting concept and I have wrestled with how to deal with this kind of thing on some of the issues that Evanston Now has covered, like how do we provide good entry points to what the issues are.”
One of the main concerns Smith has with Sourcerer is whether people are willing to make the commitment, noting that there are a number of local wikis with only moderate success. However, Turgeon thinks they are.
“There are people in Evanston who want to know everything that’s going on, and they’re willing to do that digging, and consuming that news is considered a responsibility. So I think that’s a way that Sourcerer is going to help — being that jumping off point and interacting with other people,” Turgeon says. “People want context.”
That being said, Gordon and other team members have stressed Sourcerer is still in its toddler phase, with future beta launches being the chief method of testing and refining the content management system.
Ultimately, “context” is the very heart of Sourcerer. Gordon says that the world of open publishing has fragmented the content and audiences. Local Fourth hopes to remedy that division.
“[Sourcerer] could bring together members of news, politics, education and ethnic media all together on one platform,” Hing says. “It would make an environment approachable for a more multilingual and diverse community.”