Re-editing the agenda with NewsTrust

For the past week students in my Web journalism class have been immersing themselves in NewsTrust, a social- networking site that bills itself as “Your guide to good journalism.”

Last Wednesday Rory O’Connor, NewsTrust’s editorial director, led us in a presentation and workshop, highlights of which you can see in the embedded video below. Since then, we’ve been posting and rating stories related to the global economy, which was NewsTrust’s featured topic.

NewsTrust’s strength is also its weakness. Unlike Digg, which simply allows you to vote on whether you like or don’t like a story, NewsTrust asks users to rate stories on a wide range of criteria, including whether you think the news organization is reliable, how well sourced the story is, whether it’s fair and whether the story offers enough context.

In all, there are 12 different criteria, each of them demanding a rating of one to five stars. Though you may leave any particular criterion blank if you choose, that’s still a lot — and you haven’t even gotten to writing a comment, adding tags and filling in several other forms. That’s quite a bit of work.

Still, the idea is a good one. It’s a way for ordinary readers — well, ordinary readers who happen to be news junkies — to re-edit the news, to judge for themselves what are the best and most important stories rather than relying on the editors of the New York Times, the BBC or what have you. Some readers who don’t want to submit or even rate stories may be intrigued by the idea of tapping into the wisdom of the NewsTrust community to find news they might otherwise never see.

According to O’Connor, testing has showed that journalists and non-journalists give stories similar ratings, which suggests that the NewsTrust system, though cumbersome, actually works. Perhaps the biggest drawback at the moment is the NewsTrust demographic, which O’Connor compares to the PBS audience: well-educated, aging and very liberal. Lack of ideological balance could hinder NewsTrust from becoming the well-respected guide to which its founders aspire. They understand the problem and are hoping to come up with some solutions.

Another interesting feature is that users themselves are rated in terms of how transparent they are about their backgrounds, how often they submit and rate stories and what other users think of their ratings. This, as well as community judgments about the reliability of different news sources, all gets figured into the algorithm that comes up with a score for any given story.

According to my students’ blogs, NewsTrust could be improved if it were less text-heavy and loaded more quickly.

As more people begin to use NewsTrust, its ratings should become more useful. I’ve submitted and reviewed several stories and felt like I was shouting into the wind, as no one else rated them. I do think it would be interesting if there were some way of knowing how many other people had at least read the story.

Social networking is the hottest trend in media today. By trying to combine social networking with serious journalism, the founders of NewsTrust have hit upon one of the more promising experiments in online journalism.