Earlier this year, a group of Washington Post readers decided to meet up because of something they'd read online. They weren't prompted by a column published at Washingtonpost.com or an article in the pages of the newspaper. Instead, they were driven by a feature sometimes viewed as an afterthought by news organizations, if it's considered at all: the comments.

The meetup was for members of The Boodle, a coterie of commenters who follow the work of national enterprise reporter Joel Achenbach. They'd gathered together at a McCormick & Schmick's restaurant to comfort the mother of a fellow commenter who died earlier that year.

"They were all able to give her a big hug, and she also got a little bit of money that the group raised," Achenbach said.

The Boodle, which has followed Achenbach's blog since 2005, is a lively subculture within The Post. Each one of Achenbach's articles has hundreds of comments from readers who respond to each other just as often as they address Achenbach directly. In his words, they're a civil and intelligent group of people who "found a little watering hole" on the Internet where they felt comfortable.

With its gaggle of devoted commenters, the Boodle is one of several groups on the Internet held up as model communities by an ambitious initiative that involves two major American news organizations. The Coral Project, a joint effort from The Washington Post, The New York Times and Mozilla, aims to transform interactive spaces on news sites with $3.89 million in funding from The Knight Foundation.

"It's not just people gathering together to talk about a specific story or to yell at each other about politics," said Greg Barber, director of digital news projects at The Washington Post, who is a member of the project team. "These are people who actually get to know each other and who can get to know us. And I think at publications large or small, that's something that can be really valuable."

Screen shot, coralproject.net
Screen shot, coralproject.net

Since the project was announced last summer, its representatives have quietly been gathering ideas from editors, readers, designers and others. Now, with the project's team beginning to come together, the finer details are starting to come into focus. In recent weeks, the initiative has found a project manager in Andrew Losowsky, announced its intentions on Medium and set up a weekly newsletter.

Because several key positions on the project are vacant, many of the specifics are still up in the air. But some ideas have begun to percolate that will guide the project's future development.

For starters, The Coral Project team has determined that they aren't just working on one product. Rather, they intend to build a series of open-source apps that work in concert to help publishers manage different aspects of their online communities. This approach is intended to give news organizations greater flexibility, allowing them to use the apps that provide the functions they need and eschew the ones they don't.

The team has also figured out a partial list of problems that they'd like to fix. Chief among them is the fact that publishers spend a lot of time in comments dealing with trolls who turn reasonable conversations into invective-fueled pie fights. They want to build a product that can help flip the script on community management, one that lets publishers devote time to rewarding good commenters rather than policing bad ones.

"I would love to be able to go to a reporter and say, 'I know you've got 10 minutes and 5,000 comments on your story,'" Barber said. "You can go right here and find the contributions from our most thoughtful contributors — spend your time there. Because those people have earned it."

To do that, the team will likely come up with some system that allows news organizations to manage the reputations of its commenters, establishing a permanent record of sorts that distinguishes between trolls and enlightened readers. What that system looks like is still unclear, but it will probably include some aspects of peer review (think Reddit's voting system) and evaluation from staffers. As for whether the project will allow for anonymous commenting, Barber says the team will probably build a tool that allows each publisher to answer that question themselves.

The team has also discussed how the apps might manage user-generated content, how to make the software work for different-sized newsrooms, and what aspects from other sites — like those of Quartz, Medium, The Washington Post and The New York Times — The Coral Project might emulate. But everything they produce is supposed to meet a few basic tenets.

"I think where we're going to start is ensuring that anything we're going to build is going to be as simple, flexible, easy to install and easy to manage," Barber said. "We want to try and hit some of the core problems that readers, contributors and publishers all have. But again, I think those are things we'll be discussing in public as we go and road-mapping from there."

Next on the docket for the project is hiring a lead engineer and fleshing out the rest of the team, which will include a user experience strategist and a community lead. Most of the development work will be done at The New York Times building in Manhattan, but some of the team members will be based in various other locations, including Washington, D.C. and Chicago.

There's no established launch date for the project because each app will require its own development timeline. Rather, the team will likely roll out a series of minimum viable products that will each require testing and tweaking. However, Barber says he'd like to see the project begin to test some of the software on The New York Times and The Washington Posts' websites sometime this fall.

But those newspapers probably won't be the only outlets experimenting with the apps as they're being developed. The Coral Project will be looking for news organizations willing to be guinea pigs for the software that can provide feedback to help the developers improve the apps iteratively.

"We're really hoping to set up a virtuous circle of information that brings together the goals and hopes and dreams of publishers and readers and contributors," Barber said.