May 27, 2009

Any college newspaper editor will tell you it’s a challenge to get students off Facebook and reading the news.

However, the University of Minnesota’s student newspaper, The Minnesota Daily, may have found a solution in the form of an experimental Facebook application that’s pushing the boundaries of how readers get their news and engage with it.

“We looked at it as a tool … using Facebook for meeting students where they’re at,” said Vadim Lavrusik, a journalism major and the outgoing editor of, who just graduated this spring. “For a lot of students, Facebook is their destination. They’re spending so much time on there they don’t see other things.”

The Daily‘s Facebook app rewards readers with points if they post a news story (20 points), share it with their Facebook friends (5 points) or invite friends to the application (30 points). More points can be scored for “challenges” like submitting a letter to the editor (200 points), adding the application tab to your Facebook profile (100 points) or taking the Trivia quiz (500 points). Top point-scorers win prizes like Minnesota Twins tickets, T-shirts or a bag of Daily paraphernalia.

The result has been the formation of mini-communities and discussion groups around news stories and, perhaps most significantly, the successful harnessing of Facebook’s sharing ethic to push news beyond the Web site out to potential readers.

Lavrusik said its revenue-generating potential is the real-world element of the application that has yet to be fully explored. For example, he said, Daily advertisers could buy a challenge, such as: go to the campus pizzeria and submit a picture of yourself for points.

The Facebook project, which launched in March, was funded by a Knight Foundation grant obtained by Christine Greenhow, a University of Minnesota researcher interested in learning technologies.

She said a driving concern was the decline in news literacy among 16- to 25-year-olds. She cited a recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which found that the proportion of young people getting no news on a typical day has increased from 25 to 34 percent since 1998.

“The question is, if we locate a news site in the social network site, do they engage with the news,” said Greenhow.

The architect of the application was Jeff Reifman, founder of the Seattle-based news aggregator, NewsCloud, who worked with Greenhow to build a similar Facebook application called HotDish, about environmental warnings, with news content provided by

“College students are spending so much time on Facebook there’s potential to push them in a new place,” said Reifman, who will make the app’s code available to any college interested in using it for a student publication.

The data from the study will be analyzed by Greenhow this fall. But Lavrusik said the anecdotal evidence suggests the application could work. Readers seemed to enjoy the community-building and really responded to the prizes.

“It seems like there’s some people who are really involved for one week,” Reifman said. “There’s a core group of people doing it daily or weekly. It depended week to week.”

Readers, who were mainly students, but extended beyond the campus, would post stories that ranged from hyper-local news stories about campus issues to international coverage by the BBC, he said.

Lavrusik said 41 percent of visits to The Daily site in one recent month came in through search engines and 38 percent were referred from other sites. Of those 38 percent, 15 percent came from Facebook. That’s about 15,000 of the 257,000 visits that month.

The numbers aren’t overwhelming, but what Lavrusik liked about Facebook was that sharing the stories brought in a stream of people who would not normally go to the newspaper’s Web site.

“This Facebook application has the ability to attract people who would not normally know about your site,” said Lavrusik, who has been accepted to study at Columbia University’s School of Journalism this fall. “It’s like a YouTube approach.”

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