The ‘newsTracker’ for Facebook

Our company’s chairman, Don Graham, is probably as big of a Facebook fan as you will find.

Though he’s only had a Facebook account since probably July or August of this year, the guy knows more about how the site works (and more importantly, what it means) than probably any other traditional media executive in the country. And he hasn’t just jumped on the bandwagon — he’s been talking up Facebook for at least two years that I know of.

The guy flat-out gets it.

So, as our team here at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive was building our company’s first Facebook app — The Compass — back in May, there was no bigger supporter of the project at The Washington Post than Don Graham.

And he really liked The Compass, probably as much for the risks we took in building it as for what the app actually did.

But Don is a news guy. And he really wanted our team to build a real, honest-to-God news app for Facebook. He even had a concept for it.

I’m guessing the first call or e-mail about it came from him in September. He wanted us to build what he called a “news tracker” that would be powered by the content from The Washington Post, but integrate seamlessly into the Facebook environment.

We learned a whole lot about the Facebook universe with The Compass, and our biggest misconception was that the Facebook crowd wouldn’t want news content.

Though I still believe it’s true that the vast majority of those who turn to Facebook multiple times a day aren’t going there for traditional news content, I didn’t fully understand that you don’t need the vast majority of the Facebook community to like something in order for it to really work. It’s such a big place, you only need some of them to want or like it in order for it to still be quite effective.

Kind of like a newspaper.

You see, the monthly numbers to Facebook are so massive it’s hard for most newspaper sites to grasp them. A recent story in Wired magazine said the site is signing up nearly 1 million new users a week, and currently has more than 36 million users. More importantly, the story said, “the fastest-growing segment of Facebook users is over 35, a group that represents 11 percent of all site users.”

I’ve often heard that Facebook generates more than 40 billion page views a month. And you only need a fraction of those folks to want news in order for something like a “news tracker” to make a difference. So, we set out to build one.

The premise was simple: Enter one or multiple search terms and the app will search not only, but hundreds of other news sites to see what’s out there right now. The app would also show a search cloud of your Facebook friends’ search terms, and then throw in some breaking news from The Washington Post just so you’d know the latest.

And because it’s a social-networking site, we’d make sure all of those elements could be shared and commented on throughout your Facebook network.

Then, after having been blown away by some of the things that Bob Cauthorn is working on with his suite of CityTools features, I knew I wanted to ask him for help on the app, which he graciously provided.

Though Bob did so much behind the scenes to help us on this app that I’m a little embarrassed to list all that he did, one of my favorite parts of his CityTools site became one of the features of our news tracker. He calls it “ambient” news. On our app, we call it “Hot News Topics,” and what it essentially does is look at the most common words that are showing up in news stories around the world and then builds a tag cloud from them.

The actual “newsTracker” app was built by WPNI programmer extraordinaire, Deryck Hodge, who did an amazing job with it. In all the years I’ve been lucky enough to work with Deryck, this is one of my favorite things he’s ever built.

The design, which I think is amazing, was done by Jesse Foltz, who once again has shown that he’s a master at making something look really elegant while keeping things imminently usable. Jesse is a genius at building intuitive user-interfaces.

One of my favorite things that these guys accomplished in building the “newsTracker” app is that it’s simple to use, but if you’re a real news junkie, it has lots of other cool features to help you.

But my favorite part of this app is that it’s not done.

Once we launched The Compass, our team had to move directly to another project. It only took about 24 hours for us to realize we wanted to make several tweaks to that app, but we simply didn’t have the time.

For the “newsTracker,” we’re going to continue tweaking this badboy and we aren’t going to stop until it’s exactly like we want it.


You can add the “newsTracker” app to your Facebook profile by visiting this link.

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Dad. Journalist. Nerd. Music lover. Baseball fan. Puckhead.