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Newspapers + Government: 2.0

Friday, May 20, 2011

How news organizations and local governments can build effective online engagement platforms.

H. L. Mencken once said, “A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant, and the crazy crazier.” The “Sage of Baltimore” knew of what he spoke, having infuriated many over four decades’ writing for the Baltimore Sun. Since the invention of the printing press, communication from writer to reader has been essentially a one-way street. And while the advent of the Web has caused many to sound the death knell for newspapers, creative publishers are taking advantage of the Internet’s interactivity to develop civic engagement tools that both educate and solicit the informed “voice” of their readers. Because municipal governments have already undertaken similar efforts, relative strengths and weaknesses of government vs. newspaper-hosted online engagement are emerging.

As city governments from Santa Cruz, California, to Wilmington, North Carolina, wrestle with ever-tightening budgets, many are attempting to engage residents through a growing number of platforms online. Some, like San Francisco-based UserVoice’s Plan for Civic Engagement, are what I dub an “idea aggregation/prioritization tool,” able to theme thousands of user-submitted ideas into a manageable number, while also allowing participants to evaluate options through up/down voting. Others, like Next 10’s “Budget Challenge” ask users a series of trade-off policy questions (think a much more powerful Survey Monkey) on issues from budgets to sustainability.

Creative publishers are taking advantage of the Internet’s interactivity to develop civic engagement tools that both educate and solicit the informed ‘voice’ of their readers.

The increasing use of these tools by local and state governments has created a niche within the burgeoning “Gov 2.0” field, which now covers enterprises from participatory policy making to 311-systems. Although newspapers have been slower to employ these online engagement platforms, several interesting initiatives launched by newspapers from the San Francisco Chronicle and its water shortage game to the Washington Post’s city budget balancing tool indicate that news organizations are beginning to take the lead in online public participation. This can be seen as both good and bad.

On the positive side, these tools are interactive, allowing a new and participatory form of learning for participants. Matched with the popularity of online games in general, these online civic engagement platforms can create a real “win-win” for both news organizations and users alike—informing readers and driving precious online traffic to newspaper websites.

The Sacramento Bee launched its California budget game in February. Recently, their Capitol Bureau chief, Dan Smith, told the Poynter Institute’s journalism website, “The feedback that I’ve gotten is far more positive than almost anything we’ve done. People really like this because it gets them involved. I think people understand a lot better when they put themselves in that position of actually having to make the choice that a policy maker is faced with.”

These interactive sites are generating more attention, and as any Internet marketer will tell you, eyeballs matter—more webpage views mean more advertising revenue. The aforementioned Poynter Institute reports that the New York Times’s Federal Budget game garnered over 1 million page views, and even smaller news outlets like Ohio’s Columbus Dispatch with their State Budget platform are drawing a relatively impressive 1,100 page views per day.

Several interesting initiatives launched by newspapers indicate that news organizations are beginning to lead in online public participation. This can be seen as both good and bad.

When it comes to audience, newspapers have an important advantage over government-hosted web tools: most start with a significant online audience, whereas municipalities have to gain participants from zero. While many local and state governments have created websites out of necessity and have little interest in metrics like “page views,” “visits,” and “average time spent on site” (though this is changing), such statistics are the lifeblood for online news organizations.

Through the Davenport Institute here at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy, I have consulted on several online engagement efforts on issues ranging from budgets to land use. Governments I’ve worked with have an “if we build it, they will come” mentality concerning engagement platforms usually attached to low-traffic city websites, but news organizations think much more like marketers. Making this a somewhat easier proposition for newspapers is their freedom to get creative with promoting their Web games. An upcoming interactive platform on the city’s budget hosted by the Santa Barbara Noozhawk will offer prizes to the top ideas. I can’t imagine municipal governments having this ability.

On the flip side, “Newspaper 2.0” efforts have drawbacks relative to government-run sites. The most obvious is jurisdictional. Newspaper and non-government-hosted websites are at least one degree of separation from City Hall and statehouse officials who actually make policy decisions. Policy makers will take more seriously the results from online engagement efforts (as with face-to-face results) if they themselves both develop and host them. Extra-governmental projects can be dismissed by policy makers as possessing the bias of the facilitator—and not without reason. This is not to say that governments may not have their own biases, as I described concerning Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s influence on Los Angeles’s “Budget Challenge” tool last year.

An advantage that governments have over news organizations is subject-matter expertise.

A second advantage that governments have over news organizations is subject-matter expertise. While even small municipalities have entire departments addressing policies from budgets to land-use planning, most news organizations have only one or two reporters covering specific policy areas in particular governments. Developing effective online tools requires not only technical wizardry, but also serious policy and political knowledge. It is a tricky balance to strike, but the best platforms serve two civic educational purposes: teaching users policy basics while also demonstrating how difficult most of these decisions—from budgets to land use—are to make.

Whether hosted inside or outside government, the biggest challenge to the effectiveness of online policy-making tools is our representative democratic process, which demands collaboration and deliberation—two actions that often cannot be incorporated into an online initiative. As Thomas Donlan of Barron’s Magazine concluded after recently completing the New York Times’s Federal Budget game, “The lesson is that it’s not at all hard for any one newspaper reader to balance the federal budget, as long as that person exercises dictatorial power and doesn’t have to compromise with anyone else.”

Perhaps, this difficulty cannot be overcome completely, but that does not mean that the processes cannot be improved. The way to build the most effective online engagement platforms is for news organizations and local governments to collaborate from their strengths: newspapers bringing their informed readership and marketing skills, working with a municipality’s budget and policy experts. Of course, these relationships demand both transparency and a lack of bias—qualities neither party is known for. But—and this may be hardest of all—these tools also need citizens who are both engaged on local issues and humble about the challenges of forming public policy.

Pete Peterson is executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.

FURTHER READING: Peterson has also written “Making a Federal(ist) Case Out of Civility,” “Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart, and the Science of the Jeremiad,” and “On L.A. Sidewalks: A Keynesian Cautionary Tale (for Both Parties).” Nick Schulz says “Information Technology Remains the One U.S. Economic Ace,” Norm Ornstein et al. discuss “Reform in an Age of Networked Campaigns,” and Roger Scruton explores “Hiding Behind the Screen.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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