This is a shortened
version of an essay that appeared originally at The
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 whereof
he spoke, having infuriated many over four decades’ writing for the Baltimore Sun. From the invention of the
printing press to the advent of the web, the direction of communication from
writer to reader was essentially a one-way street. Now, the more 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 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 attempt to engage their residents online through
a growing number of platforms. Some of
these, 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, and allowing
participants to evaluate options through up/down voting. Others, like Next 10’s
online "Budget Challenge" ask users
a series of trade-off policy questions (think a much more powerful "Survey
Monkey") on issues from budgets to sustainability.
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. While newspapers are new-comers to these online
engagement platforms, several interesting initiatives launched by newspapers,
from the San Francisco Chronicle’s
water shortage game to the Los Angeles Times’ "Budget
Balancer," indicate that news organizations are beginning to take the lead
in online public participation. This is both a good and bad thing.
On the positive side, these tools are interactive: 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 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, its 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." Smith added, "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 generate attention, and as any Internet
marketer will tell you, "eyeballs matter": more page views means more
advertising revenue. The aforementioned Poynter Institute reports that the New York Times’ Federal Budget game garnered over one 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.
Where municipalities often have to gain participants from scratch,
many newspapers start with a significant online audience – an important
advantage over government-hosted web tools. Many local and state governments
have created their websites out of necessity, and have little interest(though
this is changing) in metrics like "page views," "visits", and "average time
spent on site." Such statistics are the life blood of online news
Governments I’ve worked with on these "2.0" efforts have an "if we
build it they will come" mentality concerning their engagement
platforms(usually attached to existing, low-traffic city websites) , but news
organizations think much more like marketers. For one thing, newspapers have
the freedom to get creative with promoting web games. An interactive platform
hosted by the Santa Barbara Noozhawk on the city’s budget will offer cash prizes to the top ideas.
Municipal governments don’t have this ability.
On the flip side, "Newspaper 2.0" efforts have their own
drawbacks. The most obvious is jurisdictional. Newspaper websites are at least
"one degree of separation" from City Hall and State House officials who
actually make policy decisions. As with face-to-face results, policymakers will
results from online engagement efforts more seriously if they both develop and
host them. They can dismiss extra-governmental projects as reflecting the
facilitator’s bias – and not without reason. Of course, governments may have
their own biases, as I described Mayor Villaraigosa’s influence on LA’s "Budget
Challenge" tool last year.
A second advantage that governments have 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 serious policy and political
knowledge, as well as technical wizardry. The best platforms serve two civic
educational purposes: teaching users policy basics, while also demonstrating
how difficult most of these are to make.
Whoever hosts online policy-making tools, the biggest challenge to
their effectiveness is our representative democratic process, which demands
collaboration and deliberation – two actions that often cannot be incorporated
into an online initiative. Barron’s
Magazine’s Thomas Donlan concluded after recently completing the New York Times’ 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 most effective online engagement
platforms are built when news organizations and local governments collaborate
from their strengths: newspapers bringing informed readership and marketing
skills, to 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.