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Alexander Howard

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As Newsprint Fades, Can Websites Sustainably Fill the Information Needs of Citizens?

Posted: 05/31/2011 6:37 pm

At this point in 2011, the permanent disruption that the Internet poses to the traditional business models of newspapers have been well documented. Craigslist, eBay and Monster.com have each become platforms for the classified revenue that sustained local newspapers when they helped a monopoly for local advertising. No single, replicable business model for media in the information age has emerged since, although literally hundreds of panels, conferences and colloquia have been held to debate the issue.

Every day, more citizens are turning to the Internet for government information, searching for more data, policy and services. The information needs of those citizens, however, are not being met in many municipalities, particularly as local newspapers close. Many local and state governments no longer have dedicated reporters.

That trend was one of the drivers for the landmark Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. The Knight Commission subsequently offered up 15 recommendations on ways to provide the means for citizens to be informed about their communities. Earlier this year, the Knight Commission released a new white paper that included recommendations for creating local online hubs.

The white paper, by Adam Thierer, explored three different scenarios where community leaders, citizens, media, technologists, open data and -- critically, local government -- can collaborate in building new Internet platforms. The first model, where open government data feeds, civic information and events calendars are mashed up, visualized and distributed, will be familiar to Radar readers. Open government data repositories can enable civic developers to create new mobile applications like HearNear, which uses geolocation to push updates to citizens in Seattle.

"Governments need to get more information out and make it more accessible," said Thierer at the roundtable on government transparency and online hubs in Washington, D.C. where the white paper was introduced. "This shouldn't be controversial." As the United Kingdom's Nigel Shadbolt emphasized this week in Spain, open data is not a partisan issue. You can watch the archived webcast of the discussion at the Aspen Institute, below. The discussion on online hubs is in the first half of the recording.

In his remarks, Thierer asserted that government could catalyze and support this development simply by doing a much better job of making such information easily available in open government formats. While open government data stores have grown around the United States and the world at the federal and state level, Thierer noted that the trend has not trickled down. He cited the example of Manor, Texas, as one example of where one local champion (former CIO Dustin Haisler) was able to get help from Stanford and other external resources to get the local open data repository online.

As Nick Clark Judd reported at techPresident, however, once Haisler moved on to a role in the private sector, the digital communities he'd propagated to tap into citizens' smarts have grown quiet. There may well be an important lesson here, with respect to the role of human involvement in community, that Gabe Rivera has learned over the years at TechMeme and Mediagazer, where humans like Megan (@megan) McCarthy curate the most relevant stories of the day for technology and media audiences.

During the workshop, Thierer also focused on the important role that libraries and local or state universities -- along with the many educated humans that work in them -- play in this new ecosystem, by connecting offline and online worlds. These universities could create "code toolboxes" that local communities can use, as Stanford did for Manor, and replicate that model nationally.

What is an online hub?

As a recent journalism conference in Missouri hashed out, core elements of an online hub include:

  • aggregated government information and data
  • a calendar of local events
  • a space for community conversation
  • an adaptable information structure
  • a sense of community ownership
  • free, accessible resources for all connected citizens

Here's one reason why communities achieving this end matters: where citizens are both aware of government information being released and can find it, open government to higher levels of community satisfaction. That's a serious carrot for elected officials to open up government. Mayors and governors that want to go in this direction local open government directive that Cook County recently adopted in Illinois, or New York City's digital road map.

Research on community information systems released by the Pew Internet and Life Project earlier this year validated strong citizen interest in what the survey identified as an "online portal" for government and civic information. Citizens want an local online hub that provides relevant information about their city and neighborhoods. More than three-quarters of the respondents in these three communities (78%) said it was ‘very important’ that a government website be set up for this and another 17% said it was ‘somewhat important.’”

There are real challenges here, however, around awareness and what you could call "discoverability" of the information, in terms of citizens being able to find what they need using search engines or social networks. While each of the 3 communities surveyed (San Jose, CA, Macon, GA, and Philadelphia, PA) have an "online portal" for government and civic information, only a little more than a third of their residents were fully aware of the local government website.. From the Pew report:

Moreover, in the opinion surveys, we found that many who tried to use the internet to get local civic information could not always find what they were seeking. Only a quarter of these residents said that when they did searches for local civic information they always found what they were seeking. Yet even when they found what they were seeking, only 37% said the information presented to them was very clear and easy to understand.

A crucial question to ask is whether and how such a website should be -- or even can be -- maintained by local governments in the context of tightening budgets everyone. The United Kingdom is seeking alpha with a new template for a government website, Alpha.gov.uk, in hopes of reducing costs and providing e-services attuned to what citizens are looking for online. Given the costs involved in opening data, however, there will need to be real payoffs for internal efficiency, productivity, accountability, civic utility or economic value creation for budget-strapped city managers to invest.

Defining and developing sustainable models for online information hubs is not going to be easy. In fact, on the commercial side, it's been quite hard. There's a compelling data story in how the Texas Tribune has built its operations (more on that later) but their model is attuned to covering a statehouse, not a hub for a city or town. Megalopolises like London, Tokyo or New York City will retain enough funding to pursue becoming digital cities and ambitious open government initiatives.

Small towns in many cases do not and most likely will not have the resources to follow their lead. That puts them in a tight spot, given that their citizens still need digital resources and a more accountable, efficient government. Kristy Fifelski, the webmaster for Reno.gov, recently delivered a presentation at the Gov 2.0a conference in Oklahoma City, Oklahama, where she highlighted how much room to grow remains for local governments, particularly for mobile residents.

One answer to that need may lie in "Gov 2.0 makeovers," that leverage the growing number of free or inexpensive Web-based tools available to city managers, including a growing repository of open source civic software at Civic Commons. Another direction lies in the use of local wikis to connect communities, the DavisWiki. As Thierer emphasized, libraries will be important hubs for rural communities and will be a core element of bridging the digital divide in underconnected communities. Listservs, like the ones offered from e-democracy, will play a role in connecting citizens using the Internet's original killer app, email. Platforms for participatory budgeting may be integrated into hubs, for municipalities that have a tolerance for ceding more power of the purse directly to citizens.

Many forward-thinking local governments will provide the means for citizens to obtain information without using the Internet at all, by using the most common electronic device: a cellphone. Arkansas, for instance, has added question and answer functionality for citizens using text messaging. As local governments around the world look to improve electronic government services, mobile programs that reach the citizens who aren't on the Web are going to be critical.

Should small cities or towns invest in citizens engagement, not just opening up data? The government as a platform approach looks to nonprofits, civic coders, educator, media, concerned citizens and commercial interests to fill that gap, building upon the core Web services and data government can provide. A recent essay on newspapers and government: 2.0 by Professor Pete Peterson of Pepperdine University explored the potential for media and local government to collaborate on citizen engagement.

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.

To date, however, that kind of cooperation doesn't appear to be gathering much momentum as a complement to the press looking for fraud, corruption or scandal. And, as Peterson focuses upon, there are other challenges:

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."

Commercial or non-profit models?

To date, the history of for-profit local online media startups hasn't been promising. Earlier this year, Marshall Kirkpatrick tackled the question of why neighborhood news sites haven't worked out over at ReadWriteWeb last week. Kirkpatrick offered an impassioned plea to the backers of Outside.in, EveryBlock, Patch and Fwix:

Give me the news about my neighborhood, please. Give me the restaurant reviews, the crime reports, the events listings, the gossip. Give me the art and the music I can find if I walk out my door. Give me a robot that finds the news stories too small for almost anyone else to care about. I care about what's happening in the neighborhood around me and I want to see the fabulous new technologies of open government data, online news syndication, social networking and data mining all put to service to fulfill hyperlocal news wishes and dreams I didn't even know I had yet.

Pulling that off is easier said than done, as the vibrant comment section of his post showed. It hasn't magically become any easier since Kirkpatrick tackled the issue, either. Everyblock relaunched as a community site, trying to hone in to connecting neighbors to one another. It will have to offer compelling reasons for those neighbors to leave Facebook or other online forums. The takeaway for Everyblock was automation alone wasn't working. And as the comments in Kirkpatrick's post suggest, this is a thorny problem to solve.

Patch.com is in the same space, with a big backer (AOL) and a different strategy: aggregation. As Mathew Ingram put it at GigaOm, Patch is trying to become the Huffington Post of local news. (Given that Arianna Huffington is now heading up of AOL's editorial operations, the metaphor is apropos.) Based upon the performance of hyperlocal sites like BackFence and Bayosphere, Ingram isn't hopeful about Patch's prospects.

That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't other kinds of sustainable models coming online. The Batavian, up in Genesee County, New York, has managed to provide online-only local news since 2008. It does mean that there's no clear-cut formula for success.

If states are the laboratories for democracy, as Thomas Jefferson famously said, towns and cities may be the Petri dishes that stress test the vitality of different species of online hubs. The ones that will stick around will have meet the information needs of citizens better than the alternatives - or have sustainable business models. In an ideal world, they'll have both.

The data story of the Texas Tribune

While models for local online hubs will continue to evolve, the Texas Tribune has emerged as a bright spot in the firmament of online media for state government. The Texas Tribune, which focuses on covering the Texas statehouse, is one of the most important examples of the growing importance of data journalism in the United States, given the success of its data visualizations and interactive.

"We now have almost 60 data-driven features, both complicated and basic," said Matt Stiles, a data journalist at the Texas Tribune. "We have a government pay database with more than 78 agencies, including schools, cities, counties, universities, and 600,000 employees,for example, and a comprehensive prisons app with 160,000 inmates, including their crimes, home counties, sentences, etc. But we also have quick one-off interactive maps made in Google Fusion Tables, or simple sortable tables for periodic campaign-finance totals."

While the scope and granularity of the data that the Texas Tribune has amassed is impressive, it's the online traffic and interest that their work has received that makes the case study important to the future of news.

"Since January 1 2010, we've had 20 million page views," said Stiles, interviewed in late 2010. "About 14.7 million views were on pages under our www.texastribune.org/library/data. That doesn't factor in our Directory, which lists elected officials' bios, staffs, election histories and district demographics/boundaries, [which has] had 300,000 page views this year. It's difficult to tell how data compares to "stories" and "blog posts" because we changed the URL structure mid-year for those content types, but clearly data accounts for about 70-75 percent of our load."

They'll have some more resources to apply: the Knight Foundation has awarded a grant of nearly half a million dollars to the Texas Tribune. Examples of the Texas Tribune's data journalism includes interactives on Texas prisons or government employee salaries, or gubernatorial election results.

What's next?

"Many other news organizations tell stories with data, and many do it better than us," said Stiles. "We're far away from where we want to be with our data product. But we've hired two new developers, and we're going to improve greatly in the coming months. My goal is to add more core apps, such as comprehensive state campaign donations and lobby spending, and become the go-to place for normalized and visualized data on these subjects, not unlike an 'opensecrets.org for Texas.' We also want to make sure these core apps better relate to news content and topics, and are accessible eventually via an API."

It will be interesting to see if NPR's new local government initiative, which will be ramping up its operations over the coming year, embraces data journalism is the same way. Whether data-driven storytelling and accountability journalism can mesh to provide the information needs that citizens need to be informed about the actions of their government will be one of the great questions of the years ahead. Here's hoping all of the brilliant people working hard find sustainable answers.

 

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