News Leadership 3.0

December 29, 2009

Government 2.0: What’s in it for local news?

The fast-growing Government 2.0 movement could create opportunities for news orgs to get more local news and engagement without necessarily having to write more traditional stories.

(This is the fourth in a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran about how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Local governments are the source of much local news—yet often they do a notoriously poor job of communicating with community members and news organizations. This is starting to change as more governments become open to experimenting with new tools for sharing info and engaging community members. image

Monitoring and getting involved with these experiments can yield new opportunities to for local news. This content could be more engaging and less labor-intensive than traditional reporting.

The key to making this cooperation work is connecting with people in government who are eager and able to try new approaches to public transparency and engagement. The Government 2.0 (Gov2.0) movement is a great place to find allies for strengthening communities and local news.

Recommendation 4 in the Knight Commission Report is:

“Require government at all levels to operate transparently, facilitate easy and low-cost access to public records, and make civic and social data available in standardized formats that support the productive public use of such data.”

The Knight report suggests some ways to approach this by strengthening and more fully implementing public information rules, open meeting rules, and open courtrooms. These are also passions of government employees and officials involved in Gov2.0.

Gov2.0 is a movement among government employees, as well as other interested people, to apply the strengths of social networking and Web 2.0 tools to all levels of government. The goal is to create systems for public transparency, participation, and collaboration. Although Gov2.0 first gained momentum among federal employees, it’s quickly spreading through many state and local governments.

In fact, in coming years local government may be where much of the Gov2.0 action is. Mark Drapeau, a leading Gov2.0 practitioner, recently listed “local governments as experiments” as the first of his top five Gov2.0 predictions for 2010-12. Gartner analyst Andrea DiMaio agrees and notes:

“Indeed we have seen and will see the best from local authorities. Not because they are necessarily smarter or bolder, but because they are—by their nature—much closer to ‘real’ communities. The issues they deal with are local in nature and touch citizens more directly: parks, waste collection, traffic, environment, safety.”

ACTION STEPS: CONNECTING WITH GOV2.0 PEOPLE

1. Go where they are. The Gov2.0 community has some important gathering places online. Joining these communities, finding participants and projects near you, and getting involved in their conversations and events can help you find mutually beneficial opportunities to experiment.

GovLoop is your first stop to connect with the Government 2.0 crowd. This community includes people from all levels of government, so search it to find groups, blogs, and members from your region (or who are discussing larger issues that have strong local angles for you). To find local GovLoop members, try searching for your city and state in this format: Oakland, CA. Selectively friending local GovLoop members and asking about their current Government 2.0 projects or interests can be a good way to break the ice. This guide to searching GovLoop can help you find other useful info in GovLoop.

Also, GovFresh features the best of US Gov 2.0 news, TV, ideas, and live feeds of government social media activity.

2. Attend Gov2.0 events in person or online. CityCamp is a participant-organized “unconference” about practicing Gov 2.0 at the local level. It will be held Jan 23-24, 2010 in Chicago. Someone attending from a news org might volunteer to run a session on how local media can complement local Gov2.0 efforts. For discussion, this group has a forum/mailing list, in-progress agenda, Facebook Group, and GovLoop group. Also, on Twitter, you can follow @CityCamp or watch the hashtag #citycamp.

Similarly, Gov2.0 Expo 2010 will be held May 25-27 in Washington, DC. This is part of O’Reilly Media’s high-profile Gov2.0 Summit event series. This will probably have a heavy federal government focus, so it might be most appropriate for national or major metro daily news orgs to attend.

3. Build on existing efforts. Most people involved in Government 2.0 already have projects in mind or in progress: data or documents they’d like to improve access to, easier channels for public participation, etc. In general, it’s probably easiest to work with what they’re already doing, rather than invent projects from scratch.

Once you assess which Government 2.0 projects are already in the works in your region, consider opportunities where using your news site and/or social media presence as a platform could enhance these efforts—while also providing relevant newsworthy content, and building community loyalty to your brand.

Possible results. Cooperating on Gov2.0 projects might be as simple as selectively retweeting local government Twitter items, or periodically excerpting content from their Facebook fan page or group onto yours.

Or imagine a local government decides to set up a site like Manor Labs where community members can submit ideas, rate them, and be rewarded for innovation. A local news organization might run a regular feature highlighting the best-rated submissions—thus increasing participation by reaching more of the community, and spurring constructive local discussion. A more automated approach might be to embed on the news site a widget that provides some of the civic site’s functionality.

You’ll only really start to see the possibilities for collaborating with more open, engaged, online-savvy governments once you start talking with the Gov2.0 community. These are creative, friendly people, eager to engage. And in many cases, the prospect of cooperation with or support from local media could tip Gov2.0 projects from ideas into reality.

Previously:

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

December 22, 2009

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

In most communities, getting up to speed on—and involved in—local civic issues is more work than it should be. In a guest post, Amy Gahran offers one strategy that will enable news organizations to help communities, democracy and their own bottom line by making local civic info easier to find, understand, and use.

(This is the third in a series of guest posts about how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Right now, how do people in your community get a quick overview of current local civic issues, and how to get involved?

Chances are they’ll have to spend time searching for and reading back through the right section of one or more poorly designed/written local government web sites. Plus, they might search Google and local blogs and news sites for local transit coverage—probably with scattershot results. image

That’s a lot of work—enough work that most people would probably find it far more appealing to remain mostly uninformed and disengaged.

Strengthening local community and democracy can be good for the news business—if you do both in a way that plays nice with search engines. Topic pages are an effective strategy for attracting search engine traffic (which is why Wikipedia ends up at the top of search results for almost any topic).

What if local news sites published local civic topic pages? These would be not just about big or ongoing news stories, but about local civic organizations and processes, or perennial issues (such a local elections or municipal budgets).

Over time, this strategy might attract more local traffic via search engines. This could help news organizations better serve local communities, local advertisers, and their own bottom line.

A topic page is, in part, a more structured approach to providing information. Kevin Sablan explains that a topic page “typically contains a brief textual and visual synopsis of one topic (e.g. a person, issue or company) along with links to other articles, blog posts, pictures, video. etc.” More from Steve Yelvington on the value of topic pages for news sites.

Several national news outlets have introduced topic pages as a strategy to draw search traffic—including the New York Times, Huffington Post, and USAtoday. Even the Associated Press is hatching a topic page strategy (despite that earlier this year they complained loudly about search engines and news aggregators).

This year there’s been considerable saber rattling in the online news biz over the role of search engines and news aggregators. Steve Yelvington argues that nonlocal, search-driven traffic may not really help the bottom line of sites that publish community news. He may have a point, but: Topic pages on local civic topics (not just big local news that might also attract national attention) could attract more local traffic through search engines—the kind of traffic local advertisers value most.

According to the Knight Commission report, communities need easy access to civic and social information: “People need to know their rights and how to exercise them. They need to know how well public officials and institutions function. They need the underlying facts and informed analysis about the social, economic, political, and cultural factors that shape the community’s challenges and opportunities. They need news.”

Several regional or local news outlets already aggregate headlines, background, and context on their big or ongoing stories into landing pages like this factory closing page from InsideBayArea.com. Staff web producers create these pages manually, but new relevant stories get added automatically when they include appropriate keywords or tags.

If your news org is already doing something similar, here’s how you could experiment with applying this approach to a civic institution (such as city council or public health department) or a civic process (such as local elections or long-term municipal planning).

ACTION STEPS

Start with the low-hanging fruit. Consider which civic institutions or processes your news org already covers regularly. City council, the police department, and school board are likely candidates—as are local elections and economic development programs. Also, ask local reference librarians at the public library which local civic issues people ask about most.

From this, select your initial target topic. For instance, if property taxes are a perennial topic of local debate and confusion, you might create a topic page on the County Assessor.

Write a brief synopsis, just 1-3 paragraphs. Cover the bare basics of what the target institution or process does, and its community significance. Include a bullet list of key current or past issues or controversies involving your target (such as corruption scandals, major initiatives, etc.)

If a local grassroots civic wiki exists, contact its operators and ask whether you can republish some of their content on your topic page—with credit and a link.

Search optimization. Make sure your page title and synopsis includes terms that local people might actually search for. For instance, a civic topic page about the Alameda County Assessor’s Office might bear the title: Oakland Property Taxes: Alameda County Assessor.

Enable engagement. Include a resource list of names, titles, and contact info for key relevant officials. Also link to relevant web sites, to encourage direct engagement. (Not just to the home page, but to specifics such as event calendars, instructions or FAQs, etc.) You might also link to relevant associated organizations, such as community or watchdog groups.

Configure your content management system to syndicate to the civic topic page recent headlines that mention or are relevant to your target instituion or process. It’s best to trigger this off of an internal taxonomy such as story tags, but it could be based on keyword searches of the content.

Monitor traffic to the page. Topic pages tend to attract more traffic—and better search ranking—over time. So set up a local civic topic page or two as an experiment, let it run over a few months, and watch what happens. See which search terms bring people to the page, and how much of that traffic is local. Periodically conduct Google searches to see how your page is ranking for desired search terms.

Make someone responsible for updating civic topic pages. For instance, if the local board of education announces plans to renovate several schools, that might warrant a mention in the topic page synopsis. Similarly, a school board election would require an update to the contact list.

Make sure your reporters, editors, and producers know how to tag stories so they show up on relevant topic pages.

Assess your experiment. After about six months, assess whether and how this strategy is working for you. How does your topic page’s search ranking for desired search terms compare to, say, local blogs, organizations, or official sites? How much local v. nonlocal traffic are those pages attracting? Do they get more traffic when there’s relevant breaking news?

Expand, as simply as possible. The more you can template the format of your civic topic pages, simplify their updating, and automate syndication of current news to them, the easier it will be to create more of them. Over time you’ll hone your approach. You’ll also compile a valuable community resource that supports civic engagment while driving the kind of traffic that could help you earn more revenue from local advertisers.

Previously:

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

December 15, 2009

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Driving is much easier—and safer—when you can see the dashboard. It helps to know how fast you’re going, whether your engine is overheating, and how much gas you have left. Plus, if you’re driving a newer car, your dashboard may show where you are, how to get where you want to go, and whether you’re using gas efficiently.

No driver ever watches the dashboard constantly. However, if those indicators weren’t there, you’d probably get pretty anxious behind the wheel.

Similarly, communities seeking to steer toward a healthy future need ongoing, easy access to relevant, structured, local information—a “community dashboard”...

(This is the second in a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Last week I wrote about how news organizations could help strengthen communities by presenting more structured information about vital community issues, as a complement to traditional news stories.

Structured information is organized consistently to make it easier to manipulate or reuse in a database, computer program, or web application. This, in turn, makes it easier for people to sort, search, trend, and compare that information. image

...In contrast, unstructured text (like most news stories) can be searched but not easily reused, analyzed, trended, or otherwise manipulated.

News organizations already publish many kinds of structured information: weather forecasts, sports scores, election results, stock prices, and more. They also publish many kinds of vital community information, such as local economic indicators—but typically in story format, such as: Denver home resales up 23% in November from 2008

News venues are an ideal place to display a community dashboard of local economic, civic, or quality-of-life indicators. The catch is: Developing indicators and compiling that data continuously is a big job—and not always a core strength of news organizations.

Fortunately, other community players are already doing a lot of this work. Finding and collaborating with them can help:

Researchers and officials: Academic researchers, government agencies, nonprofits, and social service organizations often are skilled at compiling structured community information—which is why the Knight Commission report listed some of them as vital community information intermediaries.

However, often these players’ efforts to share their information are not easy for community members to find, understand, and use.

For example, Temple University’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Metro Indicators Project has compiled and analyzed a wealth of information benchmarks to gauge the status of community issues such as civic participation, transportation, the regional economy, housing, education, and more in the 353 municipalities in and around Philadelphia. This information is gathered through rigorous surveys and analysis, but presented mainly via complex reports in pdf format on a web site that probably is not well known among community members.

A search of Philly.com, the leading metro daily news organization for the region, revealed only one story mentioning this project. More collaboration between the university and the news organization might go a long way toward helping people in the Philadelphia area understand their communities.

Librarians: These information professionals are skilled at sharing information (including structured information) with community members. Also, public libraries typically have a strong local focus and commitment to community service. Most importantly, librarians usually know what kinds of information community members seek or need.

The American Library Association’s Civic Engagement blog is a great resource for understanding what libraries have to offer on this front.

Other news organizations: It’s possible—and perhaps increasingly desirable—for local news organizations that once considered themselves competitors (or serving different audiences, like local ethnic, college, or business media) to collaborate to create community resources based on structured information.

Web application developers: These programmers (rather than web site designers) are skilled at making structured information user-friendly and engaging. However, few web application developers focus on local communities. The Knight News Challenge-funded startup Everyblock, recently acquired by MSNBC, is one example of how web applications can support community-level democracy and quality of life.

ACTION STEPS

Identify willing and able local information partners. Partnering is first and foremost about relationships—which means talking to (and collaborating with) people.

Look over the list of potential partners above. Your news organization probably already has many contacts in each category—probably as sources, but perhaps as partners in various community or publishing projects. List your best contacts in each category: Cooperative people who tend to know a lot of about who’s doing what in their organizations or fields.

Call some potential partners with whom your news organization has existing relationships. Tell them you’re considering publishing a community dashboard of important local indicators. Suggest weekly or biweekly to start. Ask them: What kind of indicators do you think should be on that community dashboard? And: Could you help supply information for our dashboard?

If people have trouble grasping the community dashboard concept, show them Temple University’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Metro Indicators Project. Then say: “We’re thinking of packaging a small-scale version of something like this in a format similar our weather forecast box. We’re not exactly sure what the final product would look like, but it would be more like an infographic than a story. And it would come out regularly, so people could track it easily.”

The web application developers represent a different type of partner. Ask them for their ideas about presentation and delivery of a community dashboard. But they may also have content ideas, too.

Once you’ve identified at least a few potential partners who are willing and able to help, get them together for a brainstorming session with the people on your staff most skilled at working with structured information. (Last week I suggested how to identify these valuable staffers). The goals of the brainstorming session would be:

  1. What kind of a community dashboard would we like to see? (Creativity)
  2. How could we start to create that dashboard? (Prioritize options)
  3. What are the first tasks to get started? (Commit to action)

If you can only get through the first two goals, that’s significant progress. It’s most important to build momentum and relationships, and to create opportunities for action (not just abstract discussions). Having such an action-focused base of collaboration can help move forward many of the Knight Commission report’s recommendations.

Also, from here, you can design small-scale pilot projects to introduce your community to the idea of a community dashboard.

December 08, 2009

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Communities need relevant, timely information in order to function well. Traditional narrative-format news is one way to package that information. News stories work great as snapshots, but generally not so well for gauging relevant issues on a daily basis. By publishing more structured information, news organizations might help people more clearly understand their world and make decisions about their lives and communities.

(I’m pleased to have digital provocateur extraordinaire Amy Gahran on board as a guest blogger. Today, Amy starts a series of weekly posts that look at how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program published its flagship report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age” on Oct. 2. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Knowledge is power—and knowledge springs from information. In any society, but especially in a democracy, people need current, relevant, and useful information in order to know how to exercise their power to make better decisions and build better, stronger communities.

imageThe Knight Commission report offered rich guidance for how news organizations, governments, schools, libraries, bloggers, and other leading players in the community information landscape could better manage the supply and flow of vital community information. The goal: to create robust local “information ecologies” that support local democracy and quality of community life.

In a new series of posts to the News Leadership 3.0 blog, we’ll explore opportunities to realize the Knight report’s recommendations—examples of what’s happening, what works (or not), and what’s possible. We’ll consider new kinds projects and collaboration, and suggest steps to take action.

Our starting point is the first question the report sought to answer: What are a community’s information needs?

The Knight report proposed 15 ways to to better manage the supply and flow of vital community information. However, it offered surprisingly little insight on which types of information communities need to support the goals outlined in the report: community coordination and problem-solving, public accountability, and a sense of connectedness.

According to the report, the tools to generate a specific list of vital community information types and measurements aren’t quite there yet. Information researchers are still working to develop them. But the executive summary did outline some general categories to consider:

“...In addition to the information necessary to participate in elections and civic affairs, people need access to information to better their lives. Where families struggle to make ends meet and many men and women work multiple jobs, free time is limited. Indeed the path to civic engagement may begin with fulfillment of basic information needs, including info about:

  • Jobs
  • Housing
  • Taxes
  • Safety
  • Education
  • Transportation
  • Recreation
  • Entertainment
  • Food and shopping
  • Utilities
  • Child care
  • Healthcare
  • Religious resources
  • Local news

News organizations traditionally have packaged these types of community and civic information in a narrative story format. In the narrative format, information is primarily communicated through a continuous flow of text, audio/video, or slideshow/photo gallery. Charts, interactive, or infographic components only play a supporting role.

Narrative news stories work great as snapshots—but they can be less helpful for ongoing public awareness, analysis, and decision making.

Fortunately, most of the vital community info types above already exist at least partly in the form of structured information (data sets, regularly compiled statistics, lists, surveys, forms, etc.) The strength of structured information is that it works more easily and flexibly as a kind of radar screen or dashboard. This helps people gauge on a daily basis the state of issues affecting their lives—and how they (or their communities) “measure up.”

Adopting a more structured approach to providing community information, delivered at least partly via news media, can complement traditional news stories in order to support community-level democracy. We’ll examine this strategy in the next post in this series.

ACTION STEP:

Before you start trying to do something new, it’s helpful to assess what you’re already doing. Your news organization may already have more structured information capacity than you realize.

So: Assess which types of information your news organization already publishes periodically in a structured format: tables, info graphics, charts, statistics, interactive tools, etc. Ideally this information is published daily or weekly—but don’t discount monthly, annual, or event-related reports.

Look for information that you publish primarily through tables, charts, form-style blurbs, or infographics (rather than stories).

This can include information with obvious civic or community impacts, such as election results and candidate positions, school report cards, water quality reports, sales tax receipts, crime rates, health statistics, housing or real estate statistics or transactions, unemployment figures, and more.

...But it also can include non-civic information such as weather forecasts, sports scores/statistics, death notices, or stock prices. Again, when compiling this list, pay attention to the format of reporting, not the substance of what’s reported.

Once you’ve created this list, consider: Which of your structured information reports are most popular with your community? You might gauge this through audience surveys. However, simply recalling the feedback you get about this information (especially when you move or change how or where it’s presented) can help you decide what’s working best.

Then consider: What are your existing resources and processes for publishing structured information? It can help to map out the basics of your processes with flow chart tool like Flowchart.com, or to draw it all on a huge brainstorming pad.

For instance: Newspapers often run a local “weather box” on the front page. Where does that information come from? How much time did it take do design that weather box? How much time and effort does it take each day to update it? Who’s involved with each part of the process?

Similarly, if your news organization publishes a form-style or tabular guide to candidates’ positions for local elections: What’s your process for deciding which questions to ask the candidates? How do you gather that information? What’s your process for compiling, editing, and presenting that information? How much time/effort does each part of the process take? Which parts of the process work well, and which are problematic? Who’s involved?

...Once you’ve mapped out some of those regular processes, look for patterns. Which people in your organization have a flair or affinity for any part of this work? Which tasks are streamlined, and which are vague or convoluted? Which of these efforts feel rewarding, and which make you groan?

Publishing more structured information can support healthier communities—but you don’t have to do it all at once. Clarifying your existing strengths and resources can help you decide where to start and set yourself up for easy “wins.”

Next week: How to adopt a more structured approach to providing community information

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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