News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Government

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.”


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.


Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

January 05, 2010

Make key government documents easier to find, understand

“Who will cover city hall?” That’s a common (and valid) lament about the decline of the news business. If shrinking the void of local civic news is important to your news organization and local communities, there’s something you can do about it—even if you no longer have the resources to cover city hall the way you once did…

(This is part of 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

Some free online tools and a little editorial savvy can go a long way. They can’t replace the value of full-time reporters covering local government—but they can help citizens understand what’s happening, what’s important, and what their options are. image

The great wall between government and citizens is made out of paper. Most important government information is packaged in the form of print documents—either on actual paper, or digital versions thereof. This is especially true for local governments.

The Knight Commission report made this recommendation:

“Require government at all levels to operate transparently, facilitate easy and low-cost access to public records…”

Right now, the standard print-focused approach to government online publishing presents two major obstacles to citizen engagement:

  • Pretty hard to find. Governments almost always publish their documents online in the form of PDF files. If you’re lucky, these are generated from the word processing software in which they were written, so the text can be searched. However, often online government documents are scans of printouts so the content is not searchable. Most site search engines have trouble indexing PDF files, which means people searching a government site often miss the info they seek, even if it exists on the site. Even worse, files are often buried in confusing, complex navigation schemes—and it’s not unusual to see multiple versions of the same document. So: Digging for online government documents might be as frustrating as searching.
  • REALLY hard to read! Once you do find the government document you want, understanding what it means is a challenge. Bureaucratic language, unexplained acronyms, unclear references, and just plain awful writing quickly cause debilitating eye-glaze. Reporters are accustomed to decrypting bureaucratese—but most people outside of newsrooms, law offices, and government are flummoxed by it.

The reality is, governments are unlikely to significantly change anytime soon how they publish documents. This represents an opportunity for other players (especially news orgs) to both strengthen communities and benefit from community attention and goodwill by making key government documents easier to find and understand.

Free and low-cost online tools that allow the sharing and embedding of documents from within a web browser are the key to this strategy. Scribd and Docstoc are two of the most popular tools, but other options include Issuu, HubPages, and more.

These tools are the foundation of a new experiment by, a newly launched community news and information hub serving Oakland, California. (Disclosure: I am a senior editor on this site.)

On Jan. 4, Oakland Local founder Susan Mernit published the first in a series of “City Translator” articles. This story offered a plain-language “translation” of the agenda for an Oakland City Council meeting. This article included the original agenda document, which Mernit posted to and then embedded in the Oakland Local story.

Mernit started her article with a summary of which issues were likely to be “hot” at the meeting, plus a quick summary of the more ordinarily procedural matters to be covered. As her series evolves, she’ll experiment with varying format and level of detail, to see what works best for her community.

Embedding a shared document is as easy as embedding a YouTube video. The document services provide embed HTML code for each document uploaded. You simply copy that and past it into the HTML view of your content management system. Here’s an example of how an embedded document looks and works:

1 5 2010 Concurrent Meeting of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency City Council 10-01-05 Meeting Agenda  

Why embed a document? A plain-language summary and context is a good starting point for engagement, but it’s not enough. Embedding the document through a service like Scribd is so easy and visually appealing that there’s no reason not to do it. Especially since government documents are free to use, and since government web sites are notoriously convoluted and changeable. It’s a far better service to simply hand the correct document to your site’s visitors, without making them click anywhere.

Furthermore, allowing people to see the original document right in the browser (without having to download a file, launch a different program, or open a separate browser tab), is especially helpful for online visitors who are not tech-savvy—which is probably most visitors to mainstream news sites, especially local news.

News organizations regularly peruse many government documents, simply to keep abreast of what’s happening locally. Most of these documents never get covered. In fact, the only value the news org (and the community) get from this ongoing research process is when a traditional story gets written.

Through her City Translator approach, Mernit was able to quickly share with the community her assessment of the council meeting agenda—and thus get publishing mileage out of a task she would have done anyway (reading the agenda).

What if news orgs started running more items formatted similar to the City Translator? These would be low-overhead resource pieces, not conventional “stories.” They would be assessments of selected documents that best indicate the “pulse” of local government, with the actual documents embedded. They’d be teaching tools, explaining some nuances of how to find, understand, and use these documents for civic participation. They could also link to (or embed) related key documents as warranted, such as staff or committee reports, audit reports, case filings, etc.

The point is to make the most of the resources you’ve got, plus free simple tools and tasks you’re already doing, in order to better bridge the gap of local civic coverage. This strategy is one option for continuing to cover city hall in some meaningful way and help citizens stay informed and involved. It won’t replace traditional news stories, but it’s far better than de facto abdication of routine civic coverage.

As with most things in online media, if you’re not sure whether this approach would serve your news org or community well: Experiment! Pick just a few key documents, perhaps related to especially contentious local issues, and see what works.

Just make sure you highlight this new content on your home page, section pages, and e-mail/social media alerts. Don’t make the mistake of many local governments and expect people to hunt for it. The more you position civic content as a service, rather than a product, the more likely it will support your goals.


Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

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

January 07, 2010

Five trends to track in 2010

The news industry will continue to struggle this year, but we should get some clarity about pay walls, the role of community news start ups, social media, metrics of engagement, and statehouse coverage

Confusion is likely to reign in the news industry for at least another year, but I think we may start to get some clarity on several fronts:

1. Charging for access to content. More news organizations are likely to take start charging for content and I hope those trials give us more clarity on what works and what doesn’t. We know from the Wall Street Journal that a publisher can charge for specialized content that is seen as having high financial value. It also seems likely that a few local news organizations may be able to charge. But there are a lot of If’s for that: If the content is consistently unique (i.e. no competition) and relevant (i.e. performs a service for users), if free boot-strap competition doesn’t enter the market, and if advertisers don’t balk at a reduction in eyeballs looking at their ads. I do not think Rupert Murdoch’s plans to put News Corp content behind a paywall and a search wall are likely to work. But I hope he tries it. Either failure or success produces more clarity for the rest of us.

2. Social media.
I hope more mainstream news organizations will move past merely using social networks to promote their content and tap into rich opportunities to engage users where they live, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, and to help users navigate local connections. I have consulted with a couple of major news organizations that are looking to take on a role as community aggregater or news hub, and I am eager to see their projects unfold this year. As well, Knight Foundation is funding J-Lab’s Networked Journalism Project, which partners five established news organizations with local and neighborhood news sites. Meanwhile, Gov 2.0 may pick up some of the slack in informing citizens left by newsroom cutbacks.

3. Metrics.
Increased sophistication about social media may also prompt local news organizations to shift from worship at the Church of Search Engine Optimization, which brings eyeballs from around the globe, to fashioning themselves primarily as networks that engage and serve local users - the ones most of their advertisers really want to reach. Not to say SEO is a bad thing. But as a primary emphasis it seems to get in the way of doing the hard work of really connecting with local users. A shift will require a new way to measure connections with and relevance to users rather than relying primarily on counting unique visitors.

4. Local news startups.
The media landscape is dotted with neighborhood and community news sites. Some, like West Seattle Blog, are demonstrating that user loyalty and a focus on highly local advertising, add up to a modest business model. Others, like Oakland Local, demonstrate the power of community building, social media expertise and tech savvy. In 2010, we’ll get a clearer picture of the capacity and sustainability of these more sophisticated yet lean start ups.

5. Statehouse reporting.
This very significant victim of newsroom cutbacks—particularly sharp among large metros and state newspapers that have traditionally staffed state capitol bureaus—has not escaped the attention of foundations in several states and we’ll soon see more funding commitments. Texas Tribune is leading the way, with a professional staff and grants from Houston Endowment and the Knight Foundation. The just launched California Watch also has foundation support. Perhaps foundation funding is only a temporary solution but it will help keep statehouses honest for the time being.

What trends do you think we should be tracking this year? Please add your thoughts in the comments. Thank you.


January 26, 2010

Future of Media Project: FCC Wants Your Views by March 8

It looks like the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, and its 2009 report “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,” attracted close attention from the Federal Communications Commission—which is great, since one of the goals of the Knight report was to influence US media policy. On Jan. 21, the FCC announced its own remarkably similar initiative, the Future of Media Project.

This project seeks to “review the state of traditional sources of news and journalism, and new models for providing information to consumers and communities… The goal: to help ensure that all Americans have access to vibrant, diverse sources of news and information that will enable them to enrich their families, communities, and democracy.”

To start, the FCC has a lengthy list of questions concerning the role and future of media. Journalists, news organizations, and anyone with an interest in access to news and info for their community should take some time to peruse and respond promptly to this list. DEADLINE: The official comment period ends March 8.

Here’s what’s going on and how to get involved…

(This is part of 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 all posts in this series.”)

Here is FCC’s Jan. 21 public notice about this project. This document contains 42 questions on which FCC is seeking public comment, as well as procedures for officially submitting comments. FCC Future of Media Questions

It’s pretty long and complex, but it’s worth reading. For example, here is question no. 1:

“What are the information needs of citizens and communities?  Do citizens and communities have all the information they want and need?  How has the situation changed during the past few years?  In what ways has the situation improved?  Gotten worse?  Consider these categories:

  • media platforms (e.g., broadcast, cable, satellite, print, Internet, mobile, gaming);
  • media formats (e.g.,  video, audio, print, email, short message formats);
  • geographic focus (e.g., international, national, state, regional, local, neighborhood, personal);
  • media affiliation (e.g., independent, affiliated with an advocacy organization or movement, academic, governmental);
  • organization type (e.g., commercial media, non-profits, public broadcasting, cultural/educational institutions);
  • types of journalism (e.g., breaking news, investigative, analysis, commentary, beat reporting, objective reporting, advocacy, specialized, general interest, citizen generated, collaborative); and
  • topics (e.g., politics, crime, schools, health, disasters, national news, foreign news, children’s programming).”

...Yes, that whole thing really is just the first question. They’re not all so long, but the question list is compelling, and I’m very glad a key federal media policy agency is giving this topic a serious look.

I’m also glad to see that while the FCC initiative is examining media aimed at geographically defined communities and regions, it does not seem to focus exclusively on geography. There are many kinds of communities, defined by ethnicity, language, income, class, religion, age, interest, sexual/relationship orientation, and other characteristics. All of these community types matter—and it was perhaps a significant shortcoming that the Knight Commission report examined info needs solely for geographic communities.


FCC has launched a Future of Media Project blog, run by William Freedman (Associate Bureau Chief, FCC Media Bureau). Having a blog that’s open to comment on a policy issue under consideration is a significant step forward for a high-profile federal agency.

Freedman has created a series of blog posts, all of which solicit public comment on the giant FCC question list. Apparently comments to this blog will be considered officially submitted comments. They will become part of the record, and will be considered in relevant FCC rulemakings, decisions, and actions.

Here are the blog posts:

You can leave public comments on these blog posts. It’s a good idea to address specific questions here by number, in order—and also to include in your blog post your name, affiliation, and some contact information.

If your comments are lengthy, or if you also wish to submit supporting documentation, it’s recommended that you submit comments via the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System. Or you can submit them by mail. Instructions for these options are at the end of the public notice document above. (Reference GN Docket No. 10-25)


The Future of Media project also is gathering information about local media landscapes. You can describe Media in Your Community. It’s pretty free-form, so response types vary.

If you respond to this—and I recommend it—it’ll probably be helpful to list as many different types of community news and info sources as possible. Don’t just list your local newspapers, magazines, and TV/radio stations. Consider relevant community sites, blogs, social media groups, e-mail lists, newsletters (print or pdf), bulletin boards, services like Craigslist, or other info sources. Include links to examples.

And if the “community” that matters most to you is not defined just by geography, say so—and describe what factors do define your core community.

Also, describe what each type of community media in your list contributes to your community. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each in terms of usefulness, timeliness, relevance, community-building, and civic engagement?

I realize this sounds like a lot of work. It is. The FCC is asking for a lot here, on a tight deadline—but it’s potentially a huge opportunity.

It’s important that the FCC hear not just from large media corporations in this effort, but from people who create, value, and use all kinds of community media. The comments to the FCC Future of Media Project can become a valuable foundation to influence all sorts of US media policymaking in coming years.

February 02, 2010

Civic App Contests: User-friendly local data complements journalism

The news isn’t just about stories anymore. Increasingly, people discover their own news by directly exploring local information—via software applications that make raw civic data easier to understand.

Civic data applications can be web-based (such as OaklandCrimespotting and other crime maps), mobile (such as SeeClickFix), or layered onto social media (such as the DC 311 Facebook app).

Most journalists and news orgs don’t have the technical skills to build civic data applications on their own. However, their insight into the news value of local civic data could make civic apps even more useful and engaging. If more journalists would team with programmers, the result could be a wealth of civic apps that are not only popular with (and useful to) communities, but that also help support news organizations and journalism.

Getting involved with—or even helping to organize—a local “Apps for Democracy” contest is one way to jump-start this process…

By Amy Gahran

(This is part of 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 all posts in this series.)

Apps for Democracy is a Washington DC contest first held in 2008. It was created by iStrategy Labs at the request of Vivek Kundra (then-Chief Technology Officer for the District of Columbia, now U.S. Chief Information Officer) as a way to make’s data catalog useful for citizens, visitors, businesses, and government agencies in D.C.

The Apps for Democracy concept is simple: Contestants compete for cash prizes by using “at least one data source from the D.C. data catalog to build an application of some kind.” The result: In its first year, the contest cost Washington D.C. $50,000 to run, and yielded 47 iPhone, Facebook, and web applications—the value of which is estimated at more than $2.3 million.

This success inspired emulation. There’s now a federal Apps for America contest (from the Sunlight Foundation), plus similar competitions in New York City and San Francisco.

Apps for Democracy recently published a guide, How to Run Your Own Apps for Democracy Innovation Contest, intended mainly for local government officials.

I was a judge in the 2009 San Francisco contest, and that experience inspired me to write this article. Despite the best efforts of sponsors and the California Center for Investigative Reporting, that contest attracted a fairly small number of contestant teams. The winning projects were definitely good, but the apps were few.

It occurred to me then: Had local news organizations, journalists, and bloggers been more engaged in the contest run-up, the results might have been more significant—especially considering that San Francisco has an strong community of civic app developers. (See the DataSF app showcase.)

ACTION STEPS: Here are some ways that journalists, news orgs, and other members of the local news ecosystem can support—and get mileage from—a local apps for democracy contest. This is easiest if you cover a major metro area, but it also can apply to smaller cities and suburbs, or to larger regions such as counties or states:

  1. Download and read the contest guide. Share it with local government officials and civic activists. Talk with them about whether and how such a contest might benefit your city.
  2. List local civic data resources. Many agencies at all levels of government are facing new transparency mandates. There may be more local civic data available now than before—and officials might be especially willing to publicize it. Ask your local government CIO or CTO for a dataset catalog or list. Publish that information online and elsewhere, as a starting point for public discussion of how to make that data more useful and engaging. Ask citizens to vote, comment, or otherwise join this discussion.
  3. Assess local developer interest. If there was a local civic app contest with prizes, might they participate? Most cities have developer groups for PHP, Ruby on Rails, MySQL, and other relevant types of programming. Find these and attend their meetings or discuss the contest idea on their forums. Show them the list of available local datasets. Getting influential developers to champion the contest can be the key to success.
  4. Find Government 2.0 advocates in your local government. These people are typically passionate about transparency and eager to help, and they can be valuable allies in finding government support (such as funding for prizes).
  5. Involve local journalists. Although much more government data is being published, most of it is pretty ugly and cryptic. Ask local beat reporters and civic-minded bloggers: Which ugly local government datasets are potentially the most valuable, useful, or interesting?
  6. Involve your community. Apps for Democracy offers a public forum where anyone can suggest an app need or idea for Washington D.C., and community members can vote for their favorite suggestions. This is powered by Uservoice, a voting-based forum service that offers free, cheap, and premium accounts. It’s one way to gauge community demand for civic info, and gain champions in the community.
  7. Sponsor and promote an apps contest. News organizations could either sponsor the contest directly, or encourage advertisers or partners to sponsor it. Prizes are key, and the prizes (whether cash, goods, or services) must come from somewhere. Also, publicizing the apps contest in the news venue at least a month or two before the event can help drum up public interest and support as well as attract more (and more qualified) contestants.
  8. If you’re independent, Consider volunteering to help organize or promote the contest, or to recruit sponsors.
  9. Involve journalist advisors. As contestants enter, they can opt to confidentially disclose to contest organizers the type of data their app will use. Contest organizers then could pair developer teams with journalists who cover related local topics to add news/storytelling insight to the process. Also, encourage developers to build in ways that users can share info from or via the apps, so that more people can see the value of accessing this data. Also, encourage developers to build apps that are easy to create widgets from, for wider distribution.
  10. Consider alternative approaches. If a local civic apps contest doesn’t seem like the best strategy, consider borrowing ideas from civic innovation and improvement services, such as ManorLabs and SeeClickFix, to spur local civic app development.

After the contest: Be sure to use and publicize those local civic apps! Name them and link to them. Where available, embed their widgets on your site. Use the data and graphics they provide in your news coverage. Create your own local civic app showcase.

Also, apps developers often seek local advertisers and sponsors. Whether or not your community has a civic apps contest, consider approaching local developers for sponsorship and advertising opportunities. Especially if you could syndicate to their app in real time your latest headlines on topics with a similar focus. This might prove far more effective than standard brand-only marketing.

March 09, 2010

National Broadband Plan: Opportunities for community news, civic engagement

On March 17, the FCC will deliver to Congress the controversial new National Broadband Plan—and this morning the nation got a preview of what this plan offers at an event co-hosted by the Knight Foundation at the Newseum in Washington DC. There will be much in this plan that could affect the future of US civic engagement, local news ecosystems, and the news business.

News organizations and news entrepreneurs should give this plan a close read—and also the recently published US consumer survey on broadband that the Brookings Institution conducted on FCC’s behalf. Getting familiar with this information now could help you spot emerging opportunities for providing news and info that strengthens local communities.

By Amy Gahran

(This is part of 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.” See all posts in this series.)

The full National Broadband Plan has not yet been released—despite numerous “preview the plan” notes on, the actual document is not online yet. However, on Feb. 18 the FCC did publish its recommendations for key national broadband priorities, which should be reflected in the forthcoming plan. (See press release, report.)

The Obama Administration authorized the FCC to create a National Broadband Plan as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009—which included several broadband initiatives intended to accelerate US broadband deployment. Widespread broadband is considered to be a crucial component of the development of a viable “digital public square.” Since broadband expansion could also expand the availability of public wireless net access, this could also prove to be a significant boost to mobile net access.

The Knight Commission recognized broadband’s potential for civic engagement in recommendation 8 of its 2009 report:

“Set ambitious standards for nationwide broadband availability and adopt public policies encouraging consumer demand for broadband services.”

In that report, the Commission also expressed skepticism about whether the federal government’s current approach to broadband policy “is sufficient to ensure the US will reach full-fledged universal digital citizenship.”

Similarly, the US consumer survey on broadband offers crucial market context for local news/info providers. This data is very fresh—it was gathered October-November 2009. It focuses on home access to broadband, which is crucial from a civic engagement perspective since people tend to follow civic issues outside of work/school hours. A few highlights:

  • Broadband users value community news. Nearly 40% of surveyed broadband users said they consider keeping up with community news an important reason reason for going online. Only staying in touch with family and friends was rated important by more users (68%). African-American broadband users are especially likely (51%) to say that the Internet is very important to them for keeping up with community news and entertainment. A third of rural broadband users say their online access to community news is important.
  • US Broadband is widespread, but unevenly distributed. Currently 65% of US adults use a high-speed internet connection to go online from home. However, only 52% of households with an annual income less than $50,000 have broadband at home. And only 46% of US adults whose highest level of education is a high school diploma have home broadband. Also,  59% of African-Americans and 49% of Hispanics have home broadband.
  • Local/community news broadband demographics. Among broadband users, slightly more women (82%) than men (78%) get local news online. Parents are especially likely to get local news online (86%). A majority of broadband users in all age groups get local news online, ranging from 86% for 18-29 year olds to 58% for seniors 65+. Education level has a minor effect: 75% of adult broadband users with less than a high school education access local news online, compared to 85% for college plus. Income level shows a similar variation: 75-85% for all income levels, with the lowest level of local news importance falling in the middle income range ($50-75,000).
  • Cost affects usage. 36% of non-broadband users cite cost as the main reason they do not have home broadband. Also, broadband billing often lacks transparency: “On average, Americans pay nearly $41 per month for broadband service, but half of those who receive their broadband in a bundle with other services cannot identify the Internet portion of their bill.”
  • Perceptions of relevance.According to the FCC/Brookings consumer survey, 22% of Amercians do not use the internet at all. Of that group, about 35% indicated the internet is not relevant, interesting, or useful to them. Many non-internet users are also low-income. However, ArsTechnica recently reported on a new Social Science Research Council study that appears to counter the common myth that the internet and home broadband are less useful or relevant to poor people.


ACTION STEPS: When it is available, download and review the National Broadband Plan (which will be posted to, and consider how it might affect your community and business in the coming years.

Track the action. Either attend (if you’re in the DC area) or watch the archived webcast of this March 16 event: Top Congressional tech staffers will discuss Setting the Table for the National Broadband Plan: Where to from Here?. Representatives of the main Congressional committiees hashing over the plan will be there: the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. (Good committees to start monitoring regularly.)

The National Broadband Plan is highly controversial—expect a big political battle here. Large, established businesses such as cable companies, broadcasters, and telcos have much at stake and are throwing substantial lobbying muscle toward protecting their interests. Expect that the there will be changes to the plan between the time it goes to committee and the version that eventually makes it to the floor of Congress.

Another great resource for tracking this issue is Drew Clark’s blog—one of the best sources of news and update for national, regional, and state broadband issues.

Track what’s happening in your state broadband task forces, commissions, or authorities. For local or community news ventures, this might be the most effective place to sway broadband policy to encourage local news and civic engagement.

Assess local obstacles to broadband penetration. Ask locals about the reasons cited by survey participants about why some people aren’t adopting broadband. Consider that the Knight report noted: “Communities cannot realize the full benefit of broadband deployment unless people actually connect to broadband networks. Thus the Commission encourages [efforts] to make broadband service more attractive.”

In other words, if broadband becomes universally available and affordable throughout your community, what will it take really create a viable, popular digital public square that most people will use and value? How might you strengthen your community (and your business) by working toward that goal?

March 19, 2010

National Broadband Plan: What it actually says about civic engagement

On March 17, the FCC finally presented to Congress the National Broadband Plan—a 360-page proposed policy to encourage the development of a robust, ubiquitous broadband infrastructure throughout the US. Last week I discussed why news orgs and journalists should pay attention to this plan.

Enhancing civic engagement is a key theme of the published plan. In fact, an entire chapter is devoted to this topic.

Here are some civic engagement highlights of the plan—and some possible implications for community-level news and information…

By Amy Gahran

(This is part of 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.” See all posts in this series.)

Right at the top of Chapter 15, Civic Engagement, the National Broadband Plan highlights the connection between broadband access and the faltering traditional news business:

“The transition to new information technologies and services can open new doors to enhance America’s media environment—but with traditional sources of news and information journalism under severe stress in the current media and economic environments, we confront serious challenges to ensure that broadband is put to work to strengthen our democracy. Civic engagement starts with an informed public, and broadband can help by strengthening the reach and relevance of mediated and unmediated information.”

The plan’s civic engagement chapter makes 14 specific recommendations to create a broadband infrastructure that actively supports civic engagement at all levels of US society and government. The chapter’s second recommendation (15.2) specifically echoes and cites Recommendation 4 of the Knight Commission’s “Informing Communities” report:

Recommendation 15.2: Government should make its processes more transparent and conducive to participation by the American people:
  • For the Executive Branch, independent agencies, Congress and state and local government, all government meetings, public hearings and town hall meetings should be broadcast online.  
  • Congress should consider allowing the American public to track and comment on proposed legislation online.

“...As a guiding principle, the Knight Commission has declared, ‘the public’s business should be done in public.’ Public hearings and town hall meetings are among the most direct and frequent opportunities for the public to engage in their democracy. Video streaming of government meetings expands access to the government by eliminating geographic limitations and allowing for ‘time shifting,’ so that a person who is unable to watch a meeting in real time (because they are at work, for example) can still watch the proceedings and provide feedback. That is why federal, state and local governments should require that all public agency meetings and hearings be streamed over the Internet. Additionally, these events should offer closed-captioning services to increase accessibility for persons with disabilities and, to the extent practical, enable individuals to ask questions online.”

POSSIBLE OPPORTUNITIES: Coordinating video streaming is not necessarily a strength of government, especially local government. If Congress provides funding for universal video streaming of meetings and hearings at all levels of government, there might be outsourcing opportunities for CSPAN-like businesses. News organizations and news professionals could be players here.

However, an even more crucial role for journalism and journalists in this kind of service would be offering context. Anyone who’s attended government meetings and hearings knows that it’s pretty hard to figure out what’s going on unless you’re already very familiar with the process, issues, history, players, interests, and jargon. News professionals could use broadband to provide easy real-time access to relevant context—news stories, backgrounders, documents, links, live text or audio commentary, etc.—that would help viewers understand what they’re watching.

Similarly, the language and formatting of legislation is generally excruciating to read—so mere availability would not necessarily encourage engagement. Furthermore, our state and federal legislative process is such that multiple “live” copies of the same bill often are available simultaneously, confusing people who are not government insiders. Where exactly should one leave a comment?

Journalists and others who are accustomed to following and explaining legislation might find business opportunities to layer context on proposed legislation—making it easier to understand what’s going on, what happens next, optimum timing for comments, and also getting citizens’ questions answered (since often people have questions before they can formulate comments). This is an example of applying journalism skills as a direct service, rather than simply as a means to create content that’s supported by ads or subscriptions.

Other aspects of Chapter 15 of the National Broadband plan may provide additional journalistic opportunities related to civic engagement. For instance:

“Recommendation 15.6: Congress should consider increasing funding to public media for broadband-based distribution and content.”

...This is followed by other recommendations to revise the Copyright Act to make it easier for public broadcasing organizations to use copyrighted material, and also to create a “federated national digital archive to house public interest digital content.” And further:

“Congress should consider amending the Copyright Act to enable public and broadcast media to more easily contribute their archival content to a digital national archive and grant reasonable noncommercial downstream usage rights for this content to the American people.”

...which could prove to have interesting implications for mashup culture—included journalistically minded uses of content.

WHAT’S NEXT: Macworld recently published a pretty good overview of what happens with the National Broadband Plan now that Congress is considering it. Of special interest to broadcasters is this point: “The FCC will also ask Congress to give it new authority to sell spectrum now controlled by incumbents including U.S. television stations.”

FOLLOW THE ACTION: On Twitter, the hashtag #BBplan provides lots of news and view on the plan. As I mentioned last week, the BroadbandBreakfast blog and state broadband commissions also are key sources as this policy debate unfolds.

April 05, 2010

Going on the record: Civic engagement is for journalists, too!

The traditional culture and ethics of professional journalism encourage journalists to hold themselves aloof from the communities they cover; to maintain objectivity through distance. Generally this means not voicing personal opinions on politics or controversial issues, and not engaging directly in civic processes. Sometimes even voting, campaign contributions, or speaking up at civic meetings are considered dicey territory for “real” journalists.

Now might be a good time to question this tradition…

By Amy Gahran

(This is the final guest post in a series 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.” See all posts in this series.)

The advent of the Obama administration has led to substantial policy activity in areas that directly affect the work that journalists do, the communities they serve, and ventures that publish and distribute journalism. Earlier in this series I discussed the civic engagement implications of the proposed National Broadband Plan, the FCC’s Future of Media project, and the emerging government 2.0 movement.

Currently, US government at all levels is seeking (or at least is claiming to seek) to become more transparent. Obviously, this won’t just benefit communities and citizens. Journalists and news organizations also stand to reap direct benefits from increased government transparency.

Similarly, the ability of journalists and news organizations to continue to work effectively hinges partly on policy issues such as net neutrality, and the outcome of the FCC’s Future of Media project. (UPDATE Apr. 6: Today Mashable reports that “A U.S. appeals court has ruled that the FCC doesn’t have the right to enforce net neutrality principles for ISPs.” This could significantly affect the long-term prospects of anyone—but especially anyone not with a major media organizations—who relies on broadband for content distribution or community building.)

As Robert Niles says in OJR this week, online publishers can no longer afford to remain politically neutral. It’s time for journalists, news organizations, journalism schools, and other journalism organizations to speak up on their own behalf. To publicly participate in relevant civic processes. To push for policies that will further the interests of journalism and the communities served by journalism.

ACTION STEP: Find and use all opportunities to comment publicly in media policy debates. Doing so does not “taint” journalistic purity or otherwise sully your reputation. These actions cannot damage your credibility or compromise your objectivity—because if you’re being honest with yourself (and your audience) you cannot be objective when you’ve got so much at stake.

A good example of this comes from the Society of Environmental Journalists. In March, SEJ submitted a list of eight suggestions for improving transparency to the OpenEPA discussion forum. Suggestions included:

“1. End the practice that prevents EPA scientists or employees from talking to reporters without press office permission and a press officer present.”

“4. A presumption that press officers and other officials are talking on the record unless otherwise agreed to explicitly in advance by both sides. ‘Background’ should be the rare exception, not the standard operating procedure.”

“7. Improve press office inclusiveness to include routinely a broader spectrum of media types that make up today’s changing news media landscape.”

Submitting these suggestions supports SEJ’s ongoing efforts to work with EPA to improve transparency at the national and regional levels. But better EPA transparency would also translate to better environmental reporting at the local level, too.

(Disclosure: I’ve worked with SEJ in various roles for many years, but I was not involved in this particular engagement effort.)

Many states also have sites to collect public ideas on increasing transparency. The Pew Center on the States recently listed several. Where these sites exist, journos and news organizations should use them to lobby publicly and specifically for the kinds of transparency changes that will enhance journalism and democracy.

Also, submit public comments on the FCC’s Future of Media project. The deadline has been extended to May 7. This is a valuable opportunity to offer input on core issues affecting all aspects of the media business. It looks like most comments are being submitted via the FCC’s electronic comment filing system. Reference docket No. 10-25 in comments you leave there, and be sure to related your comments back to the specific questions posed by FCC. (See the document embedded at the end of this post.)

My closing thought for this series is: Civic engagement really IS for journalists, too. We’re definitely affected by government policy and transparency. We have legitimate interests. And if we don’t speak up in civic processes, on the record, our views won’t really count.

So put aside any cultural qualms about “getting involved.” This is a story journalists are living and working, not just covering. This is our story. If we don’t claim a leading role, we’ll be relegated to the background. Ultimately, communities would pay the price for our reticence.

FCC Future of Media Questions


April 22, 2010

Three conferences beyond the news biz that newsies should check out

Too often, news professionals only attend conferences about journalism or about their beats. However, if you or your news organization is trying to expand your vision, network, and opportunities, it makes sense to start hanging out with some new crowds. Here are three conferences coming up soon that could help you make that leap…

1. ReadWriteWeb Mobile Summit: May 7, Mountain View, CA. Sooner than you think, mobile devices (such as cell phones, iPod Touches, and iPads) will overtake computers as the main way North Americans access digital media. This event has development and business tracks. Key themes include geolocation services; commerce and marketing; content, publishing, and recommendations; mobile social networking; using sensor and RFID data; augmented reality, and native app vs. browser-based development. Register online: $595.

Background reading: Top 10 mobile trends of 2010, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

2. Gov 2.0 Expo 2010, May 25-27, Washington DC. This O’Reilly Media event draws the leading minds in open, user-friendly government. If you’re thinking about doing more with civic engagements or government datasets, this is a good opportunity to make top-level connections with leaders in the Government 2.0 movement. Register online by May 5 for discount. See discounted non-government (“private sector”) pricing. Topic tracks:

  • Open data and web services
  • Social networks and collaboration
  • Agile government
  • Cloud computing and security
  • Emerging technology

3. Personal Democracy Forum, June 3-4, New York City. This popular, high-energy conference explores technology’s impact on politics. This year, speakers include Craig Newmark, Arianna Huffington, Howard Rheingold, Ethan Zuckerman, and other leading creative thinkers. Register online: $595.

April 29, 2010

Government data: People love it, say Pew, Texas Tribune

If you want to increase traffic to your news or community site, stories aren’t enough—put up a searchable government database. That appears to be a key lesson from a new Pew report, and from the Texas Tribune’s recent experience…

This week the Pew Internet and American Life Project published Government Online, a report exploring in depth how Americans are interacting with federal, state, and local government online. In a Future Tense interview, Pew researcher and report author Aaron Smith told American Public Media’s Jon Gordon that researchers were especially surprised to find that 40% of US internet users have gone online for data about the business of government.

By Amy Gahran

“Americans are very interested in engaging with government,” Smith told Gordon. “They’re exploring data about government activities: government spending, tracking the Recovery Act, reading legislation. None of us were expecting that figure to be so large.”

Smith continued, “I think people are just interested in information about things like the stimulus bill, the healthcare bill. But if you can’t access that information easily, it’s hard to get involved. Government is now doing a better job of putting their data online—and more importantly, doing that in ways that lets other organizations take that data and put it together in new and interesting ways.”

One news venue that’s seeing direct benefits from repackaging and publishing government databases is the fledgling Texas Tribune. At a journalism event last weekend in Austin, Texas Tribune to editor Evan Smith mentioned that traffic to their site’s data pages is “about two and a half times the traffic of our narrative journalism pages.” (That’s for all of their narrative journalism, not just selected stories.)

In an e-mail interview yesterday, Smith elaborated: “We’ve put up more than 30 searchable databases on our site thus far (more than one a week), about everything from campaign spending and contributions to government employee salaries; from school rankings to red light camera data. We just added one today featuring all kinds of information on more than 160,000 Texas prison inmates. It’s perhaps our most ambitious database yet. Coming soon: everyone who’s been murdered in Juarez in recent years.

...On a personal note, I was especially intrigued by Pew’s finding that so many people are already exploring online government data, and by the Texas Tribune’s traffic experience, because among my many projects I work with Oakland Local—a community news/views site serving Oakland, CA. In a discussion about the City of Oakland’s general dearth of online transparency (which Oakland Local editor and publisher Susan Mernit has dubbed “Government 0.0”), I mentioned how Oakland Local could push for greater local government transparency. A couple of longtime residents told me not to bother, because “Most people here just aren’t interested in that.” Others disagreed, and said that if local government info was available more easily (or at all), many Oaklanders probably would find it interesting and useful.

In light of those conversations, I asked Smith whether he thought the Texas Tribune’s database traffic might indicate a previously underestimated pent-up public demand for exploring government data.

“If you build it, they will come,” Smith replied. “Most people didn’t know this data was accessible, didn’t know where to get it, didn’t know what to do with it. We did the heavy lifting—and now everyone’s addicted.”

Looking at the bigger picture for the news business, I asked Smith whether he believes their database vs. narrative news traffic statistics might indicates a strong business rationale for news orgs to publish more databases—and perhaps to encourage their readers to lobby more actively for increased access to government data.

“Yes and yes,” said Smith. “This is perhaps the best argument I can think of for more use of (and access to) more data. Data is journalism; journalism is data. It’s truly a brave new world.”

To me, this strongly illustrates why journalism must keep breaking out of the “story box.” Too often, journalists focus almost exclusively on storytelling. However, making it easier for people to access and explore information, to discover their own paths to relevance, often can be more engaging. Also, databases tend to drive more traffic over time than traditional narrative news stories—which helps any news business model.

Finally, databases are experienced more as a service, than as “content”—something to consider when it’s becoming increasingly hard to build a business mainly around publishing content.

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

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