On creating a vibrant online eco-system for civic engagement

In today’s Wall St. Journal: All I Wanted for Christmas Was a Newspaper; Bloggers are no replacement for real journalists.

Paul Mulshine, opinion columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger, misses the point when he argues that citizens aren’t likely to voluntarily ‘cover,’ for example, city council meetings for their blogs in the same way that a reporter does for a newspaper.

Yes, it’s valuable to have local reporters sitting through public meetings and then reporting on them.

But it’s more valuable for their stories to be published in an eco-system of civic engagement where the media, public officials and citizens are all involved in the effort to inform so that better public outcomes can occur.

emerging news ecology chart

Imagine a year from now that a version of the above chart (from last summer’s JTM New Pamphleteers conference) is happening here in Northfield. For example:

  • City Hall puts up the digital video of a council meeting, complete with ‘annotated markers’ that allows citizens to view just the segments of the meeting they’re interested in.
  • Two citizens post to their blogs about a Council agenda item that they viewed online.
  • Locally Grown links to those blog posts and starts an online discussion about the issue.
  • Two councilors and one City Hall staffer post to their own blogs about the issue and the pingbacks to Locally Grown add to the discussion. One of the councilors decides to open up comments on her blog and so now, there are two places for citizens to engage in online conversation about it.
  • The RepJ reporter does an in-depth story about the issue, interviewing others, linking to the blog posts and discussions, etc.  Councilor bloggers and citizen bloggers link to that story, and further discussion ensues.
  • When the City Administrator and staff prepare the Council packet (digital only; printed packets ceased in Feb. 2009) for the next City Council meeting, all of the elements of the issue’s ‘eco-system’ are summarized and linked for the Councilors.
  • Citizens and reporters have online access to the Councilor’s agenda packets.  Further discussion about the City Administrator’s summary occurs online prior to the next Council meeting
  • Some citizens show up at the Council meeting open mic to voice their opinions about the issue.  Their comments are streamed live online as well as included in the next online video of the Council meeting.
  • Repeat as necessary

This eco-system of civic engagement can’t easily exist in a town whose citizens don’t blog or discuss issues online, whose media reporters don’t link, whose public access cable TV station only broadcasts analog video at select times, and whose public officials aren’t regularly making an effort to be more transparent and engaged with citizens.

In Northfield, I think we’re getting closer to a civic engagement model that really works.

  • In place: Bonnie Obremski’s RepJ stories, an active civic blogosphere, and vibrant online discussions on Locally Grown, some other blogs, and at times, on Northfield.org and Northfieldnews.com
  • On the horizon: a new crop of elected officials who are open to blogging and participating in online discussions
  • On the horizon: streamed, archived, and annotated digital video of City Council meetings
  • On the horizon: a KYMN radio station that offers more opportunities for citizen-produced shows and which selectively amplifies those participating in the local blogosphere and online discussions

(Not yet on the horizon: a Northfield News newspaper that selectively but consistently links to, excerpts from, and gives credit to local civic bloggers and online discussion participants in both the print and online versions of its stories.)

I don’t quite have the Vision Thing perfected yet but I’m getting closer.

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