We want to write your website – not read it

So: It’s now official. Local authorities are going to be obliged to promote democracy (and the bill is quite prescriptive about the role that the internet will have to play in this). It should make for an interesting seven months.

There is often something of a dialogue of the deaf between those who have spent some time thinking about social media in some depth, and those who are in the day-to-day trenches of local government communications.

Certainly, most of the conversations I’ve had around how the internet will impact upon democracy have been around the use of the council website, the need to capture emails for mailing lists, increase traffic to the council site, how we can get our councillors to tweet or blog or other, understandable immediate questions.

People have a job to do. They are finding that all of these annoying geeks are making it more difficult for them with their FOI requests, their defamatory blogs, and so on. They feel that they’re in an arms race that they can’t win. They want to recruit some of these tools and methods to work in their favour: The most common question is a telling one: “How do we use Twitter to get our message out?”

Social media people, on the other hand, have a slightly different definition of democracy. They talk in abstract terms about the need for open data. The need for net-neutrality and the importance of community building. The potential for crowdsourcing intelligence, the need for creative commons resources and so on. They don’t want to read your website – they want to write it. It’s an interesting twist on the idea that government should do nothing about us without us.

I would suggest that there is a real need for local government policy-makers to engage with this subject a good deal more than they do, and to start to model how it will effect councils and the work they do in the near future. The thing is, doing so may solve all of their problems.

I’ll illustrate this point by looking at the vexed question of local newspapers – the need for them to improve, and the widespread belief that this won’t happen.

As Thomas Jefferson said:

“If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.”

Yet councils are often in a position where they believe that they may have to choose the former. Many are beginning to despair of ever having responsible local reporters to bounce off, they are – in the short term – increasing their communications budgets and beginning to print their own. On the one hand, they can deal with overworked / lazy (delete as applicable) local journalists who aren’t capable of portraying local issues in a way that is of any use to local people or politicians.

On the other hand, they have to tread a fine line where they have to present the work of the council in a way that doesn’t compromise their obligation not to spend public money promoting incumbent councillors. They have to get further into this constipated argument the hamstrings so much local government communications (none of this is a new theme here). And its all a problem caused by the perfect storm of declining print-profits and competition from the Internet.

But will this always be the case? Journalistic doyenne, Tina Brown thinks not. She believes that the Internet is about to deliver a golden age in journalism – one that she is hoping to mine with her Daily Beast.

Is this true? Well, firstly, the lack of a business model for The Beast does slightly undermine this claim, but – like Brown – I’m inclined to the view that high-quality news coverage may be facing the death knell that the music industry thought I was looking at when it saw the first Rio Diamond MP3 player in the mid-1990s. I suspect that new ways of financing content may create profits that dwarf those that were enjoyed by print-media in its heyday, and a glance at the rubber newspaper may offer a clue here?

The two big questions for me are these:

  1. Will this result in a greater degree of centralisation? Will the big media groups that have the muscle to invest in freemium services rapidly steal a march by focussing on high-traffic offerings (International football instead of Accrington Stanley) – thereby concentrating on the very profitable at the expense of the slightly profitable local coverage?
  2. Will this benefit the current local media monopolies? Will it create new revenues that will largely fund shareholders dividends without halting the decline that these (very profitable) businesses have already allowed journalism to decline to?

It’s a hunch, but I’d answer no to both of these questions. But to fully explain the reasons behind this, I’d need to write an essay on net neutrality, open source software, open data, creative commons resources and the crowdsourcing of intelligence.

But as a stop-gap, I’d urge anyone working in local government communications to think about the emerging local information hubs such as those promoted by Talk about Local or Nick Booth’s Help Me Investigate – I suspect that they are far more important than they appear to be at the moment.

It’s been around for a while, but here’s Will Perrin’s pitch here – well worth a look:

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