Communities, Media and Civic Engagement

There’s a price every citizen needs to pay in a democracy – involvement. It’s the tax of time and thought that is at the core of “government by the people”. 

Of course no-one can keep abreast of everything – that’s why it’s important that those who have passion about for an area shape the public policy debate. It is by sharing our involvement that we become better citizens.

It’s odd them to read that Pasadenanow.com is out-sourcing its local coverage to India, while Congressional quarterly is offering video clip service of congressional debates. On one hand these are logical outcomes of a commercial system focused on profit. On the other they may diminish the quality of public debate – which is seen by many as a necessary condition of our commercial system.

Both these trends are a result of technology making it easier to distribute information – especially video. In fact local reporting from India is only possible because reporters can watch streaming video of council meetings and email & VoIP councilors to conduct interviews. Same goes for CQ which sends clips to embed in campaigns.

Rob Curley, a guy that has done a lot to make papers hyper-local, and has tried some wild things to engage the public around local council issues, argues that outsourcing is another spin on the use of Internet technologies– and experience shows that public engagement for council will be low – most of the time. He’s probably right.

Jeff Jarvis, speaking about CQ’s reClip’s thinks it’s government dropping the ball. Public debate is their responsibility. He’s right too.

It’s my experience that what ever the issue – if there is political debate – there is already a group of actively engaged citizens on both (or more) sides of the issue. To me these are the groups to engage – because likely they are already shaping the debate.  My problem with PasadenaNow’s approach is that democracy doesn’t happen just in council chambers – and like Jeff I think that advocacy shouldn’t depend on buying clips of ‘public content’.

It seems to me, and apparently others, that social software could broaden the debate and increase the level of engagement.  Certainly passionate debate and an ability to dig and link would help deepen the insights of those attracted to this discussion – even occasionally. For news organizations, especially local news, this presents an opportunity to provide context, opinion and analysis to their reporting

Councils like Pasadena, that use technology to engage the public are to be commended – even if it means experiments with off-shore report – because some reporting is better than none. It would have been better if instead of opting for ‘objectivity’ they providing mechanisms for every citizen to discuss debate and opine about civic issues – writing in daily discussion the story of council’s deliberations.

Update: Came Across Michael Pott’s post on out-sourcing local coverage. His analysis of why outsourced reporting – even with technological aids – will never match people in the room is excellent. The suggestion of using Citizen Journalist is spot on and the discussions following the post are insightful as well.

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