May 22, 2011

Newspapers and Government 2.0

H. L. MENCKEN once said, “A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant, and the crazy crazier.” The “Sage of Baltimore” knew of what he spoke, having infuriated many over four decades’ writing for the Baltimore Sun. Since the invention of the printing press, communication from writer to reader has been essentially a one-way street. And while the advent of the Web has caused many to sound the death knell for newspapers, creative publishers are taking advantage of the Internet’s interactivity to develop civic engagement tools that both educate and solicit the informed “voice” of their readers. Because municipal governments have already undertaken similar efforts, relative strengths and weaknesses of government vs. newspaper-hosted online engagement are emerging.

As city governments from Santa Cruz, California to Wilmington, North Carolina, wrestle with every-tightening budgets, many are attempting to engage residents through a growing number of platforms online. some, like San Francisco-based UserVoice's Plan for Civic Engagement, are what I dub an "idea aggregation/prioritization tool," able to theme thousands of user-submitted ideas into a manageable number, while also allowing participants to evaluate options through up/down voting. Others, like Next 10's Budget Challenge, ask users a series of trade-off policy questions on issues from budgets to sustainability.

The increasing use of these tools by local and state governments has created a niche within the burgeoning Gov 2.o field, which now covers enterprises from participatory policy making to 311 systems. Although newspapers have been slower to employ these online engagement platforms, several interesting initiatives launched by newspapers from the San Francisco Chronicle and its water shortage game to the Washington Post's city budget balancing tool indicate that news organizations are beginning to take the lead in online public participation. This can be seen as both good and bad.

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