On creating a vibrant online eco-system for civic engagement in Northfield

emerging news ecology chartEarlier today I linked to and excerpted from an article in today’s Wall St. Journal (pointed out to me by Ross) titled: 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 Suzi Rook at the Northfield News, Dusty Budd at KYMN, and RepJ’s Bonnie Obremski 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.

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 here 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.

129 thoughts on “On creating a vibrant online eco-system for civic engagement in Northfield”

  1. David K: My response to Leonard is: “What side does the journalist want to present – her own, the tank side, the civilian side, the newspaper’s, the one that will sell the most papers or the one that takes into consideration all of these sides (or in the case of RepJ – citizens who care to participate)?

    David, I would like to suggest that you are confusing the inability to know the truth with certainty and the non-existence of the truth. Within all the viewpoints (and perhaps others) there exists one truth that remains true regardless of the vantage point. This is the truth that I would like my journalist to pursue.

    Griff: Having citizens all be journalists and proclaiming the result to be true is an attempt at democratizing the news. The concept doesn’t get better by labeling it citizen involvement, or worse yet, capacity-building. I don’t know what it means, let alone why we would prefer capacity-building over the facts or the truth.

  2. Jerry- In certain trials, evidence (facts) can be suppressed, if there is reason to believe they are tainted in some way. It seems the same process is done in journalism by the editorial staff. As you know, eye witness accounts are notoriously biased because we all screen what we see through our experiences, thus tainting our perception. A video camera, for instance, does not do this. I don’t think any of us are as unbiased as a camera.

  3. David L, interesting perspective that there exists only one truth….time to call in the Philosophy profs as it’s getting way outside my area of expertise! But, it is an interesting statement and I mean that in a positive way. I assume you don’t intend religious overtones in that statement.

    Jerry, also an interesting perspective on transparency being a process. I tend to think of it as an end, but there is a process to creating it and I like your notion that good transparency gives someone else a way to validate the conclusion. It’s equivalent, I suppose, to the transparency required in a scientific study so that results can be independently duplicated.

    Griff, this part of the discussion may add no value to the original post, but has resulted in some thought-provoking issues.

  4. David K: I hope that the discussion would create some further thought about why we would want a vibrant online ecosystem.

    Randy Jennings has raised valid questions about objectivity and dispassion. I have further concerns about the exclusive nature of the online community, and the “value” of civic engagement to the community.

    Interestingly, “lack of confidence in the truth” is one of the afflictions identified by Pope Benedict as a barrier to creating a fruitful dialogue with other cultures. Lack of confidence that there is truth creates an undifferentiated pluralism which masquerades as tolerance.

  5. David L., I’m sincerely trying to understand your point of view.

    First, why would we NOT want a vibrant online ecosystem and/or civic engagement?

    Second, the online community is one of the *least* exclusive in my experience. The issue of technology haves and have-nots is becoming more moot as time and technology progress…. It’s certainly a red herring in this discussion that’s Northfield-specific. Anyone in this community can take computer classes for free through Community Ed, and there are several public terminals around town in addition to the ones at the public library. Anyone with the inclination can obtain an email address and publish a blog for FREE. People in underdeveloped countries around the world have figured out how to use this technology. How much more inclusive could it be?

  6. Tracy: Who is the “we” that wants a vibrant online community?

    Civic engagement can be a good and a bad thing. My observation on civic engagement in Northfield is that it tends to be more about lobbying for special interests than community well-being. The Way Park issue is an example where civic engagement is an attempt to benefit a small group to the detriment of the larger community.

    As technology advances, the divide between the have and have-nots is growing greater. When our computer went on the blink, my 16 year old had to go to school early, leave late, stand in line, skip lunch, and call friends. In my day, the teacher gave everyone the homework assignment and you only needed a pencil and paper.

  7. Tracy,

    We’ve got two separate issues here, the “ecosystem” for community conversation and whether or not this platform can sustain journalism. The characteristics of the former are a work in process; the latter is what we’ve mostly been discussing on this thread.

    I’m all for a vibrant online ecosystem as one more element in a broad community coversation, with two caveats:

    1) Locally Grown is not, in any way, a representative forum. I don’t know if you or Ross think it is or should be; Griff is consistently inconsistent about this. He writes about capacity-building, but also periodically reminds people that the triumverate members are the bloggers and everyone else just a commentor. Griff is willing to censor others or chastize them for their tone, but then drops out of conversations (like this one) when others disagree with his view. It’s an ecosystem with one dominate species. It would be a harmless and amusing backwater, if there wasn’t a stated interest in having Locally Grown take a greater role in influencing local public policy. In my view, this forum is far too undisciplined and unrepresentative to be trusted with such a role.

    (It is unfortunate that the work of many thoughtful and well-informed contributors is often diminished by the fluff and the less-thoughtful and less-informed commentors. Maybe that’s the price of being an inclusive ecosystem.)

    2) Relative to the size and composition of the geographic community, it is a forum that reflects the opinions of too few individuals, and most of them have no interest in changing their minds (myself probably included). I can think of many times people have respected the differing opinions of others, or said they understand the others’ point of view, or agreed to disagree. It’s mostly civil. But I can’t think of a single example of someone changing a firmly held position as a result of what is written here. This is a great forum for parallel play, but rarely (maybe never?) for building consensus about pressing community issues.

    Back to the point of this thread: It ain’t journalism, at least not as I understand journalism. There are probably many truths we’d collectively hold to be self-evident, but our community would be better served by more facts, so that in discussion we could try to forge a community consensus about what we want to do. It is not a reporter’s job to shape that consensus, and to the extent he/she tries, his/her credibility as a journalist is compromised.

    There are many places where advocacy is allowed in journalism. Editorials provided news organizations a format to opine; columnists make their careers taking a fact or two and expressing passionate opinions about what they mean. But here in Nfld we already have plenty of opinions and we’ve got no shortage of people who already know their “truth” on any given question. What we lack is good, old-fashioned, factual reporting. And that has nothing to do with technology. I’d also argue that such reporting serves a community of interest, rather than is created by such a community.

  8. Randy: I agree with the spirit and most of the substance of your post. I have great affinity for David L.’s criticisms of blogging as citizen journalism/governance/etc. And I enjoy others’ criticisms as well.

    Nonetheless, I expect Locally Grown to be a ‘work in progress’, a version 10 software with updates forthcoming, etc. If we participate, we shape this LG community. According to the rules of evolution, if LG serves Northfield, it will grow and thrive. If not, it will be replaced by a more successful model. If its vision proves to be detrimental or unpopular, it will go extinct.

    The time between today and the answers to Locally Grown’s future will be filled with what we citizen “bloggers” want to make of LG. I am eager to see how LG evolves and I am happy to be part of its evolution. I won’t criticize LG for not being a traditional newspaper, for that’s not its vision. I might criticize it for larger issues, such as the triumvirate’s role as censors. If LG seeks to be a medium for Northfield discussion and a censor, that conflict must be resolved. If LG seeks to be a private project for civil discussion, censorship is unfortunate, but it isn’t so nefarious.

    In short, I especially enjoy reading your critical views on LG along with others. I hope that your (plural) reaction is to participate with LG to help it grow rather to abandon it and watch it go extinct. Extinction is not objectively bad, but LG has an appeal for several Northfielders and with our participation, it can do better.

  9. Randy : Thank you for your clearly stated evaluation in #107.
    Close to the end you say “What we lack is good old-fashioned, factual reporting.”
    This has been my constant complaint for several years; I do not believe that the NFNews reports in a well rounded entirety, and is also derelict in failing to ask the ‘cogent’ question. I feel their reporting has often been selective and has chosen sides in the reporting function, as opposed to leaving the ‘choosing sides’ writing to editorial opinion. But my views on the News are well known…

    I look at the NFNews site often, just to see what hijinks the anonymous commenters are accusing those ‘wicked’ Summas of at any given relevant … or more often non-relevant… moment.

    With relevance to the citizen journalism direction of this thread, there is an interesting little ‘struggle ‘ going on with regard to an anonymous comment posted on the news story about last Monday’s Board and Commission appointments . A comment was posted regarding Councilor Denison’s vote to NOT approve Andrew Berglund’s re-appointment to the Rental ( Code) Board of Appeals. This comment suggested that Councilor Denison should not have voted on that appointment since he has been in a multi-year legal conflict with Mr. Berglund, resulting from Mr. Denison’s tenancy with Berglund.
    Court records were cited , but the comment disappeared… I assumed pulled by the management… who were asked by the commenter to ‘tell the story’.
    Occasionally, I have noticed that Jaci Smith will enter the commentary, and explain a position; that did not happen this time.

    Having often felt that comments allowed there were very questionable, I am wondering what happened?
    How valuable are citizen journalist’s comments, even if backed up with court records, when the c.j. doesn’t have all the paper and the ink?

  10. Randy, I’ve not dropped out of this conversation. I posted lengthy comments last Friday and more again on Monday. I’ve been following along this week and reading other sources about the issue.

    As for dropping out when others disagree with me, it may happen but I don’t think it’s a pattern. For example, I invited you to be on our radio show:

    Podcast: Randy Jennings critiques Locally Grown

    Our guest today was Randy Jennings, local citizen, long time Northfielder, and eloquent critic of Locally Grown. We mostly discussed his criticism of the recent controversial blog posts and comment threads about the 6/2 Council meeting and the CVB’s performance, with an occasional tangent about citizen journalism.

    Another example: Feedback wanted: our coverage of the heroin story.

    Back on topic: I’ll have more comments soon.

  11. I like to think that what often happens here on LG and on many other blogs in town are random acts of journalism by citizens, spelled out in that J-Lab article at the American University’s School of Communication.

    I also like the concise definition of citizen journalism authored by NYU Professor of Journalism Professor Jay Rosen:

    When the people  formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.

    So RepJ is not citizen journalism. Bonnie’s a professional journalist who’s practicing her craft on a citizen journalism platform that’s run by 3 amateur journalists who used to be ‘the audience.’

  12. Re: my #110 , on what I termed a ‘struggle’ over a comment attached to the news story about board and Commission appointments on the NFNews site, that comment is back up again! … and if there’s something changed, I can’t see what it is, not having a copy of the first one.
    It might be instructive to know what the issue was, or maybe it was just some sort of electronic glitch?

  13. There’s an interesting article in the recent issue of Miller-McCune about “computational journalism,” which uses algorithms to mine data to compile news stories. It mentions EveryBlock which is a kind of extremely localized news aggregator. The article then goes on to talk about public interest data mining, and new intersections between journalism and technology. There’s even a National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting. Interesting stuff.

  14. Isolated facts do not necessarily paint a true picture. Facts need context. Information can be more true or less true depending on the context.

    The project I’m working on has a journalist who reports facts by putting information in an area on the Web site distinct from comments, similar to what you see on newspaper and magazine Web sites now (although our project’s model is still malleable on all accounts).

    Part of what a RepJ reporter does now is to solicit input from readers. That input, when it is listed in the comments section, is not part of the professionally written story, and so information or opinion there does not directly negate the facts in the original posting.

    Perhaps if the reporter made a mistake, the comment can help the reporter know which facts to double check. Then, the reporter can write an update or add to the professionally written story and make a correction.

    Comments do help to build a context for facts.

    As I see it, reader input is an added resource for the reporter, not the sole resource. How can more resources be bad? The interaction can also be fun for journalists and readers. Not every reader making a comment has good information. But, in this model, the door is open for the “average” Joe or Jane to shine as someone who helped their community reporter collect good information. Nearly everyone is an expert at something, and no expert knows everything.

  15. Randy wrote:

    This, Griff, is my objection to posting material as works-in-process. Publishing a half-reported story gives people the impression that what they are reading is complete, largely because that’s the way — rightly or wrongly — we’ve been acculturated.

    Randy, what if Bonnie used two distinctly different RepJ blog posts:

    • The backstory (for lack of a better term right now). A short blog post by Bonnie announcing her intent to do a story. The post would be written in the 1st person blog style, with updates, questions, the wondering, the reflections, etc. all attached as subsequent comments. Branded with her photo, NOT the RepJ logo.
    • The artifact. The big complete story, written in typical reporter/3rd person style. Branded at the top with the RepJ logo.

    Would that help?

  16. I got an email from a citizen wondering about the origin of the phrase ‘civic capacity-building.”

    Sean Kershaw, Executive Director of the Citizens League, speaks/writes frequently about ‘capacity.’ The League’s Who We Are page says:

    The Citizens League builds civic imagination and capacity in Minnesota by:

    • Identifying, framing and proposing solutions to public policy problems;
    • Developing civic leaders in all generations who can govern for the common good; and
    • Organizing the individual and institutional relationships necessary to achieve these goals.

    Their page on Active Citizenship and Civic Leadership says:

    Developing civic capacity needs to be a part of everything we do: from casual gatherings such as our Policy and a Pint series, to public policy development, to structured classes that help people be part of an ongoing civic base.

    In his Dec. 07 Viewpoint column he wrote:

    If we want citizens and institutions to participate in making transportation policy we need to make the true costs of our driving decisions clearer. The decisions citizens make about where and how to drive or ride and where to live and work, and the decisions big companies make about flexible work schedules and telecommuting, matter as much as many of the decisions made by the Legislature. This civic approach to policy-making is practical. We believe it is the only way to efficiently and sustainable address our transportation dilemmas. It is also good for our Minnesota democracy. Every time we exercise this civic decision-making authority we become better citizens.

    In a Jan. 8, 2008 blog post titled A new model for policy making: a “civic policy agenda” (Part II) he wrote:

    Our work with the MN Anniversary Project, and especially the Minnesota Active Citizenship Initiative, have led us to begin thinking and talking about a “civic policy agenda”. Peg Michels does a better job than I could explaining the ideas behind this concept, but the two key elements for me are:

    1) Seeing every citizen as a potential “policy-maker” — meaning that they have the capacity to describe problems, come up with solutions, and set policy and allocate resources to solve the problems. (Or as Nate would say…to “manage these dilemmas”.)

    2) Seeing every institution as having a role in policy-making. Imagine trying to solve education or healthcare with only state/government solutions, for example.

    This model isn’t hierarchical, for pretty obvious reasons. This model isn’t grass-roots either, because it acknowledges the role that traditional leaders and all institutions have.

    But is it a new way of talking about public policy, and does it highlight how much the world of policy-making has changed, or needs to change. Too much of our policy making still exists in a hierarchical world with government and experts at the top and other institutions and most citizens either struggling for their role, or not being acknowledged for the role they play.

    And in the latest issue (Nov/Dec) of the MN Journal, he writes:

    To achieve this we need to bring citizens into the process as partners to help produce and implement solutions in all institutions, not just government. We need to help citizens improve and “own” governance everywhere, not just at the state level. And more than ever, we need citizen buy-in to make the big changes that are needed (they are ready to play a bigger role in the process).

  17. I got this alert from NCO Board member Jane McWilliams:

    Beyond Letters to the Editor: How everyday people can be heard in Northfield

    A group of people involved in Northfield media will speak on Thursday, January 22 at 7:00 at the Grand. The event is the headliner for the annual meeting of Northfield Citizens on Line, the governing board of Northfield.org.

    An all-volunteer organization, the mission of NCO is to create an electronic commons that strengthens the fabric of the Northfield area. Board chair Ellen Iverson, said Northfield has a rich variety of media where citizen voices may be heard, including Northfield.org. “We’ve invited the speakers to explain how the public can use their medium to participate in the community conversation. There will be time for people to make comments to and ask questions of the panel.”

    Library Board Chair Margit Johnson will moderate the discussion. Members of the panel are:  Sam Gett, publisher, Northfield News: Griff Wigley, Locally Grown Northfield; Doug Bratland, Northfield.org board member; Jeff Johnson, owner, KYMN;  Rob Shanilec, publisher, Northfield Entertainment Guide; Brendon Etter, blogger; and Paul Hager, director, NTV.

    The NCO Board invites the public to attend and to take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about local media and how to get involved.

  18. Howdy folks! It seems the action on this thread has died down a bit. I have a kind of off-shoot discussion point pertinent to some things mentioned in this thread in a post I just put up on the RepJ reporter process blog and there’s a poll if anyone’s interested. http://repjbonnie.wordpress.com

    Griff, is my mentioning this considered blog poaching? 🙂 If so, let me know and I apologize!

  19. As a member of the online community here for the last four years, I will take a minute to blog poach and note that we’re moving in a week.
    Our time here has been ‘interesting,’ to use a bit of Minnesota speak. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people and will take some good memories.
    We’re just moving back to Minnetonka, but we know lives move on and we won’t see many of you again. Thanks for the good times and interesting conversation. Feel free to keep in touch… editoranne@yahoo.com

  20. Anne’s departure from Northfield is sad, indeed. She always brought a thoughtful and well articulated position to all discussions. She always commented under her own name and stood by her statements. She has integrity — whether you agree or disagree with her. She has cared for Northfield. I for one will miss her. Perhaps she will continue to comment from afar. Bon Chance, Anne!

  21. Thanks so much for the kind comments. I’m still here for another week — and happy to escape the boxes for a farewell toast or lunch, so give me a call. I might even have a garage party to get rid of whatever doesn’t fit in the POD!
    And then I’ll be gone, but LGN is addictive, so I’m sure I’ll check in from time to time.

  22. Thanks yourself, Bill, for all that you’ve done. As I said before, I’ve met some wonderful people here, and you certainly are in that group. I am amazed at your knowledge about biking issues and your dedication to making Northfield more friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians.
    I’m looking forward to getting there, but the moving process is exhausting. It reminds me of the Bible story of the loaves and fishes. Everytime I think I’m almost done, I turn around and the piles of stuff seem to have replenished themselves!

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