National Assembly for Wales announces digital engagement plans

Cardiff Bay

PierheadSpeaking tonight at The Royal Television Society lecture in the Pierhead building in Cardiff Bay, the Presiding Officer of the National Assembly for Wales, Rosemary Butler, announced a series of actions that the Assembly plans to take in order to address the Democratic Deficit, including some significant plans to develop the way that the Assembly engages with digital publishers and communities.

‘Democratic deficit’ is the term that Mrs Butler applied to the problem of many UK and Welsh media organisations failing to properly cover the work of the Assembly and the public policy differences in Wales as a result of devolution.

For example, viewers of television news in Wales regularly find themselves watching stories involving the English Education Minister Michael Gove, when it is in fact Huw Lewis, the Minister for Education in Wales, who makes policies affecting the education system in Wales.

In her speech, Mrs Butler announced a set of specific measures the National Assembly will take to improve how the Assembly communicates its work with the people of Wales including,

  • work with digital and hyperlocal media and partner organisations to create a journalism hub in the Senedd that could provide content to these new digital channels;
  • make it easier to report the Assembly’s work by providing better communications facilities on the Senedd estate;
  • make the Assembly’s data more open and accessible;
  • ensure that Assembly Members are fully informed about how best to use the communication tools now available in this digital age;
  • work more closely with media organisations to take the Assembly out to the communities they represent with a series of regional Assembly press days; and
  • also work with those organisations to provide induction sessions for trainee journalists to ensure a better understanding of the work of the institution.

NativeHQ welcomes these announcements. They will make a significant contribution to the way that the work of the Assembly is communicated to the people of Wales. We have been involved in the discussions the Assembly has held about these issues over recent months – you can view a video of Carl Morris contributing to the discussions on our blog.

The key to the success of these initiatives will lie in the way that they are implemented. Some of this is already underway. The flagship Pierhead building in Cardiff Bay, where the Presiding officer made her remarks, has finally been given internet connectivity, which the public can use via wifi, and it is good to hear there will be better communications facilities across the Senedd estate.

NativeHQ will itself be involved in the effort to inform Assembly Members about the best ways to use digital communications tools as one of the organisations chosen to deliver training in digital and social media to AMs and their political staff. We’d welcome comments from our blog visitors if you have any thoughts about the key skills that Assembly Members need to know in order to become more effective using digital tools. What do Welsh politicans need to know about the social web?

The proposal to ‘make the Assembly’s data more open and accessible; opens up the exciting possibility of allowing journalists and citizens to analyse the data in new and innovative ways that could provide fresh insights to help the Assembly to do the important work of representing the interests of Wales and its people, making laws for Wales, and holding the Welsh Government to account. It will be important for the Assembly to work with industry leaders in the field of digital democratic engagement such as MySociety as well as local Welsh technology companies who understand the specific nature of the Welsh political landscape.

The idea of creating a journalism hub within the Senedd for niche digital publishers to engage with the work of the political community is a promising one, though not without its challenges for the Assembly. We would suggest that the Assembly guards against over-reliance on the idea of ‘hyperlocal’, as not all niches are geographic. While hyperlocal sites are an increasing feature of the digital landscape in Wales, many digital publishers focus not on an area of the map, but on an area of policy. For example YnniCymru is a blog which looks at the specific topic of renewable energy, right across Wales.

These topic and hyperlocal specialists are savvy digital users, so we’d suggest that the Assembly looks to create an information resource with smart filtering and notification systems that they can use to ensure that any Assembly activity relating to the area of  information that they focus on – be that geographical or topic based – gets to them quickly.

Image by Capt Gorgeous (Creative Commons BY licence)

The limitations of Boris Johnson’s comment strategy

In The Telegraph today, Boris Johnson opines on the double-edged sword that is comments on blogs:

In the past few days there have been plenty of people wondering whether the blogosphere, with its seething irascibility, is actually coarsening political discourse. Could all this aggressive language actually encourage aggressive behaviour – or even violence? There are some people who wonder whether we need to tame the blogs, to sandpaper them, moderate them – perhaps even to censor them. And as soon as you put it like that you can see what twaddle it is. What we are seeing on our websites, for all its exuberant roughness, is a uniquely healthy and democratic process.

I’m inclined to agree with Boris, at least on this point.

But for the rest of us, in people’s minds blogs and blogging and discussion around them can tend to be dominated by newspapers. Therefore it would also be useful to remember the following points.

A blog is just a set of posts organised by time
On the web, blogs are all around. To assume every blog post is an opinion piece is wrong. To assume a blog is a diary is wrong too. Not all of what gets discussed on blogs is party political, nor is all of it political. I have no idea of Boris Johnson’s total experience of the web, but I can hazard a guess that he reads a lot of political opinion. For those of us working on digital media projects in industry, in the third sector, in arts and so forth, our experience of comments can be very different, particularly the kind of toxic comments you often find on newspapers. In other words, don’t let blogging experiences by the likes of The Telegraph guide your preconceptions of blogging or comments because this is a big world. You can use your blog to explore your service offerings, to discuss your professional interests, to post video from conferences, to invite comment on your organisation, to think out loud, to share notes and many other things. Hardly any of these things resemble the poisonous blogosphere so demonised – and beloved – by the press.

Your strategy and software are important
The example set by the newspaper industry is frequently poor and unreliable as a model for people in entirely different fields. For instance, the newspaper’s objective is often to maximum ad revenue and one way to do that is to find strategies to boost page view counts. This doesn’t necessarily align with the objective of sensible, polite discussion. I would argue it rarely does. Therefore the way the software is configured encourages this. In the case of The Telegraph, their nested comment threads allow people to go off on tangents, taking them off-topic. That’s possibly OK for page views and controversy (if you’re fine for every comment conversation to descend into “yo loser, we saved your ass in WW2” that is). It is not fine if you want to be the owner of your blog and set the topics and tone. In practice we have found the linear column of comments to be much more conducive to on-topic conversation in many cases. The comments amplify, correct and improve the original post. The general point is that you should invest time in figuring out why your blog exists, why you’re allowing comments and how the software is going to guide your visitors and provide incentives for the right behaviour. Sometimes anonymity can be an advantage, often it isn’t. Often like and recommend buttons can incentivise cheap sloganeering, turning the comments into a game of abuse. At other times, you might want to try that.

The web as a conversation
“Conversation” is a popular metaphor for what happens online. But it applies beyond the confines of any particular blog. It might be worthwhile to consider having a blog for what you do, just as it might be worth opening up comments. But this isn’t the only place the conversation is happening. For example, this blog post is a kind of long-form response to Boris Johnson but it’s not taking place on The Telegraph website. Frequently people will be discussing your subject in their own spaces and own channels in their own formats and media. The move is not only from one-way to two-way communications, it’s towards multi-way. If what people are saying is important to you, then you might need to spend time monitoring it and responding accordingly.

In summary, Johnson is right to emphasise taking the positive with the negative. There is frequently a good argument for taking ownership of the good and bad. If someone wants to emphasise a negative, shouldn’t you be the first to offer them an opportunity to fix it? And be seen to do so?

Often I meet people who would like to shut down the negative comments by not allowing them in the first place. But the fact is, just because you don’t have discussion on your own site, doesn’t mean it isn’t taking place elsewhere on the web.

Many organisations are only just beginning to open up to published comments by third parties. Often people are tempted to offer an email address and receive comments privately, but that won’t win them any kudos for openness and engaging people in public. Such organisations might be advised to offer comments and start the learning process. It has the potential to change their work – for the better.

Why comments suck (via Xark)

This blog post Why comments suck (and ideas on un-sucking them) has good advice among the hard talk. Sample:

One last thing: Stop making excuses. I know none of this is easy, but you really should have only one choice — either have comments and do them properly, or don’t offer comments at all. And if you’re offering them solely to increase page traffic to boost revenues, give up. Just quit. You’re hopeless.

It’s aimed at newspapers – who are still getting accustomed to the people formerly known as “the audience” – but you can apply it to any blog or community on the web.

Clay Shirky: “We’re collectively living through 1500”

The year 1500 witnessed an information revolution, when Caxton’s printing press really started to impact society in ways that were difficult to predict. Clay Shirky likens that era to now in his latest article Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, which is well worth your time.

It’s a great conversation starter, especially if you’re in the news business or indeed any form of “content” business.

After reading such an insightful person put the following, your response could be one of fear or excitement. It may depend on what business you’re in.

So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

If you have a spare weekend you could also:

– Watch a Shirky speech on video

– Plough through some analysis on pages that link to the Shirky piece

– Peek into Shirky’s research process via his Delicious bookmarks

    Have fun. You never know, you might find a radical new model for a news service.

    Sky News appoints Twitter correspondent… (via Guardian)

    Jemima Kiss at The Guardian pretty much nails it with this analysis of today’s Sky News story.

    The danger is that is this rush to fetishise Twitter, the media perpetuates the rather irritating habit of always looking for The Next Big Thing. The point is not Twitter itself, or the company that Ev Williams, Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey built, but the behaviour it has facilitated and encouraged. It’s the impact of the tool and not the tool itself that is meaningful, because that is what will grow and influence more new services, and impact existing ones. Facebook is already responding, and there are swathes of services all plugging into the conversations Twitter is driving.

    There is merit in monitoring Twitter for breaking news – particularly with services like Monitter and Twitter Search. But more generally, it’s just one platform – and part of a technological and cultural shift towards a real-time web.

    Besides the real-time web, Sky News journalists like Ruth Barnett should probably be monitoring the rest of the web in other very established ways. One such example is with RSS to catch topical search results like this. But it’s the cultural and societal shifts that are the really big deal.

    New York Times – Online Subscription “Heresy”?

    Silicon Alley Insider has a provocative piece about New York Times exploring a paid subscriptions scheme for its online service.

    I’ll keep this brief. I just want to stoke up some of the issues around this.

    These are the potential problems, as I see them, with this scheme:

    • Wall Street Journal and Financial Times have already pursued paid subscription models. But their distinctive topic area is finance. As the article points out “those papers count on business readers who just charge their company for access.” Then in reference to the New York Times itself, “the general reader might not pull out the credit card for access to news that will remain available for free elsewhere”.
    • It could be argued that any niche platform might have a chance of charging for content. But something as broad as the New York Times? The way people read news is different now. The paper newspaper format aggregates news about a range of subjects, but that’s partly a result of the economics of printing. A reader’s loyalty to a trusted brand for an all-encompassing news service is somewhat diminished now. Consider the physical paper newspapers you NEVER buy – but you can very easily visit an individual article, if it’s forwarded to you or you find it in a search. Who’s done this? I definitely have. A fully paid service doesn’t take advantage of this.
    • For journalism these – to use the words of the Chinese – are “interesting times”. The past success of the New York Times is no guarantee of future success when that brand is extended into a paid service. The past loyalty of readers is not a guarantee of future loyalty. Really, the clearest viewpoint from which to start when designing a successful business for online news would be no legacy, no tradition and no baggage. In other words, this is not be a bold business decision but a move of desperation – it’s about a plan to “save the New York Times”. The correct plan should be “to launch a profitable online platform that publishes high quality news and articles”. New York Times has many years of journalistic experience coming up with the content, but on a business level they don’t have the luxury of taking time over this. Elsewhere, entrepreneur Marc Andreessen thinks they should shut down the costly print edition altogether.
    • “Information wants to be free” from the article is a quote from Stewart Brand which is right in the sense that market forces will drive the price of a piece of information towards zero. This is economics. Given two identical options, which are you going to pick – the free version or the version where you have to pay? But whether this applies to daily news as well as encyclopaedic and other information is another question. Readers also value other things that New York Times is able to provide (such as convenience, trustworthiness and high quality of journalism).

    As ever, comments are open.