Beyond the Article: Driving Political Engagement Instead of Confusion

How often have you read an issue article with a political angle at the local, state or federal level and wondered:

  • Who is my representative?
  • What’s their stand on the issue?
  • How can I give them feedback easily?
  • What do other groups that I respect have to say about the issue?
  • Why didn’t I learn about this meeting or issue before the vote took place?
  • Where do my fellow constituents stand on the issue?

While traditional news articles may enrage, they rarely help people engage as they lack the personalized content and tools for people to easily take intelligent action.

So here’s my recommendations:

  1.  Leverage the power of GIS/mapping to identify which elected officials or candidates are aligned to each reader. Instead of your audience wondering which one of the city council members or county commissioners represent them, in exchange for users entering their addresses, news organizations can display the specific elected officials aligned to their location.
  2. Survey the elected officials about their stances and publish their positions prior to major votes.
  3. Send alerts via email, SMS, etc.. notifying your audience when something of concern to them is coming up – with the information about where their elected officials stand on the issue.
  4. Enable your audience to vote in favor or against the specific issues – and give them the ability to send their feedback either privately directly to their specific elected officials or post their comments online.
  5. Segment the audience vote and feedback by political district so that representatives and residents in that district are able to see what their fellow constituents are saying – and not have it lost in the larger noise from people outside their district.
  6. Capture the elected officials votes on issues and save them so your audience can easily scan through them come voting time or if they have questions in the future.

Just imagine if news organizations implemented these six basic concepts; what it would  mean for both civic and site engagement.

Today, all the pieces exist to execute this vision for interactive personalized political “journalism,” but no one has merged them together into a seamless experience for both journalist and reader.

Sunlight Labs and others have built powerful services that provide elected official information and even make it easy to give feedback at the state and congressional level. Combined with the many different interactive survey tools it should be “easy” to hack this personalized political vision together.

The bottom line is all the individual components exist today, someone just needs to have the courage and resources to pull them all together into one seamless whole.

And that organization will win the election for the best political coverage platform and our undying gratitude for your service to our nation!

Interactive Political Journalism as a Service

  • Do you know who your government representatives are?
  • Do you know who to vote for?
  • Do you participate in the political and governmental process outside of voting?

If you’re like me, the answer to all of the above is, “Not really”. And the media is partly to blame.

Instead of providing people the information and tools they need to easily and intelligently engage in local politics, news organizations are stuck in old paradigms, Political Journalism 1.0 – covering local politics following a paper and TV-based model – which is a debacle for both their finances and society as a whole.

Despite the dysfunction and the billions spent on political advertising, there has been very little discussion about how to comprehensively leverage technology to bring simplicity, transparency and engagement to local politics, which is especially pathetic when there are so many existing models to borrow from.

The first step into the new world is to take off your “story” glasses and try on your “etail,” “social networking,” “fantasy-sports” and other glasses as you think about moving from just covering politics to becoming a platform for civic engagement. This means providing an editorial and technology platform designed to enable participation.

Today, the technology exists to do this – and various organizations and companies have developed individual components  – but as of yet no one has built out the entire infrastructure. And whomever does will create an entirely new space and largely obsolete the existing models of political coverage – just as Craig’s List killed newspaper classifieds and YouTube transformed online video.

Transforming Retail Politics into Etail Politics

You need to find a new toaster. Where do you turn? Amazon.com. It’s easy, you type “toaster” in the search box, up comes a list that you can sort by price, brand and features. Need information about the specific toaster, click on the links to read product spec, customer reviews, etc.. Want to compare selected toasters, select the models and see how they stack up side by side.

By contrast you need to figure out who to vote for in your local city council. Where do you turn to?  Do a search for your City Council. What pulls up? An individual candidate website.  Maybe you can find a list of city council members – but good luck finding your specific representatives and candidates. And if you can find a list, is it easy to compare them based on their specific stands?

No, No and no! In order to solve this, news organizations need to think of voting as a purchase process and apply basic etail and mapping concepts to politics.

Step 1: Find

You need to help people find their representatives and candidates. Most of us don’t know who our local representatives are – and the current story structure doesn’t help us easily figure that out.

Residents should be able to simply enter their address and pull up a list of all their representatives and candidates from their city council to congressional district.

Today there are multiple sites that enable you to enter your zip code and they will provide a list of your congressional and in some case state representatives – but I’ve yet to find a site that lists all your representatives down to the local level. And amazingly, no local media organizations provide this basic functionality, despite the fact that local politics is a core news offering.

If properly integrated, it would even enhance the reading experience and help make stories more relevant, after all, how many times have you wondered which one of the politicians mentioned in a story are your representatives? Wouldn’t it be great if your specific representative’s names were highlighted with a link to that candidate’s engagement page. Or at the very least enable readers to easily find out which is their representative.
Step 2: Choose and Engage
It’s election season and as I drive to work, I’m surrounded by a sea of signs, but when I go online and try to figure out who to vote for, there’s a paucity of trustworthy easy to find information. And I certainly can’t easily compare candidates side by side the way I can when selecting a toaster online.  The result is frequently clueless, frustrated voters – often either guessing who to vote for, skipping the majority of the races and/or not participating in the elections at all – angry at the media for its haphazard, mostly unhelpful approach to campaign coverage.

If the traditional media is going to stay relevant and regain its standing, it needs to begin providing the same tools people use when shopping online, deciding on where to eat and engaging with each other. That means providing readers the ability to easily:

  1. Compare candidates qualification and positions on key issues. This requires offering both a technology platform and an editorial oversight role to select the key issues for candidates to respond to. A “journalist” should be both identifying issues, e.g. new court ruling will require the school district to redraw school boundaries, and polling residents about what they view as key issues.
  2. Reduce the shouting by limiting the conversation to residents in their specific districts. One of the problems of the Internet era is it’s easy to become the target of a national audience and be overwhelmed by angry voices from outside the district. By requiring address level information to participate, it’s may be possible to reduce the noise from outraged minorities (not necessarily people of color) on the left or the right that often seem to hijack the political conversations.
  3. Encourage participation by enforcing clear rules of engagement designed to maintain civility – as all it takes is a couple of verbal hand grenades to transform the conversation into shouting matches. And I, like many people, find the flames just completely turn me off – and often make me wish for the pre-comment era.
  4. Ask questions and receive answers from politicians. The YouTube debates enabled ordinary people to ask questions and Obama took it the next logical step with his Open for Questions http://www.whitehouse.gov/openforquestions
  5. Vote early and often for candidates. The site www.HotOrNot.com pioneered the ability to vote online – and as simple and as silly it is, it’s addicting. Visible Vote (Now http://www.bythepeople.us/  ) enables you to “vote” on candidates and bills. And this should be a standard for any political site. People should be able to rate and vote on the politician, their stands and their votes – as a way to give people both a voice and engage in the site. There should be weekly polls on the candidates and representatives – and give people the ability to vote on candidates’ positions, ads and everything else.
  6. Campaign online in favor or against candidates. Make it easy for people to share their opinions, create petitions and take action. People post signs in their front yards, why not make it easy to show your support online by providing people easy-to-use tools to show their support on their Facebook pages, blogs and emails.
  7. Personalize political stories.  When I read an article, I’m often not sure if it applies to me, or which council person I should care about. In the future there needs to be prompts and linkages that make it easy to determine who in the article is my elected representative and their position on an issue. Traditional story telling isn’t dead – it just needs to be updated to take advantage of new technologies and meet key readers’ needs.
  8. Read reviews from groups and people they trust. Customer reviews are standard on retail shopping sites, but are a little more problematic for reviewing politicians. If I’m a conservative gay Republican I don’t care what straight liberal Democrats think about a politician. I care what other conservative gay Republicans think. Today, sites like REI.com or diapers.com enable you to not only read reviews but select reviews based on what group the reviewer belonged to. After all, I may not trust a journalist to provide me with “unbiased” commentary, but if I belong to the NRA, I’ll trust their candidate ratings.

Until news organizations move from just thinking of themselves as storytellers writing articles to focusing on helping voters more easily and more intelligently participate in the political process, voters will continue to feel confused and disenfranchised, news organizations will become less and less relevant and our democracy will be driven by the few, instead of the many.

I originally wrote this in 2010 and sadly news organizations are still stuck in the same old broken paradigm.

CA Investigation: Too Many Facts & Not Enough Design= Missed Opportunities

Hats off to the Commercial Appeal for a good solid piece of investigative journalism about how Shelby County General Sessions Court Judges are absent way more than they should be. http://bit.ly/CAJudgeInvestigation

Unfortunately, because they and most other news organizations are still stuck in a primarily narrative story mode, where text-based stories that disappear shortly after creation are the norm, they missed multiple opportunities to transform their work into more useful, usable and longer-lived content.

If the Commercial Appeal and other news organizations are going to succeed on the Web, they’re going to need to move beyond just writing stories to creating information products that maximize both the value of their work to the news organization and their audience.

So what do I mean by that?

So instead of just writing stories, think about the different challenges your audiences face and how if you structured the information differently, you can help them solve those challenges. And secondly, how could you leverage the information to drive ongoing engagement over time.

Below are a few thoughts that came to mind after I read the story.

Learn how the brain works

The brain has three types of memory:

  1. Iconic Memory: Where sights, sounds and other senses are first processed. Information stays in here for less than a second, but our mind is able to identify certain items instantaneously, even before our conscious mind is aware of them, e.g. length, movement, color, etc..
  2. Working Memory: The brains RAM. Unfortunately we humans can only hold small amounts of information in our working memory, e.g. names, dates, etc.. so as we learn new facts, we either forget what we learned previously or we need to move the information into our long term memory.
  3. Long-Term Memory: Where we store our information for later use.

The key takeaway is that our working memory only holds small amounts of information, so we need to design our information products in ways that make it easy for us to absorb and manage the content being presented, i.e. stories are great for communicating themes and conflict, but don’t work so well for delivering lots of facts and figures.

Just think about all the stories you’ve read where you’ve confused the various characters and have to constantly refer to earlier parts of the story to understand who’s who and what’s what.

Just as we no longer rely on just oral communication, we can’t rely on just text in a world with almost infinite design options if you want to maximize your story’s impact.

I highly recommend Stephen Few’s blog for more insights into the human brain and data visualization.

Help me understand my government

First, while the article was chock full of information, I still don’t understand how the different courts are structured or work. There was a paragraph or two buried in the article about the different courts, but since the article was so fact dense, the information was quickly pushed out of my working memory as I tried to absorb other details in the story.

The local court system in Shelby County is incredibly confusing, but there is nowhere you can go that explains how the different courts are structured and compare them with each other. The CA provided some limited explanation of the court structure in the article, but if they had created a table that explained the various courts and provided links to more in depth descriptions, they would have both provided better context – and created evergreen content that would be helpful to anyone who is trying to understand the Shelby County Court system.

While the investigations are great, developing rich base content about the people and institutions  that serve us would fill a giant information gap in the market and provide a better foundation for stories like this to build from.

Unfortunately, by not thinking of themselves as a Wikipedia for local government, they missed out on the opportunity to:

  • Better serve their readers by providing insights into a confusing and opaque system.
  • Create evergreen/longtail content that will be relevant months and years after it was written.
  • Deliver a better user experience as the structural details of the various players, processes and systems get lost in traditional storyform.

Just ask yourself, where do you, your friends and family turn to when they have questions about their local government? Is it a local news site? And is it easy for them to find the information they want? Or is there an opportunity for you to fill?

Help me vote

Second, by not structuring the story as part of a larger voter-guide initiative, they lost the opportunity to make it easier for me to make decisions about the upcoming ballot.

The upcoming ballot in Shelby County will be huge – especially with all the various judgeships on the ballot. As someone who’s not involved in the legal community nor closely tied to the local political parties, I don’t have a clue who these people or what their duties.

If the Commercial Appeal created a ballot structure with links to the various articles/information – or that had the information in such a way that I could easily save as part of a voter guide, the stories would go from “Hmmm… this is interesting and potentially outrageous” to “Oh… this is great, they’re creating a comprehensive voter guide that I can easily use to help me make voting decisions.”

Instead I read the article, thought this is bad and I need to save this information for when I vote, then promptly lost the article and got lazy about copying the information to a form that I could use to decide and document my ballot choices. As a result, I may not ever use the information in the article as part of my voting decision-making process because of the additional work required by me to make it usable for me. (Okay, I will but only because I’m a nerd who invested so much time writing about the article.)

Don’t make me work

Stories are great for painting pictures of events and conflict, but they frankly suck for providing detailed minutiae as our brains can only hold so much detail in our working memory. Instead of forcing people to remember a bunch of facts and figures, news organizations need to focus on new ways to help people easily understand both the larger context and the details of who’s doing what – neither of which traditional text-based stories are very good at doing.

So considering how much time is invested in investigative work, in the future news organizations need to think how best to communicate that information to their audiences for their audiences’ benefit – and how best to transform that information into valuable longer-term assets.

 

Enable Your Audience to Give Feedback to their Elected Officials From Your Site

MyRepresentatives Feedback Before & After Slide v2Thanks to Joey Brown, Bryan Glazer & Sunlight Labs you’ll be able to soon:

  • Instantly find and give feedback to your state and federal elected officials all across the United States
  • Embed the MyRepresentatives feedback button in your site or blog, so whether you’re a news organization, non-profit or advocacy organization, you can make it easy for your audience to get engaged.

The goal is to transform journalism from just presenting information to providing civic engagement tools that make it easy for readers/viewers to take action. After all, isn’t the whole point of journalism to help drive change?

With MyRepresentatives you can embed the MyRepresentatives feedback button on your site, just like you do links to Twitter and Facebook, and you’re done!

Best of all it’s free! The entire site has been developed as an after-hours non-partisan public-service project, but that doesn’t mean we won’t accept donations.

So stay tuned! And feel free to contact us for more details about how you can integrate MyRepresentatives into your site.

Wall Street Journal Crushes NY Times in Battle for my Family’s Hearts and Minds

I hate to say it but the Old Gray Lady needs a major face lift if it’s going to be welcome in my home again.

We’d been getting the Wall Street Journal for the last few years, until we received a gift subscription to the New York Times so we let our subscription to the Journal lapse. My wife and  teenage daughters really enjoyed the Journal’s inviting layout, easy-to-read articles and especially the Market Place, Personal Journal and all the Weekend Extra sections, but I loved the NY Times articles on the Web and was looking forward to receiving the entire paper.

So after three months of the New York Times, our family unanimously agrees, the Times is out and the Wall Street Journal is coming back to our driveway.

While the WSJ still has a focus on business and Wall Street in particular, it didn’t feel like it was written just for Wall Street Insiders. There were articles on politics, international affairs, science, family, education, relationships, etc… that were easy to read and of interest to the family.

On any given day there were always more than a few articles that interested adults and teenagers alike. While the Journal  may not have as much written content as the NY Times, the layout was a lot more user friendly for a busy family always on the go. So at the end of the week, you actually learned more even if there was less actual text/content.

The NY Times on the other hand seemed like a big gray mass of text with an overwhelming number of articles and even worse, an intense focus on the New York arts and culture scene, about as a relevant to a Memphian as Memphis city politics are to New Yorkers.

While it featured some great articles, the total amount of text was too much to read and the stories too hard to find. Everything was so buried in a sea of words that even though our family is very internationally focused (One spouse is from Europe. I’m half Argentine. One daughter wants to be a diplomat, etc…) the length of the articles made it difficult to find the time to read.

Instead of being able to quickly ingest an article or two over breakfast before dashing out the door, you needed to plan on setting aside time for a three-course meal to digest articles in the Times. Rather than being an enjoyable Sunday read, going through it was viewed as kind of a chore, and mostly abandoned by everyone except for myself – a former reporter and intense news junkie.

When I was a reporter at the Orange County Register we used to grouse about the travesty of having to write more condensed articles and having our articles chopped to fit the papers easy-to-read design guidelines. After I left and started editing/designing publications,  I discovered the importance of design. And now as a busy dad and marketer, I’ve come to appreciate good design even more, which is why one reason why I appreciated the Journal, and why I’m even more surprised that the Times hasn’t focused more on making their content more accessible.

Another part of the problem is the “New York” in the New York Times. While many, daresay most of us, outside of New York embrace the brand for its ongoing history of great journalism – especially its coverage of national and international events – most of us don’t really care about New York, and find the intense parochialism, off putting.

On the Web, it’s less of an issue, as it’s very easy to skip the New York components and dive into the areas of interest, but in the paper form, it’s very distracting. And while we’re all Webheads, nothing beats bringing a good-old fashioned paper to the bathroom or for sharing articles and commentary with family around the breakfast table.

Now that our gift subscription to the Times has run out, we’ve re-upped our subscription to the WSJ and are looking forward to relaxing with the paper instead of working through the paper.

News Organizations: We want insights not just people’s opinions

To the Commercial Appeal & other Memphis-area news organizations,

Now is your chance to rise above and help us Shelby County residents better understand some of the momentous choices we are about to make, but it will require moving beyond the traditional reporting and writing of the past to actual analysis & presentation of information.

Us residents of Bartlett, Germantown and Collierville are about to vote on creating new school districts but without having any of the tools required to really understand the impacts of our decisions. And your text-based reporting doesn’t really illustrate or explain what the impacts of the different scenarios really are.

If you and the rest of the news organizations really want to thrive in an interactive world, then it’s time to move beyond just writing and adopt new tools  – like GIS/ computerized mapping, which can give us readers the ability to visually see how different options will impact us.

Depending upon how the new municipal school boundaries are drawn, e.g. if they only include students within the municipality, you will have dramatic fluctuations school populations – either increasing or decreasing – and therefore the potential revenue and staff available at the school.

For example, we love Riverdale Elementary, our neighborhood school, but as far as I can tell the majority of the school kids actually come from the Cordova area outside of Germantown city limits. If a new municipal school district was too be launched then my assumption is all the kids from Cordova would be excluded and attendance   would plummet. Instead of overcrowding, we’d be faced with empty classrooms and firing teachers.

However, these are all guesstimates as I don’t have the tools to easily calculate the different scenarios. Instead, I get to read articles from different stakeholders sharing general opinions but without really getting insight into the cold hard numbers or what new boundary changes will mean to me.

It’s as if I turned on the TV news to find out the details of a dangerous storm heading our way so I could decide whether my family should take shelter in the closet or not – and instead of a meteorologist giving me detailed visual information about the storm track and intensity, reporters with no meteorological training were interviewing various “experts” about the storm.

“Yes, it’s going to be a dangerous storm,” exclaims expert one.

“Well it shouldn’t really be that bad unless you’re in the impacted areas,” explains expert two.

“There you have it, it will be a stormy night,” explains the reporter.

Meanwhile, what people like me, have come to expect is a trained expert using advanced analysis/visualization tools showing us the intensity and storm track so we can make potentially life or death decisions. (For those of you outside of tornado country, check out this clip of the play-by-play analysis of a severe storm to see what I mean.)

Because I have a GIS background, I could potentially conduct the analysis but that’s what I’m looking to you for as I have a full time job and kids. That’s why I subscribe, or don’t, to the Commercial Appeal or turn to other local news sources.

The reality is that if I want to buy a car, house or furniture, I’m going to look on Craig’s List, but when it comes to understanding what’s going on with my city, county and schools I look to news organizations, but you need to provide me the information I want and need in order for me to shell out my hard-earned money for a subscription.

The good news is that the technology has become much cheaper and easier to learn and use – so someone with some curiosity and basic spreadsheet skills can quickly move from just reporting to analysis.

And if you don’t have the skill sets internally, partner with the university or people like me who do. Whatever you do, don’t continue doing what you’ve been doing and expect different results – your business and your community need you  to do better.

Sincerely,

Kevin Mireles

Green Fried Rice & a Shamrock Piñata on St. Patrick’s Day or Why I love America!

It’s hard to believe it’s been sixteen years since that fateful St. Patrick’s Day party at my place in Santa Ana when I hooked up with my wife.

Since my roommate was Vietnamese and I’m an undercover Hispanic we celebrated this Irish holiday in a 100% American way with green fried rice, a Shamrock piñata, Guinness, Irish whiskey and a multicultural and multicolored group of friends.

Not everyone was as enthused about this cultural miscegenation. My roommate’s Irish-American boyfriend just kept muttering between swigs of Irish whisky, “My grandfather must be turning over in his grave,” as we ate our fried rice and took turns whacking the pinata.

But that’s what I love about America. Where else can you celebrate an Irish Catholic holiday with an Asian and Mexican twist? Nowhere! And that’s why where others are dismayed at the sights and sounds of other countries in their own front yards, I see the strength and vitality that will be critical to our success in this global economy.

After all, I’m a cultural mutt. My kids are mutts. My dog’s a mutt. And that’s what makes America great – the mashups of people and cultures that create new versions of old traditions – especially food!

Lets face it the “traditional” American diet is pretty boring. I remember the days when even in LA my mom would have to drive cross town to get fresh raviolis and empanadas. And the concept of eating raw fish with rice and seaweed was virtually unheard of –  at least in my household. Instead, being a good Mexican-Argentine-American family we’d have much more traditional food, like bacon, eggs, waffles and beans or steak and beans or beans and empanadas…. you get the picture.

Back then, your choice of bread was white Wonder bread or if you wanted something with a little fiber  there was Roman Meal bread in the yellow and orange bag  – and that’s it. Now walk into a  supermarket in any major city and there’s tofu, tortillas, sushi and Sriracha  Sauce next to the Greek yogurt and Gruyere cheese.

Even beyond that, the dirty little secret of our information age is that it’s primarily powered by South Asian immigrants and others from around the globe with the talent, education and drive required to thrive in a code-driven economy.

And where would I be without this global society? Nowhere  as I’m a Paucho; the mix of an Argentinian Gaucho and a Mexican-American Pocho.

Worse yet, I’d never have met my French wife and learned about the joys of home-made whipped cream. Growing up I thought it just came out of a can and had no idea just how good it could be! Or how easy it is to make! I’d know nothing of tarts, the joys of cheese or the proper way to eat mussels – that’s with another mussel shell of course!

My kids wouldn’t be bilingual – now working toward trilinguality – and most of all I wouldn’t have my partner, the woman I love, the femme I fight with, the mother of my kids, who watches my back, tells me the things I don’t want to hear, holds me tight when I need a hug – my petite hummingbird who flits from task to task and declares on a daily basis, “I can’t understand why I’m so tired” despite waking at 5:30 a.m., rarely stopping, never sitting, helping cranky kids with homework, planting gardens, cleaning, installing kitchen tiles, cooking home-made meals, dashing to and fro for good deals and kids activities.

And I might not have her in my life if it weren’t for celebrating an Irish saint’s birthday nearly 1,700 years later here in America – home of the free, the brave and the mutts.

My Love Affair is Over :(

My love affair started many many years ago…. and now it’s over.

I remember as if it were yesterday. We met at the bakery in the Albertson’s around the corner from my parents house. It was a much simpler time, when bread came in two choices; Wonder or Roman Meal – and pastries, other than donuts, existed somewhere far, far away from our 70’s suburban neighborhood.

And there she was, that beautiful brown skin covered in a thick sheen of sugar glaze, my dream – an apple fritter. I took my quarter out of my pocket lifted it over my head to the counter and tapped on the glass window, “There that one! The second one from the back!” I motioned, hoping that the towering lady manning the counter could read my thoughts.

And she did! I grasped the wax paper in my hands and brought my gooey delight to my mouth, where I bit through the fried dough with triumphant satisfaction.

Now, 30 er 40 years later, every time I walk into a donut shop and spy the Apple Fritters, that same memory flashes through my mind. And every time, I think my next apple fritter will be like my first. And so I take my credit card out of my pocket, point to the tray of apple fritters and imagine just how wonderful biting into that cholesterol-laden diabetes-causing pastry will be.

And then I bite into it; my dreams transform into disappointment as my tastebuds are overcome with the taste and texture of sugary lard-laden dough.

And the sad part is, I should know better. Every apple fritter encounter for the last 20-years has ended the same way, yet I keep trying, like Charlie Brown being enticed to kick the football by Lucie, despite knowing full well, failure is inevitable.

But yesterday was going to be different, because Gibson Donuts, makes the best donuts in all the midsouth – and I knew, if anyone could make a great apple fritter, they could. So instead of going with their always reliable glazed donuts or amazing bacon glazed donuts, I pointed at the tray of apple fritters once again.

It came swaddled in the wax paper wrap and so I took my dream ever so delicately in my cold winter-chapped hands – and bit into it.

“Blaugh!” Failure once again! So now that’s it! No more, my love affair with Apple Fritters is over. Never again – or at least until next time.

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