- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.