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The open EU

I got email this morning from someone getting ready to present to the European Parliament on the changes in journalism from their perspective. He said: “Given the shift to hyper-local journalism, being a supra-national body seems to be a problem. It is a particular problem for the EP in that it strives for relevance and to make its voice heard.” What should their strategy be? Here was my answer:

Unsurprisingly, my response starts with transparency: all the actions and information of government must be online, searchable, linkable, in a form that can be shared and analyzed.

I argue for this not just because of a will to catch the bastards with no end of citizen watchdogs (not, perhaps, the best selling point from your side of the discussion now – though transparency is an important element in the new, post-institutional ecosystem of news). I argue that it is in government’s own enlightened self-interest to have everything out there because, thanks to the link, source material – whether from government or from companies or from witnesses to news – will become part of news coverage; we will link to information at its source and we will expect it to be there.

It is also in government’s interest to have Googlejuice (dare I bring up a large American brand to the EU?); it will want to be discovered when citizens search for information. Indeed, search will be the primary means of contact between citizens and government. That is the case when citizens initiate the contact.

When government wants to make contact – when it wants to disseminate information or, god help us, messages out to the people – it soon will no longer be able to rely on mass media and the press to do that. It will have to rely on the citizenry, on people spreading that word, but only if it’s worthy, only if they care to. Government can establish a Twitter account, yes, but its tweets won’t be retweeted unless fellow Twitterers care to, unless that message is relevant and useful to them. And in a transparent government, it may not be up to government to decide what messages are spread; it will be up to the citizen-users.

Having said that, it is still vital for government – its politicians and its agencies’ bureaucrats alike – to establish these connections using the social tools of online. The internet itself is a social tool; it is not a medium but a connection machine. So just as one wants Googlejuice for search, one wants relationships for the social web.

Here’s the hard part. I argue that in a post-industrial economy and society, when process overtakes the end-product, we customers, citizens, users expect to be included in the creation of products and decisions, which means we expect them to be opened up before they are done. This is why Google (there, I did it again) releases products as betas; it is necessarily an invitation to collaborate – as well as a statement of humility and humanity: ‘This thing is unfinished. It’s imperfect. Help us finish it.’

We need beta government. When I’ve spoken with government people, they confess a phobia of failure. Yet without the opportunity to fail, government – like industry and media – cannot experiment and thus innovate. We must give government the license to fail. That is difficult, especially because it is the citizenry that must grant that permission. I think government must begin to recast its relationship by opening up pilot procts to input and discussion, to smart ideas and improvements. I’m not suggesting for a second that every decision be turned into a vote, that law become a wiki. Government still exercises its responsibility. But it needs to use the new mechanisms of the web to hear those ideas. I would look for examples to Dell’s Ideastorm, Starbucks’ My Starbucks Idea, and Best Buy’s Idea Exchange.

Finally to your question about local v. national and extra-national: I wouldn’t worry greatly. In the U.S., we didn’t have national media until TV networks reached critical mass and we didn’t have a quality national news brand until satellites enabled The New York Times (not to mention USA Today) to transmit pages to remote printing plants. Most of the journalistic resource in the U.S. has been spent locally, most of it by the monopolies that are now dying. In Europe, local newspapers are in the same sinking ship and, as in the U.S, I believe there are opportunities in local (in our work on new business models for news at CUNY – at – we forecast a robust and sustainable local ecosystem for news).

But in Europe, unlike the U.S., each nation has long had and still has strong and competitive national news markets. I think that will continue. Indeed, where languages cross borders, there are new opportunities to grow internationally; look at the Guardian, which exploded online and gets two-thirds of its audience from outside the UK. I believe that strong national news brands – some of them new, perhaps – will be supported in Europe because the the public is so accustomed to having them and without production and distribution costs and the need to reproduce commodity information and content (‘do what you do best and link to the rest’) they can find new efficiency.

Still, as you say, that should not lull government into thinking it can continue, business as usual, working through those national brands, for many citizens will go around them – or rather, will go to them only when brought there by a link through search or aggregation or peers. As a college student famously told a researcher in The New York Times a year ago, “if the news is that important, it will find me.” Marissa Mayer and Eric Scmidt of Google (there I go again) is talking now not about hyperlocal but about “hyperpersonal news streams.” Now return to the start of this discussion: This is why government must have connections with people, so its information can insinuate itself into the web and their lives and – here, at last, is the real point – so government, especially such a supra-national body, is not remote from the needs and lives of its citizens but is, instead, in constant conversation with them.