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What journalists can learn about online engagement from politicians


This article originally appeared on the BBC’s College of Journalism website.

Journalists can learn a great deal from some politicians in terms of engagement, collaboration and co-production.

With more than 1.1 million Twitter followers, 51,500 Facebook ‘likes’ and 1,000 YouTube subscribers, Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, provides a great illustration of a local politician capitalising on web-based opportunities and mixing them with old-fashioned leg work to build a responsive, collaborative audience. (The trailerfor the documentary made about him in 2005 is well worth a watch.)

His irresistible communication advertises not only what he is doing but the work of local people and the city in general. As Scott Heiferman pointed out on his blog, what Booker is doing here is “modelling what he wants citizens to do: engage”. If people read his emails, watch his YouTube video or follow his tweets, and see him engaged with the local community, then they too are far more likely to participate in local civic action.

What has this got to do with journalism? If current web technology is about connecting with place, then the political drive towards the local can provide inspiration for entrepreneurial local journalists to reclaim their patch, run strong and effective campaigns, and once again become leaders of the community.

Another online councillor who I’m fond of is James Cousins of the London Borough of Wandsworth. In December 2010 he did what could be classed as ‘councillor journalism’ by plotting the location of all grit bins in the borough on a Google map and posting this on his blog (the data had previously been held in text form on a page four clicks deep on the council website, where it was almost completely inaccessible to normal visitors).

A quick read through the comments of his blog shows three clear things about his local residents:

– They are looking to Councillor Cousins as a repository of relevant, day-to-day local information

– The blog is being used by them to question decisions made by elected representatives

– Councillor Cousins, in answering comments, is engaging in real discussions and demonstrating that he is listening to their ideas and problems.

It is people like Mayor Booker and Councillor Cousins – people who have gone out on a limb, gone beyond traditional party communication strategies and personally built online reputations – who now find themselves not just networking with local neighbourhoods online but demonstrating the skills to lead collective dialogue and action. This all seems very journalistic to me.

Over recent years we’ve seen the rise of hyperlocal and community websites likeSaddleworth News and Harringay Online, the increased use of geotagging, QR codes (an enhanced barcode) and apps and access to open data.

As a sign of the brilliant work Richard Jones has done with Saddleworth News, he has just passed over control to the journalism school at the University of Huddersfield.

What all of these have in common is what we might call a ‘re-localisation’ of the web. Much of the web’s momentum until now has been about the eradication of geography, but these developments are all about engaging with place; with where people are; often with where they are right now.

James Crabtree’s ‘Civic hacking a new agenda for e-democracy’ called for an ethics of “mutual-aid and self-help among citizens, helping to overcome civic problems”. ‘Big Society’ anyone? These demands are now being fulfilled. FixMyStreet – a space to “report, view and discuss local problems”, currently receives 40,000 unique visitors per month, with 32,000 new problems posted.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about initiatives like FixMyStreet, OpenlyLocalThe Good Gym and real-life events like HackdaysGovCamps and social media surgeries – all of which are localised or localise-able ideas – is that they have been created and put to social use from the bottom up.

In both on- and offline environments, these services enable people to engage with local problems, but also connect different communities to share ideas, exchange resources, aggregate influence and increase their collective intelligence.

Communications strategies, though, must be authentic reflections of character and context. The danger here is that people see politicians like Cory Booker, or journalists like Laura Kuenssberg, or thought-leaders like Paul Bradshaw, and jump to these tools before learning the communications culture they represent and require. As Mark Twain once remarked: “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

What is needed, then, is for local journalists to take an audit of their local digital audience to discover who is online, where they are, how they’re connecting, and design their online communication around this existing activity. As Jon Snow said in his address to a BBC College of Journalism conference in the summer of 2010, journalists must now go to where the eyeballs are.