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Interactive meetings on local newspaper websites

By December 6, 2011 One Comment

At the Public-i user group on Thursday (1st of December 2011) I video interviewed Matt Bond, communications specialist at Cornwall Council.

It was good to catch up with Matt, who has been the lynchpin in Cornwall’s interactive meetings – manning the Cover It Live chat/blog that the council has been running to help citizens play a more active part in the democratic process.

In October and November Cornwall started to work with two newspapers websites – This Is Cornwall (owned by Northcliffe) and the Falmouth Packet (owned by Newsquest) – so they could host the council’s live blog and webcast on their websites. You can see an example of this here from This Is Cornwall.

As Matt explains, journalists can join the Cover It Live chat, which he moderates. He thinks the freedom (from strict rules of objectivity) that journalists enjoy helps them to stimulate debate in a way that isn’t possible for council officers. This, plus their understanding of what most interests the public about different subjects and the extra promotion they can bring, appears to boost levels of interaction and webcasting ‘hits’.

In fact, as Matt points out, live viewing figures in the two months before were at about 400 or 500, compared with something like 3,000 to 3,500 in October and November.

Here’s the video:-

Of course, the council is still able to set the rules of engagement, because he’s in charge of moderation. But Matt, a former journalist himself, says in the video that he accepts all comments as long as they are ‘constructive’ – and there appears to be a robust level of debate.

So can others follow?

I think I can see the benefits for other newspapers and councils of this kind of approach (and we know of several other councils now who are sharing webcasts with local newspaper websites). While councils benefit from the stimulation of debate and extra promotion, it’s also helpful for local papers who are looking for dynamic online content that will attract people to their websites, but won’t be a drain on time and money.

While some people might not think council meetings provide ‘dynamic online content’, recent events in Belfast suggest that this, at least, isn’t always the case – and any local journalist knows that council politics is a constant source of stories. As the number of journalists in local newsrooms dwindles, the need for maintaining a close and mutually beneficial relationship with the council increases. The sight of the reporter scribbling on the press bench in council chambers is now much less common than it once was – and the retreat of local newspapers from the hearts of their communities (often to out-of-town offices in industrial estates) means that papers are much more reliant on digital means to bring in stories and on councils providing digestible sources of news they can access quickly to generate debate and content.

At the same time, of course, we’ve seen this same shifting landscape provide everyone else an opportunity to join the party – so much so that some of the best reporting on council meetings is now carried out by unpaid bloggers who want to keep a closer eye on their politicians.

One question I didn’t ask Matt on the video was whether he would welcome bloggers hosting the Cover It Live and the webcast themselves – but his answer by email afterwards was an unequivocal yes. In fact, in recent months the council has gone out of its way to foster a relationship with bloggers – something Matt, his colleague Hannah (who took part in this interview about webcasts) and others deserve enormous credit for.

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