eCitizenship Meets the Public Square at NKU

By Mark Neikirk

Facebook. Ustream. Twitter. Evite. LinkedIn.  Podcast. Skype.

Each of those is a familiar noun to us in 2010 yet the 21st Century began without them in our vocabulary. It’s not exactly a news flash, but “E” tools abound and new ones are coming into use daily.

As the American Democracy Project’s eCitizenship initiative gets rolling, Northern Kentucky University’s Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement is, like other ADP universities, finding ways to turn these newly minted nouns into active verbs – and so this past week we Facebooked, Ustreamed, Twittered, Evited, Linked , podcasted and Skyped our way through a public forum around the topic: “News In the Information Age: What happens to democracy if the presses stop?”

The Forum’s first mission was to attract a live audience. Butts in the seats, if you will. Social media tools were a tremendous help.  A Facebook page was used to promote the Forum, as were Facebook messages and LinkenIn postings.  Some experimenting with Evite.com was applied as well, along with more traditional email blasts from list-serves. A web-based poster was created by our designer (www.ryanostrander.com/nkyforum). And we recorded a video promo on our Ustream.tv channel, NKYFORUM. The NKU home page and the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement‘s Northern Kentucky Forum page were employed as well.  Some traditional marketing methods were used to (press release; postcards by USPS). In addition, I produced a preview of the Forum for  the  ADP National Blog, which Cecilia M. Orphan (ADP’s National Project Manager and eCitizenship zealot) graciously posted and then sent along this reminder to me of the value of being a contributor to the blog: “I shared this story on our Facebook, Twitter, and blog platforms… As you know, the ADP Blog has a readership of close to 1,000 people including ADP campus participants, national news organizations, and our national partner organizations”

Our target in-person audience for the evening was 150, and so we set up 150 chairs. The Forum doesn’t have a formal RVSP system and doesn’t have tickets, so we weren’t sure how many people were coming.  But just before we started we had to add 25 more chairs as more people came in. We filled those seats, too.

As for the event itself, here’s a summary of the social media and other “e” tools we employed:

  • Clickers: Using Turning Point “clickers,” we assured audience participation – posing three questions that the audience could answer, with the bar chart results immediately visible to the panelists and moderator so they could react to the audience views. This worked well (but was not a new feature of the Forum; we’ve used clickers for all but one other event of ten held since October 2008).
  • Ustream: We set up a channel and videostreamed live. This wasn’t glitch-free. Both in tests beforehand and during the event, we lost out videocast and had to reconnect. But the crucial Q&A part of the evening moved flawlessly and remains on view on the Ustream site at the NKYFORUM channel.  About 70 people watched the Forum from around the country via this videocast. We drove traffic by telling niche audiences (such as the chairs of key journalism schools) about the planned videocast.
  • Twitter: Given the evening’s topic, we partnered with the Cincinnati chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for this event, and SPJ helped draw an audience by pushing the Forum to its membership. SPJ also provided a journalist who Twittered live from the event. You can read the archive of that by going to Twitter and searching “NKYFORUM” but here is a sample:
  1. cincyspj: Boehne: Younger news consumers “agnostic to where it (news) comes from, as long as it serves the purpose”.
  2. Hetzel: Internet & multimedia let us tell more of the story than we can in just print.
  3. Schulhofer-Wohl: News source doesn’t matter as much as people getting the news & being able to think critically about it

(Cast: Rich Boehne, CEO of E.W. Scripps Company;  Dennis Hetzel, manager, NKY.com; Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, Princeton University economics professor; also on the panel, New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg).

  • Skype: This was an experiment tried but not executed. A fifth panelist was to join us virtually via Skype from New Mexico (M. E. Sprengelmeyer is the owner and publisher of the Guadalupe County Communicator in New Mexico; he previously covered national affairs in Washington for the Rocky Mountain News, which was closed last year).  For reasons still being diagnosed, the Skype didn’t work – possibly because of soundboard complications given the other feeds necessary for the evening. The idea was to have the Skype video and audio on screen “live” and interacting with the in-person panelists. We’re already planning our next Skype use, and we’ll get the bugs out.
  • Podcast: The Forum was previewed on a local public radio station, WVXU, when then posted the podcast and archived it: http://www.wvxu.org/impact/impact_archiveview.asp?ID=3/4/2010

It is worth mentioning that this Forum was born, appropriately enough, from a blog. Last year, the prestigious media think tank, The Poynter Institute, posted their widely read journalism blogger Jim Romenesko’s reference to some new research about newspapers and civic activity. Here’s t he intro, posted March 16, 2009:

Newspapers do matter, Princeton study finds

The shutdown of a newspaper has an immediate and measurable impact on local political engagement, according to a new study by economists at Princeton University.

The focus of the study was the closing in 2007 of The Cincinnati Post, where I had been managing editor, so naturally, I took an interest. I called the author, Dr.  Schulhofer-Wohl,and invited him to NKU to speak, and then set to work with a planning committee to build a public forum around the topic. Meanwhile, ADP’s eCitizenship initiative as born and so, as we planned the Forum, we looked for ways to build in many of the tools I’d heard about at ADP’s Wayne State University conference on eCitizenship.

As for the conclusion of the Forum panel on the future of media, it was this: “E” tools are here to stay, they are empowering for a democracy and citizens, like the media and media companies, need to keep learning how to use them effectively to encourage a substantive and smart civic dialogue.

I’ll talk more about the Forum during a session at this summer’s ADP conference. Meanwhile, I can share more via email with anyone interesed. I’m at neikirkm1@nku.edu.

One very significant “thank you” is in order: NKU is a New York Times and USA Today readership program campus, and the Times worked very closely with us to provide reporter Jacques Steinberg as a speaker. He also met with our faculty to discuss his blog on higher education and the admissions process, The Choice. In addition, he met with about 40 NKU journalism and international students to discuss modern media for 90 minutes. So the Forum leveraged some other valuable programming on campus, and the Times readership program was key to making this value-added feature possible.

_______________________________________________________

Mark Neikirk is the executive director of Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement at Northern Kentucky University. The Center’s website is http://civicengagement.nku.edu.

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