Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Leaving Newspaper Notice Habit Behind

When people talk about luddites or technophobes, a snicker swell seems to occur; after all, we're in the digital age, why are people so irrationally resistant to improvements and newer-better-faster more efficient standardizations? Being a luddite today, or any day for that matter, is much akin to calling yourself "anti-improvement" as a political label.

But we need to be very careful with labels because they're sticky, and frequently wrong.

I had to remind myself of that as I read yesterday's Bangor Daily News OpEd piece Shannon Martin: Internet no substitute for newspapers... on the internet. Never mind the irony that I and thousands of others would never have seen Dr. Martin's article were it not published online; I was amusing myself with imaginings of a Green movement backlash calling her a Tree-Killer.

By contrast, there's rationality and good intention behind Dr. Martin's position. Her strongest point is that no equipment is needed for the citizen to view a newspaper. As well, Martin and I agree on this: the public must be informed of its government's business. But she also has phobia of a change in public notice standards, imagining many fears that simply have no basis.

Her very premise, as extracted almost word for word from the book she published ten years ago on the same topic, "Newspapers of Record in a Digital Age", appears flawed, out of date and out of touch. The idea that printed newspapers create the most ideal permanency of record may have had a dying relevance a decade ago, but today it's being lowered into the ground at best, grinding to dust at worst. There are dozens of ways to maintain a permanent record, digital or otherwise, without newspapers. Does that mean we should get rid of printed newspapers tomorrow? Absolutely not.

Maine's bill to generate cost savings through internet publication standardization, LD 1878, is an excellent step in the right direction: tax revenue efficiency; human resource efficiency; publication timeliness efficiency; and, the benefit of the start of a digital age open government standardization model.

Speaking of which, Martin claims that going to an instant information model is somehow an attack on open government. But that was simply an afterthought, here are some stunners:

Pushing and Pulling
Publishing in newspapers is "pushing" the data out to citizens, while publishing online is making the citizen "pull" the data to them.

I could write a book on why this is wholly invalid, but let me start with this: What is the difference between a man using his computer to get a government body meeting date and a man driving to the grocery store to purchase a newspaper that provides the information? Speed, cost, convenience and reliability all favor the former. Want to talk subscription? That one favors the eCitizen as well.

The jaw-dropper here is that Martin seems to ignore the fact that LD 1878 has a provision so that those who don't want to use a computer can get a direct mail subscription to the information! That leaves newspaper publishing in the dust... doesn't it, or am I missing something nostalgic here?

Death to the Proud Maine Activist
How can the pride of Maine, the government activist, possibly survive if the information isn't published in the newspaper?

This is what gave me the sense that Martin is out of touch. Activists do one thing really well: they act. The fact that activists can now get all their information through a computer rather than a printed paper allows activists to be more productive while doing less. Activists use computers. If they don't, then they wait for an activist leader who does to give them information.

The fact is that the people who want this information are going to get it: purchasing a newspaper or visiting a website doesn't make a difference. Technophobes are a dying breed; their ludditiousness is being pandered to for reasons that make as much sense as outlawing newspapers because I fear getting newspaper ink all over my hands.

Newspapers are Taken More Seriously
If newspapers are independent of the government, then there's more accountability and the publishing carries more "seriousness" weight.

Not to be brash, but I'm having a hard time taking this argument seriously. I'm sure you can see that there isn't even a leaky cup there to hold the water in the first place.

Internet Content isn't Easily Accessible
"All who use the Internet know that digital media are neither fixed nor easily accessible."

I now feel a bond with the last thought of a truck driver who is about to hit a deer that refuses to budge. There is a lot to be learned here for Dr. Martin and I highly recommend that she spend some time understanding not only the second-nature intuitiveness that has been developed in the internet universe, but also the technologies of wordflow automation that are available to governments. Online archiving is here, it's available and it's more useable than any newspaper archive or microfiche ever has been.

Publishing on the Internet will be Resource-Heavy
"A system will be required that includes computing system startup, upkeep and maintenance, software, hardware, technicians, system oversight, system archiving, emergency response personnel and backup systems."

This is a looping load of filler. Computing system startup? If she's not talking about the power button, then we need more clarity. Hardware? Your government better already have it and they'll need to replace it in a couple years time regardless of LD 1878. Emergency response personnel? Is that similar to the fire truck that comes every time I find all the newspapers at the store are sold out or when the paperboy skips your house? System archiving and backup systems? Repeat after me: "redundancy." The rest of this is all software. Get a comprehensive open government software solution that automates all of the clerical processes and you have hands-free system oversight, system archiving, off-site backups, support technicians, live meeting video streams, real-time online publishing and a whole lot more.

Even if a situation arose where it would cost less to publish only via newspapers, LD 1878 fairly allows for that option to be used in lieu of internet publication.

Nielsen ratings published in December of '06 show that 70% of US citizens are online. How many of that super-majority actually purchase the newspaper? How many of the other 30% actually get a newspaper to find out about public meeting notices?

Dr. Shannon Martin has every American's best interests at heart, but her beliefs cost more tax dollars than most constituents may wish to spend. If you and your community are fine with a biennial cost of over 1.5 million dollars to additionally publish in the newspaper, that's fantastic; go for it! However, the base of all information needs to be digital, it needs to be searchable and it needs to be online first.

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