Traditional media is converging with digital technology, and new media—new ways of communicating with people/citizenry—is emerging. As with all levels of government, communicating with the public is crucial to the success of the community, and unfortunately the old model is still the primary choice. Press releases, printed material, quarterly magazines, etc. don’t capture everybody’s attention. Government officials don’t always trust the old media model to convey the message, but they must use it to try to spread the message. Citizens have a hard time getting coverage of their issues in the press or getting detailed information about the status of neighborhood concerns.
I say, why depend on the middleman? There are more direct ways to communicate these days . . . it’s just a matter of convincing government that it’s a good idea.
I’m an old media guy. I work in cable TV/media operations for the Community Affairs Department of the City of Troy, Michigan. Yeah, I know, you’re probably thinking cable television seems so . . . 1985. And you’d be right. But here in Troy, it’s still one of the most popular ways to get the citizenry involved in its government. WTRY, the city’s cable channel, is seen on two cable systems and goes into several surrounding communities. Our programming consists of the typical meetings, but also city and community events, concerts, and sports.
The bread and butter, of course, are the meetings. The staff (one full time, several part time) tapes about 12 meetings a month, far more than any other community around here. The meetings range from city council meetings (three a month) to the Senior Citizen Advisory Committee and the Troy Youth Council. The more important meetings are taped in rooms with robotic camera systems, while the others are taped usually with one camera and microphones for all committee members. The most-watched meetings, of course, are the city council’s. They are carried live on Monday nights over the cable systems and also streamed live at www.troymi.gov.
We’re able to stream at almost no cost. All of the capturing equipment is tied into the Globecaster system, which offers an encoding output card as part of their standard studio package. From there it goes to a PC running Windows Media Encoder and then from there straight into the nether regions of the Web.
We get about 50 viewers per meeting for the streams (according to a survey I did last year), compared to a potential audience of thousands for the cable broadcasts. Considering that we’ve never really publicized the streams, that’s not too shabby of a number. But of course there are any number of problems with streaming – buffering, the small image size, difficulty over modem connections, the limitation on the number of simultaneous streams we can offer. But the biggest problem may be that the only benefit to streaming is to make it available to people without cable TV. It’s just much better to watch video via a broadcast media on a large screen.
Which leads me to podcasting. There was a discussion on Buzzmachine recently about podcasting government meetings. Jeff Jarvis laid out a number of advantages to podcasting them:
... [E]very town board and school board should be podcast. I've long wanted to see local services enable citizens to video these meetings because, ironically, the very reason I care most about what happens in them -- I have kids -- is the reason I can't attend them. But I'd watch them, I used to say. Well, who needs to watch them? They just sit and drone. Listening would work well -- especially when podcasts can be searched and indexed.
I plan to include podcasting in a plan for integrating new media into government communication. Since people are often interested in specific items, my idea is to index each agenda item, so that a website visitor can either download the entire mp3 file with indexed chapters—like a CD—or just download the individual agenda item file. I know this can be done as well, but my challenge is time and manpower. I’m the only full time guy on staff, and my hours, as well as the part timers’ hours, are mostly spoken for already.
So, does anybody have an ingenious way to keep the time and manpower factors minimal? Meetings are archived on DVD, so I have a good audio source, but I’m in need of software that will keep the task simple and cost-conscious (translation: cheap). Parallel to that, I also want to index each agenda item on the DVD archive copy, but again that can be time-consuming.
Podcasting, digital archiving of meetings, and new ways of responding to citizen concerns is all a part of an plan that is mostly handwritten notes at the moment, but soon will be part of a new media initiative I will present to my superiors. I’m looking forward to any and all ideas . . . Post a comment here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ll be addressing the archiving of programs, municipal wi-fi (it’s coming soon here, county-wide), and other issues. In my next post, I’ll talk about why we started streaming in the first place and why podcasting, in terms of digital storage, may be the way to go.