There’s a line in the first episode of the HBO series The Newsroom that goes something like this: The Sam Waterston character, Charlie Skinner, says, “For a long time now, I badly wanted to watch the news on my TV at night. Then it occurred to me — I run a news division.”
A similar epiphany came to me about a month ago. As I mentioned in a previous article (A Few Provisos. Ah, a Couple of Quid Pro Quo For Our New Opinion Page), I’ve wondered for a long time whether it is possible, in this Internet Age, to create a forum for civil, civic-minded dialogue, and then it occurred to me — maybe Kane County Connects could do exactly that.
I felt that there were a lot of good reasons to at least give it a try.
(1) It seems to me that citizen engagement should be part of the mission of any community outreach initiative.
I worry a great deal — probably more than I should — about people getting turned off by government because they feel that their voices aren’t heard, that nobody’s listening or that the politics has become so partisan and so mean-spirited that it’s no fun jumping into the pool. I hoped the opinion page could be a safe place for Kane County citizens to speak their minds and share ideas.
(2) Engaged citizens make government better.
This from GovLoop’s “Your Citizen Engagement Checklist:”
“People who feel connected to their governments participate in making government better. It’s important to feel like an individual voice can be heard when they address bureaucracy. Citizen engagement is more than voting or volunteering. It’s up to government to embed itself in citizens’ daily lives for both feedback and as a way of monitoring service delivery.”
(3) Citizen engagement, performed successfully and thoughtfully, is the foundation of our democracy.
If you know me, you know that I tend to be a bit of Pollyanna about politics and people. I believe deeply that freedom of speech and the rights protected in the First Amendment are essential to our democracy. I believe local government officials are, for the most part, true public servants. And I believe the people they serve are fundamentally good.
In creating this forum, I was similarly idealistic.
I wondered what the Lincoln-Douglas debates might look like played out on a modern stage — eloquent speakers and deep thinkers tackling important issues of the day. I thought about Socrates and Aristotle and Voltaire (Or maybe Voltaire’s biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who said:) “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
(4) There’s more than a little hubris here, but I believed I could do it well and fairly.
During my 30 years as an editor in the newspaper and electronic news business, I’ve had the privilege and challenge of running opinion forums in dozens of publications and on a variety of platforms. Some of the editorial pages in print publications I thought were very good; the Patch experience — which allowed anonymous comments — not so much.
Although I suspected it would be difficult, I hoped it might be possible to apply the common-sense rules of print media — allowing only written letters, signed by the author using full first and last name along with phone numbers and addresses for verification, prohibiting personal attacks — to create an electronic forum where citizens could agree to disagree.
(5) I felt the forum aligned well with Kane County’s mission and vision statements.
The last line of Kane County’s vision statement is this:
“Kane County is committed to: Encouraging and valuing citizen communication, input, and involvement in governing so that residents are proud to call Kane County ‘home.’ ”
(6) I thought we could adjust, as needed.
To be honest, I was a little surprised at how many people wanted to take part in our little civics experiment. Again, as I’ve stated before, I figured I wouldn’t be able to anticipate every possible issue or complication, but I also thought that if we were flexible and tolerant, we’d have a chance to make it work.
Sadly, it didn’t.
As you probably have guessed by now, I’m pulling the plug on the opinion page. Kane County Connects stopped collecting letters to the editor or guest essays on election-related topics at noon Thursday, and I’m extending that to letters and essays on all topics as of today, Oct. 31, 2014.
The Halloween-night announcement is kind of appropriate, because the opinion page was quickly becoming a bit of nightmare to manage. The reasons include, but are not limited to:
(1) There is simply too much gray area. If you outlaw personal attacks, how do you define personal attacks? Does it require a direct reference to a person, or is it enough if one can infer the identify of the person maligned? There are 1,001 questions like these with every letter and guest essay submitted.
(2) It took too much time to administer. The hard truth is that Kane County Connects is a one-man band. The editing, verification and necessary explanation for the opinion page was dominating my days, which often stretch late into the night.
(3) Folks kept trying to get around the rules. I made one set of rules, and realized quickly that they weren’t enough. I made a second set that included limiting the number of submissions per writer and almost immediately got questions like, “Wait! Can another citizen who shares this opinion sign and submit this letter I wrote?” Sigh. In this particular case, the citizen was honest enough to hold off the ghost writing, but it became apparent to me how hard it might be to police that rule.
(4) It’s too much of a lightning rod for criticism. Although there are precedents for successful government-sponsored media that allow commentary and public opinion (the BBC comes to mind), the idea makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I get that. I also appreciate that a government-financed open forum is a slippery slope. I’m happy enough to sit in the hot seat for the decisions I make as an editor — I’ve been doing it for the better part of three decades — but Kane County Connects shouldn’t be a source of angst or controversy. I’m sure I can find other, better ways to promote good-quality citizen engagement.
Having said all that (and taken way too much time doing it), I want to take a minute to thank all who participated by submitting a letter or guest essay. It takes some courage to speak your mind and put your name on what you write.
I’d also like to say that the short-lived experiment wasn’t entirely a wash out. I thought many of the guest essays and letters were smart, well-written and held to the spirit as well as the letter of the rules of engagement.
In particular, I thought the letters written by the chiefs of the Elburn & Countryside Fire Protection District and the Fox River & Countryside Fire Rescue District framed the arguments well on both sides of the disconnect referendum issue and brought a level of detail and informed perspective that readers might not have gotten through the filter of a reporter’s pen.
Although flawed, I think the experiment did raise the level of citizen engagement, measured by pageviews last week that were as much as 30 percent higher than previous weeks. I was glad to see the variety of perspectives, and I was pleased that we published every letter or essay that was submitted.
On Wednesday, I’ll make my monthly presentation before the Executive Committee, and at that time, I’ll summarize where we are now with this digital community outreach initiative and where we might go from here.
In the meantime, I’ll sign off with one last quote from GovLoop’s Citizen Engagement Checklist:
“Never stop listening, and make adjustments to your initiatives accordingly; you can’t focus on just one method to connect, you need to diversify your outreach and go to where the citizens are for reflective engagement.”
Kane County Community Outreach Coordinator
Oct. 31, 2014