Tag Archives: Charlotte

Using money from public notice advertising as a digital dividend to help bridge the digital divide

Google Fiber, coming to Charlotte soon, taken March 20, 2015, at the Best Minds conference at Queens University. Photo by Scott E. Lundgren, @scottelundgren

Google Fiber, coming to Charlotte soon, taken March 20, 2015, at the Best Minds conference at Queens University. Photo by Scott E. Lundgren, @scottelundgren

People from Pew Research, Google Fiber, and the Charlotte community met on a Friday night at Queens University in Charlotte to talk about the digital divide and the potential transformation from Google Fiber.

I heard some of the talk because Scott Lundgren streamed it on Meerkat. I could listen in because I have broadband access at home.

Not everyone in Charlotte does. The city has pockets where broadband penetration is only 40%.

One tiny mention during the Q&A after the formal presentations at Queens intrigued me – the idea of  a “digital dividend.” Migration to digital tools can save money for businesses and government, and that dividend could be used to help bridge the digital divide.

Try applying that idea to a longstanding digital issue affecting N.C. businesses and governments – required public notices that historically have run in selected newspapers. Local governments want to stop spending the money to advertise public notices in newspapers and simply post the notices on their own sites. Newspapers and the N.C. Press Association propose a compromise this year, in which governments get a 15% discount for repeat advertising and the notices get posted online for free. They rightly argue that most newspaper sites generate more traffic than government websites. They also have at least one lobbyist in Raleigh as well as their own editorial pages to share the benefits of their compromise.

But they’re not the only sites delivering information. Choosing who gets the government contract for advertising public notes can be a political game, and in some small towns, that contract has had the power to kill small news organizations and feed the growth of others. It falls into the “picking winners and losers” category of state and local government law.

So let’s return to that concept of a digital dividend. What if the money currently going to public notice advertising in print was considered a potential digital dividend designated specifically for helping bridge the digital divide?

Use that money to make the notices more accessible to everyone. (And yes, that means everyone, regardless of political leanings, association membership, or ability to fund lobbyists in Raleigh.)

That money could go to one or more of these things:

  • local library support for computers, wi-fi, broadband and community outreach so people can access information online.
  • internal local government work to make the public notices more useful, granular, searchable by topic, and available to all through something like a simple RSS feed. (The state of Utah does this, with a site run by the state archives. I bet others do too.)  As they stand now, the notices are unstructured text blobs, unsearchable on a granular level, like for company names, specific addresses, or type of notice.
  • nonprofits specifically working on bridging the digital divide, like Pangaea in Polk and Rutherford counties, which is a 501(c)3 building out broadband. It has received Facebook grants to help broaden digital access in its rural area.
  • outreach work to lawyers and others who also must post certain kinds of notices but do so behind paywalls. Convene some meetings to discuss how to open that information to all.
  • a fund for unconnected communities in Charlotte and Raleigh, to help pay the $300 initial fee for Google Fiber.
  • the local government’s general fund, to help keep property taxes from rising (yes, this bullet point acknowledges political realities. It also helps longtime property owners on small fixed incomes as well as the big property owners. It doesn’t directly help the many newcomers and millennials who are renting, and it does nothing to help bridge the divide.)

Admittedly, the public-notice advertising money isn’t huge compared to the millions that the N.C. General Assembly manages. A 2009 survey by the N.C. League of Municipalities mentioned price tags of $10,500 for Monroe and $42,000 for Charlotte. But it adds up. A 2011 poll by the Associated Press came up with an estimate that local governments in North Carolina alone spent about $6 million in 2010 on legal ads and public notices.

And admittedly, any solution is complicated by differing media circumstances in each N.C. town. If you want to reach people in Davidson or Cornelius, Davidson News or Cornelius News are good bets, but a local paper in Fayetteville might have bigger reach today than a Fayetteville blogger. RSS feeds that reach any site are the best future-proofed solution to that problem.

This issue has been cussed and discussed in Raleigh and in local governments for at least four years now. It’s a bit arcane, not sexy, so proposed solutions generally reflect what Raleigh lobbyists or a few informed legislators want. But the Queens University discussion stemming from Google Fiber’s arrival raised the idea of a digital dividend. Let’s start thinking how that could work for something concrete like government’s public notices.

Advertisements

Making rezonings in North Carolina and Charlotte easier and making neighbors’ voices weaker

??????????
Charlotte residents in neighborhoods that are facing increasing development pressure should speak up to their legislators about House Bill 201. It eliminates the ability for neighbors to file protest petitions against rezonings.

The current state law on protest petitions gives immediate neighbors some leverage when a piece of land is up for rezoning. Five percent of neighbors next to a project can sign a petition that triggers a rule requiring 75% of the city council to approve a rezoning.

In reality, these petitions often don’t stop development, but they give neighbors negotiating room for things like green buffers, fences or walls and input on design things like height and drive-through windows.

Close-in neighborhoods in Charlotte are having a bit of a redevelopment moment, with denser apartments popping up, especially where walk scores are high. So the proposed repeal is important to NoDa, Villa Heights, Plaza Midwood, Dilworth, Elizabeth, South End and Myers Park. The repeal, however, affects the whole state and affects those in farther-out suburbs too.

It’s easy to sign an online petition these days, but organizing a protest petition for a rezoning remains hard, with detailed rules about who qualifies as a neighbor and hard-copy signatures necessary. A recent rezoning request in NoDa illustrated the issue, with nearly 1,500 people signing an online petition to “Save the Chop Shop,” but with zerozero – people showing up at a public hearing to speak against the rezoning.

Developers and some legislators claim the current rules allow neighbors to hold property owners hostage, and that’s far from the truth. The current rules simply give immediate neighbors some leverage, protecting neighborhoods from overheated redevelopment that can destroy the very character that made the neighborhoods attractive.

If you want to preserve your ability to influence development right next to your home, find your state representative and give them a call or email about House Bill 201.

Supporting N.C. journalism through public notices and legal ads

So far, 15 bills mentioning the word “newspaper” have appeared in the N.C. General Assembly this session. They range from bills honoring the Rev. Billy Graham to bills allowing cities and counties to publish public notices digitally.

Legal advertisements and public notices, required by law, have been a little-noticed subsidy of local newspapers since Ben Franklin’s time. In the last few years, talk has increased about eliminating the requirement of placing some public notices in newspapers because of the cost to government and the dwindling reach of newspapers. Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute wrote a good roundup about legal notices a year ago. I wrote about legislative bills affecting legal notices in North Carolina in 2011.

Some N.C. towns have already eliminated required print legal ads. This year, more towns (Greensboro, Morrisville, High Point) and counties could join them. With the changing face of journalism, including new digital startups, enhanced TV station websites and pay models at established media outlets, North Carolina should rethink how we write laws that require public notices. Our government’s goals should be leveling the playing field, supporting strong independent reporting regardless of the source, and providing government transparency about how legal ads and public notices get placed. The original intent of the ads – notifying people efficiently about government actions that affect their jobs and lives – must remain a key goal. Government websites cannot reach that goal alone.

The word “newspaper” appears 310 times in North Carolina’s general statutes. Rules requiring public notices grew organically over time, lack uniformity and tend to favor established newspapers. Sometimes, another news organization has broader reach, more reporting resources or more local reader engagement. In many cases, the rules allow non-elected officials to choose winners from among news sources, possibly fostering a spoil system that erodes trust.

The North Carolina Press Association keeps its eye on legislation affecting newspapers, and it has opened its doors to new journalism startups including the nonprofit Carolina Public Press in Asheville and the Raleigh Public Record. It must consider its own members’ interests and will likely lobby for rules that continue existing subsidies through legal notices to newspapers, especially newspapers of a certain size. While that support could erode this year, that issue shouldn’t be the only question on the table. Figuring out how to foster the growth of new news startups should also be a consideration in the General Assembly.

Federal agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission are studying how to preserve journalism as old business models fail. Journalism school deans from across the country, including the University of North Carolina’s Susan King, have written a statement urging the IRS to quickly approve nonprofit status for emerging news sites as a way to foster innovation in journalism.

At the same time, our N.C. General Assembly members should bring independent, thoughtful approaches to encouraging quality, local reporting, from for-profits and nonprofits.

Steven Waldman, writing in a special report, “The Information Needs of Communities,” for the FCC in 2011, made one suggestion:

“One possible solution that would benefit all parties would be for governments to save money by hosting public notices on their own websites and paying a lesser amount to run banner ads on other sites about the notices and linking back to the government site. The municipality would be able to spread information about the public notices to a broader range of audiences than they would by just publishing them in a particular newspaper. They would generate more traffic for their own websites, provide ad revenue for local news operations and advance the cause of government transparency.”

Posting public notices and legal ads on town and county websites furthers open government. But to reach people in our fragmented information age, using multiple methods (including print for some areas), at lower costs, seems like the right solution. Our new laws should be fair, encourage innovation and provide flexibility as technology and news sources change.

Here are some samples of the words in existing bills filed this legislative session in the N.C. General Assembly:

“The County shall advertise a notice for interested parties to submit qualifications in such form as the County may require for possible selection as the private developer or private developers in the public‑private project in a newspaper having general circulation within the County.”

“Advertise the sale by publication in a newspaper having general circulation in the county in which the property is situated. [AND] Make the following information about the property being sold available to the public both on its Web site and by mail. …”

“…sealed bids shall be solicited by advertisement in a newspaper widely distributed in this State or through electronic means, or both, as determined by the Secretary to be most advantageous… .”

“The secretary‑treasurer shall annually, at a time and in a law magazine or daily newspaper to be prescribed by the Council, publish an account of the financial transactions of the Council in a form to be prescribed by it.”

“The Charter Board shall distribute information announcing the availability of the charter school process described in this Part to each local school administrative unit and public postsecondary educational institution and, through press releases, to each major newspaper in the State. … ”

Disclaimers: I am not employed or paid by any of the news organizations in this post. I’m a former employee of the Charlotte Observer, and I’m working on a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina in digital communications. These words are my own.

The Stop Online Piracy Act and U.S. Rep Mel Watt

Rep. Watt on Youtube

Rep. Mel Watt during SOPA hearings.

Congress is considering a bill that would place restrictions on the Internet, and Charlotte’s Rep. Mel Watt is one of the co-sponsors. Industry heavyweights like Google have lined up against the bill, which has other heavyweights like the Motion Picture Association of America on the other side.

Watt’s coming under some heat because of his statements during discussions about the bill, which could resurface Dec. 21. He has said, “It’s not worthy for us to be talking about who got bought off by whom.” That statement, of course, sent people to look at his political contributors. Here’s a summary.

From Phoenix Woman at Fire Dog Lake:
“Mel Watt Has Over 130,000 Reasons to Like SOPA.”

Alex Howard, government 2.0 correspondent for O’Reilly Media, reported in real time from the markup hearings on Dec. 15 for the bill. Here are two tweets of his from his @digiphile account, with more than 110,000 followers:

Alex Howard tweet 1

Alex Howard tweet 2

Others responded to Watt’s “I am not a nerd” statement during hearings:
“Dear Congress, It’s No Longer OK To Not Know How The Internet Works.”

Here’s Watt saying, “I am not a nerd,” on Youtube, with reaction.

What the bill does: Lifehacker’s quick version: “All About SOPA: The bill that wants to cripple your Internet, very soon.”

The deep dive on the bill, from Zack Carter at the Huffington Post.

Discussions about the bill could resurface as early as Dec. 21. Here’s where it stands.

Current contributors to Watt’s future campaign efforts include the Communications Workers of America, Microsoft, Cisco, the Motion Picture Association of America, News Corp., Qualcomm, and the Recording Industry Association of America.

Here’s more from OpenSecrets.org on Watt’s campaign finance numbers.

N.C. legislators turn back effort to take legal notices out of newspapers

screenshot of legalnotices.org
A legislative committee turned down efforts to stop requiring local governments to place legal ads in newspapers this week.

Polls in North Carolina of county plus town and city governments show local governments spent about $6 million last year on legal ads and public notices, according to the Associated Press.

Discussions about the notice requirements ran hot and heavy among Charlotte Twitter people. Discussions centered on the print and online circulation numbers for established media as well as the lack of online access for specific groups.

The Charlotte Society of Professional Journalists will likely put the issue on the agenda of a future meeting.

Here’s the full story on legal notices in newspapers in North Carolina.

TriadWatch has used freedom of information requests to gather some numbers about public notices and legal ad spending. Here’s part of what they found, matched up with audited print circulation numbers for the newspapers that benefited:

The City of High Point spent $49,000 on public notices in Fiscal Year 2009-2010.

The High Point Enterprise had a Sunday print circulation of 18,300, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation for the six-month period ending March 31, 2011.

The City of Greensboro spent about $128,000 in public notices in two local newspapers since January 2010.

The Greensboro News and Record, which has received about $96,000 from the city since January 2010, has a published Sunday print circulation of about 86,500, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Online numbers would be higher. (I don’t know if they provide legal ads online.)

The Carolina Peacemaker, which received about $31,000 from the City of Greensboro, appears to have a print circulation of about 5,000, weekly, though those numbers could be out of date. On its own site, it lists a readership of 60,000, likely including online numbers.

Circulation numbers, in print and online, are difficult quantitative measures of reach these days. Some news organizations have free print products with large circulation numbers not included in the ABC numbers. Many news organizations measure their online reach in ways that are not comparable. Much of the Twitter discussion in Charlotte the past week centered on these numbers; I’d suggest moving the conversation up a level or two to look at all the possible futures of public notices before focusing on specific ways to compare influence and reach.

Noted by TriadWatch: The Charlotte Observer partners with legalnotice.org to display legal notices in a somewhat searchable way, supported by advertising. The screenshot above is from a search through the organization. The “About” page gives little details about the company. The company also provides subscriber services.

Worth consideration: More granular, searchable, open information could enable more detailed search information, provided in more accessible, easy-to-use interfaces, available to more readers and new companies, perhaps even local startups.

Here’s traffic data from Alexa for legalnotice.org:

“There are 829,298 sites with a better three-month global Alexa traffic rank than Legalnotice.org. Visitors to the site view 2.9 unique pages each day on average. Visitors to the site spend approximately 45 seconds on each pageview and a total of two minutes on the site during each visit. Search engines refer approximately 22% of visits to the site. Legalnotice.org has been online for more than twelve years.”

Also from Alexa: 170 sites link in to legalnotice.org, and its traffic rank in the United States is 143,925.

For this legislative session, the issue is off the table. But it will arise again.

We should talk more and include experts in a variety of fields. We need to move beyond thinking the issue of the cost of public notices and legal ads is merely two-sided, with established media on one side and with cash-strapped taxpayers and governments on the other.

Using Storify to gather information

Here’s a quick test of Storify, using a quick Twitter meme that popped up in Charlotte on Saturday.

A group of local folks launched a meme about advice for the Democratic National Convention, being held in Charlotte in September 2012.

Storify is getting lots of attention because of some people’s use of it to gather information from social media out of Egypt.

Another similar tool, Intersect, out of the Seattle area, is out there as well. Both tools look promising; I hope both tools keep in mind the importance of visuals as well as words.

For searches out of Storify for specific images in Flickr, I was a little frustrated. I could find specific, Creative Commons images from a Flickr contact within Flickr, but couldn’t find the same image quickly in Storify’s search. Still too early to tell what was going on there: my unfamiliarity with the Storify tool, or perhaps an incomplete database of available Flickr images.

One more note: Storify gives an embed script. A quick trial in WordPress.com shows the script getting stripped out. Perhaps it works in WordPress.org.

Finding hidden gold by looking the other way: Underground Charlotte

Tunnel near downtown Charlotte

Tunnel near downtown Charlotte.

I’ve always heard my city had historic gold mine shafts in unexpected places.

But some poking around online opened my eyes to some intriguing hidden spots with amazing visuals in my city, and the people who explore them.

This photo is from aurelie, created on Sept. 13, 2009, and shows a drain that resembles a mine shaft in urban Charlotte, about 2 miles away from downtown Charlotte’s shiny new office towers. There’s much more, from across North America, at Urban Exploration Resource.

In my media bubble, I had no idea there existed such a network of underground and up-high creators on blogs and forums, seeking adventure.

It’s a good reminder that not everyone is broadcasting on the big social networks and that niche communities are creating amazing content in their own hidden gardens.

Those gardens aren’t even walled; they’re just niche.

Smart information curators and journalists will keep in mind they exist, and turn around occasionally from the direction where everyone else is looking, to find unique, interesting content and perspective.

See more for yourself, at No Promise of Safety.