How does a city build its “digital reach” on a national and global basis, and how does it do so authentically?

We care about sprucing up parks, keeping the litter out of the city centre, hanging out the flower baskets, and sometimes making new public squares. But the ‘digital public squares’ seemingly go untended by anyone but their users. With a few honourable exceptions the ‘digital public realm’ is surrendered to the playground-like childishness of FourSquare and its ‘Mayors’, the Facebook hogs, Twitter spam, the unexciting and unloved websites of local Councils, hollow PR blurgh, and rant-blogs from axe-grinders on the political fringes. How does a city actively develop the digital realm with the same care and love as it gives to the ‘public realm’ of city squares and parks, cycle-paths, the sculptures on the city approaches, ‘creative quarters’, and new open-access business startup centres?

I was spurred to think about such things by: the news of the demise of three hyperlocal websites in Stoke-on-Trent; a severe BBC funding threat to the local flavour, coverage and Web presence of BBC Radio Stoke; the overlooking of any need for ‘digital reach’ in a recent speech in my city by former Mayor Mike Wolfe (who otherwise has good ideas and who I’ve always been broadly a supporter of); and the insular ‘we’re just for those few local people who listen live’ attitude of a local community radio micro-station, despite hosting important debates with big names. And by what seems to be the total lack of take-up of a recent national idea that established local bloggers and talented Flickr-ers should be actively invited (as free-ticket reviewers, press-badge reporters, etc) to local stage shows and other local events.

In the face of such digital decline and inward-looking parochialism among local micro-media, a city needs to have a proper outward-facing strategy in place for building and maintaining its digital ‘face’ for the world. Just relying on the local newspaper and radio station to do this is not going to be enough, in my opinion. Your glossy cow-catcher site for regional tourists is not going to be enough (does anyone really believe those stock photos of sunny days and smiling kids?). A tired business magazine, filled with ad-linked puff-pieces will not be enough. A city will have to stand out from the crowd, and it can best do that by shaping and telling the stories of its best people. In my city there are two excellent media examples of people-based engagement with more than petty crime and the state of the drains in Bog’s Bottom: my local newspaper The Sentinel has a new interview-packed Saturday magazine which is local, authentic, and substantial; and BBC Radio Stoke continues its long tradition of outstanding local news coverage, roving outside-broadcast reporters, and studio interviews. Many of these are not simply of ‘local interest only’. But they’re mired in old media formats, and they have no friction-less and pinpoint digital reach (like 99p ebook editions, weekly podcast digests of the radio interviews etc) beyond the city. The Sentinel doesn’t archive the Saturday magazine articles online. And the BBC Radio Stoke broadcasts are not ‘listen again’, nor are they offered as podcast digests of the interviews and outside broadcasts. Similarly, the inward investment team’s Make It Stoke-on-Trent’s News page doesn’t even bother to have an RSS feed. These sorts of resources need to be the first items digital outsiders encounter, not the ones that are buried the deepest or simply made unobtainable to outsiders.

A robust and autonomous means of gathering real authentic stories about creativity, innovation, trade, and all the tireless and largely unthanked voluntarism of a city’s ‘little platoons’ would be an excellent starting point. Enthusiastic and grounded one-person blogs are great for starting the ball rolling, but how can city-wide strategies then build that enthusiasm to the next level and beyond? Does your city have mechanisms for such people to frictionlessly tap into resources in local firms, universities and colleges, volunteer agencies, museums and archives, radio stations, etc? Does your city support local online talent with advertising, sponsored posts, and free tickets? Does it offer them national-level accredited training? Do they get tax breaks on any affiliate earnings? Does your city’s official PR team or arts teams ever actually deign to talk with local bloggers and podcasters, or have the team ever appeared on your Facebook group page? No, thought not.

So, I don’t mean just beefing up the tired slog of traditional municipal PR — the sending out of the cheesy press releases aimed at print-the-press-release journalists, making sure the Councillors look good in the inward-facing quarterly magazine, distributing the usual photos of kids in lantern-parades and suited officials in front of shiny and empty new business parks, and wrangling the local press on negative coverage. Every city does that. It’s necessary but stale. We don’t need more of it, we need something different. In fact, it might be better to keep the local Council’s PR people well away from the sort of thing I’m thinking of.

Nor do I mean falling into the trap of wheeling in an old arts manager to run it, and hiring consultants to waste big money on throwing up a web site (which can be notorious money-sinks and time-traps when managed by the public sector, from Business Link spending £35 million per year on one site, down to £50k on failed Council sites in the Midlands like Creative Central).

Nor am I talking about digital-production strategies and local ‘trade associations’ for digital media producers (although those would be welcome, and should he harnessed to the effort where they exist and are active). I don’t mean, for instance, orgs like the Manchester Digital Development Agency which has only managed to post two news posts to its front page in the last four months. Their “Dave’s Blog”, which has a prominent sidebar button and photo of Dave, was last updated in July. The last event posted on their Twitter was in July. The last version of their Digital Strategy was released in March 2008, which in digital terms is sometime in the Paleolithic era. Was it a success? The average visitor to the site is left in doubt. The site has no dedicated events listing page. To a potential inward investor or a back-bedroom London creative looking for somewhere with a real ‘buzz’ — glancing in from the outside of the city and spending perhaps 90 seconds on appraising the site — it hardly seems like there is much energy there. The Agency has done very good work, or so I’m told by someone who knows them. Manchester is a bona-fide media hub now. And yet… this is a digital agency. Which appears to have no Facebook page and no YouTube channel. The videos buried in links on the About page of its site are from 2008. You’d think they might actually, like, use digital a little more, even if it’s only to shout about past achievements. Of course, the MDDA’s site is not a curation or showcase site. But adding just one or two prominent links to such sites would be part of the sort of strategic care I’m taking about, care given to every aspect of the city’s digital presence, all aimed at directing people to authentic and believable stories about the city and its people.

Energy is what’s needed, and visible energy. Energy that comes from the local and speaks to the local, but is always and in every instance aimed at shaping the national and global portrait of the city. Now, I know that both enthusiasm and money are in short supply in cities these days. Arts organisations have in the past, in some cities, been seen as cheap press-friendly sources of such animating energy. Install a few old pianos outdoors around the city centre one night, and it hits the national press as a zany stunt. But many have long-since tied themselves too closely to uninspiring local authorities, to ugly community-demolishers such as the Housing Pathfinders, and to formulaic ‘social work’ six-week projects. Their ‘brand’ is compromised among local people, and we can see this clearly in the manifest lack of support in public polls on levels of local arts spending, the willingness of local Council members to cut the arts, and the relative lack of protest at arts cuts. Then there’s the fact that most of them seem to have to be dragged kicking and screaming toward a point where online digital becomes a first choice for an activity, rather than a reluctant box-ticking bolt-on for a real-world activity. They might not be the best choice to actually lead such new digital strategies. Much the same might be said about humanities academics and digital.

So I guess I’m talking about a city-wide and coordinated strategy (‘surge’ might be a less municipal word) to assist in showing consistently and engagingly that a city has some authentic life happening in it. One that trusts the grassroots, because there’s no-one else with the skills and nouse to do it properly.

And I think it has to be a micro-paid, or at least incentivised, strategy. One might envisage it thus: 5 unemployed graduates (not necessarily recent ones) earning £20 per story (posting one a day, every day) would be earning more per year than their dole. Their combined pay might cost about £25,000 per annum. That’s 1,200 authentic and positive stories dug up and told per year, and made visible to the world in an appealing format of podcasts, photo-documentary stories, text interviews, Skype roundtables, maybe even things like comic book pages and editorial cartoons. £25k (about $45k) a year is chicken-feed compared to the PR, advertising and publicity budgets of most cities. Even a small town with no newspaper could do that. A good Business Club might raise that kind of money in sponsorship at an evening dinner. You might even use Kickstarter. Use free services and off-the-shelf Web templates and there’s really no need to spend £30k on an out-of-town design agency. Once the online resource is rolling, draw in volunteers and a roster of keen local media students (who would be given real course-grades for their work on the publication) around that paid core of people. If employment of contributors and curators wasn’t an option, one might have free-for-all submissions and then a bidding-based system for deciding who gets paid £20 per story. Maybe also have a second separate team dedicated simply to parsing out links, feeds, mentions, Facebooking, all to draw traffic to the stories. Once the resource is trusted in the city, then have a thorough audit and overhaul of the rest of the city’s online ‘digital realm’, combined with suitable levels of nudging and finger-pointing by the teams.