Scoop: The news organisation that listened

This PEPtalk is about a news organisation that is firmly focused on its democratic role and on innovation in a fast changing world. Step forward Scoop Independent News.

Scoop is a major New Zealand online news organisation. It was established in a Karori garage in 1999 and has a history of providing news services on the smell of an oily rag. Despite its lean operation, Scoop’s existence is threatened by the same forces afflicting the rest of the world’s news organisations, including seriously declining advertising revenues and fragmenting audiences. News organisations everywhere are grappling with how to survive financially, how to retain and grow patronage, and how to deliver quality journalism.

Having taken part in discussions about these issues and having been inspired at the Open Source / Open Society Conference 2016 by the efforts of Audrey Tang and vTaiwan to engage the Taiwanese public, PEP approached Jan Rivers, a trustee of the Scoop Foundation, and suggested that Scoop follow the Taiwanese lead. Instead of broadcasting messages from our politicians and pundits to the 450,000 people who read Scoop each month, could Scoop enable its readers and other New Zealanders to collectively explore complex issues with a view to finding broadly acceptable ways to address them? Could this be a new and valuable role for the media that would enhance our democracy? Could new online tools enable new forms of large-scale discussion that actually created insight rather than a lot of heat and aggro? Scoop was up for the challenge and this was the genesis of Scoop’s HiveMind initiative.

The first HiveMind was called “No sugar coating: What should we do?” and launched on 1 December 2016. It asked members of the public to individually consider and vote on a range of issues and perspectives about the over-consumption of sugar and associated public health issues and to share their own perspectives and ideas about what should be done. It did this using the same advanced online survey tool that vTaiwan used. Called Polis, the tool uses artificial intelligence to combine qualitative and quantitative research methods. This enables hundreds, or even thousands, of people to coherently and constructively consider an issue. Polis helps people do this by analysing responses to statements about the issue and by using data visualisation to show clusters of opinion. It also identifies opinions that are shared across all opinion clusters.

In terms of participation, 256 people took part and cast 7,695 votes, which means that each person, on average, considered 30 statements about the issue. Forty-three participants also added 84 statements for others to consider in addition to the 30 ‘seed’ statements that Scoop added to start the process. One hundred-and-sixty people voted enough times for their voting patterns to be analysed, revealing 3 clusters of opinion. You can explore the opinions that made up each cluster, and the majority opinion, in the visualisation at the end of this post.

While people in different opinion clusters understood the sugar issue in different ways and so tended to support different sorts of action, the analysis also showed that there were positions that were supported by a large majority of participants. For example, over 90% of participants supported stronger controls on the marketing and advertising of sugary drinks and junk food, especially to young people. This is political gold for those willing to do something about sugar and not the sort of insight you’d ever get from a letters-to-the-editor or an online comments section.

The sugar HiveMind has convinced Scoop that there is democratic value in a news organisation hosting well structured public participation initiatives on major issues.

To fund up to 5 HiveMinds as part of its Opening the Election campaign, Scoop is crowdfunding using PledgeMe. It needs to secure $30,000 by 14 April 2017. Scoop is walking the talk too having invited its supporters to identify the HiveMind topics via a what-are-the-issues-you-want-us-to-cover HiveMind.

The HiveMind initiative is important. Not only does it provide citizens with an opportunity to explore and collaboratively solve public issues, it is also an example of an ‘architecture of listening’ that an emerging body of literature suggests is needed to balance the highly developed ‘architectures of speaking’ that organisations use everyday to bombard us all with messages, spin and propaganda.

PEP is all about correcting the lack of balance between speaking and listening as the current dominance of speaking is corrosive to democracy and to values such as trust and community. So please stay tuned: this isn’t the last time you’ll hear about listening at PEPtalk.

PS. And please support Scoop’s crowdfunding campaign and future HiveMind initiatives.

PPS. The complete findings of the sugar HiveMind, including reflections on how to improve the process, are available on the Scoop website and also on this website.