A community can be described as a group of people with common interests. Traditionally, the term refers to people living in one locale. Today, however, with the connectivity provided by the Internet, communities also exist in cyberspace and extend globally. Communities over broader regions are possible precisely because of the expanded possibilities of communication.
In practice, communication drives communities; it is the fuel on which communities depend. By communicating, people discover, develop, serve, and preserve their common interests. Each of those facets are information dependent, and, as a result, so is a community, itself.
Which takes us to Nanaimo.
For a few years now, getting timely information about happenings in the city has been more than a little problematic. The difficulty increased dramatically with the loss of our daily, printed newspaper — a medium on which many people have traditionally depended. It was compounded by the practiced secrecy and backroom dealings of the outgoing city council. As a result, for most of this period, the last thing any of us have felt is well informed.
That brings us to the 2018 Municipal Election. Elections are times when communities depend critically on information. Voters need a deep understanding of what’s occurred during the term of the outgoing council, an accurate picture of the city’s current status, and the skill sets and perspectives of those running for council in the coming term. Without that information, how do they elect the best candidates to look after the common interests of the community?
Interestingly, Council’s secrecy and the lack of a traditional press were also responsible for creating some solutions that served in the election. Over the last several years, a number of alternate, online news sources have developed in the city.
NanaimoNet.com was created, in part, to guide readers to news posted in various locations. During the municipal election, the site also provided summaries of candidates, a channel for voters to ask candidates questions, and several opinion columns (including my own) and other items aimed at informing voters.
NewsNanaimo.ca, where this column is posted, was created to remedy the lack of local, investigative journalism into what was happening behind the scenes at City Hall. As such, the website was a significant factor in posting information that forced the rogue majority of the outgoing council to terminate their problematic CAO and CFO. During the municipal election the website also ran a series of columns which I authored. (More on that in just a moment.)
NanaimoNewsNow, part of the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group, also came online to serve the information needs of the communities it covers by providing local, regional, national and international news. Since September, this website upped its coverage of election-related news and even stepped up to stream video coverage of election returns arriving at the VICC on October 20. Granted the broadcast was anything but polished, however, the timely reporting of voting returns filled a huge hole in the information provided to local voters.
The Nanaimo News Bulletin also followed the lead of other papers and began posting its various items online. And there was information posted on various social media groups, like Facebook.
So what role did these sources play in Nanaimo’s 2018 Municipal Election? More importantly, what do they suggest were major factors in communicating information that voters needed?
Finding the answer to these questions is where the columns I wrote come in. I’m not referring to their content. I make no claim about their rightness, wrongheadedness, or their effectiveness on their own. Forget that it was me who wrote them. The point I’m making is that combining data from the websites mentioned and the apparent use readers made of the articles — one in particular — shines a light on what happened in our municipal election.
Since the official launch of the municipal election at the beginning of September, NanaimoNet attracted 149,000 page views of which more than 100,000 were of candidate profiles. Since September 21, when the first of the series of items I wrote was posted on the site, my column page was visited 4,032 times.
At NewsNanaimo, the series of columns I posted comprised the total of the site’s election coverage. Throughout the series, the columns had more than 10,000 views, and 1,500 came on the day of the election alone. Around 10:00 am that morning, NewsNanaimo’s website software reported that traffic to the column was really smoking.
Okay, so what? To complete the argument I’m making, we need two additional bits of information. One is anecdotal evidence of how one of the columns, my final list of preferred candidates, was used; the other is the list of municipal election outcomes.
Regarding anecdotes, a number of readers related their various experiences. One person reported going to her neighbour with a copy of the column and found her already reading it; the link having been forwarded it by another neighbour. Another reader told about taking my list of candidates to the polls and and discovering the person in the line behind them was carrying the same list. Others told of receiving multiple copies of the list forwarded by different friends.
The more significant item to consider, however, is the election outcome: all nine candidates in my posted list were actually elected. What’s the chance of that occurring on its own? Very low, I think. Nor was merely the act of publishing the list of preferred candidates on one website enough to produce the result. Rather, the election outcomes infer another factor than website views played a crucial role. And that factor is the real point I am arguing in this column.
Feedback and data from the election point to information networking by voters as being the most significant factor determining election outcomes. Voting was affected by individual citizens going to the new media, getting information they thought important, and then distributing that information to their networks of family, friends, and neighbours and engaging with each other. And then those recipients doing the same. The snowball effect of voters networking was the truly phenomenal thing that happened in our city. I suggest, in fact, that it was the main factor that determined poling results and also increased voter turnout by 5%.
The outcome of all the factors mentioned (the failure of a reliable, traditional press; the secrecy of the current Nanaimo Council, the arrival of new media, etc.) combined to motivate Nanaimo residents to take communication about the election into their own hands. Voters shared relevant information with other voters and motivated each other to show up at the polls. That networking amounted to a success story of participatory democracy.
So the payoffs to our losing a fully-informative, traditional press and a dysfunctional city council were the arrival of new media news sources and citizens stepping up to inform others about matters relative to our common interests. We now know from experience that we can get the information we need in new ways. The new online media which developed in the past several years to serve Nanaimo did their job. We need to regularly embrace these information sources.
We should also continually emphasize our rights as voters and employers to receive ongoing information from our elected officials regarding the status of our city and basis of their decision-making. Our elected Council works for us. Voters have every right to maximum disclosure.
Most important, we should remember the power of passing along the information we receive from all these sources to others in our community. Person-to-person communication is probably the oldest form of information sharing, and in this respect our community reverted to the past. And by doing so, we won. Now we need to continue doing it in the future.
The best communities communicate. They are filled with individuals who inform others about important things that matter. Communication is the means we discover, develop, serve, and preserve our common interests. For the 2018 Nanaimo Municipal Election, at least, that is what we did. Going forward as a community, we must continue doing the same. That is the lesson we should learn from this election and the one we should remember.