Bringing the public into the conversation

New Haven's mayoral debate was held at the Metropolitan Business Academy.

Debates are easy. Civic engagement is hard.

That might be the lesson of last night’s multimedia mayoral debate in New Haven, sponsored by the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site, and La Voz Hispana, a Spanish-language newspaper.

As with several previous events organized by the Independent (most notably an education forum starring school-reform critic Diane Ravitch last November), the debate featured several different ways people could watch and participate. You could just show up, of course. But you could also watch one of two different livestreams, one provided by NBC Connecticut, the other by the New Haven Register, the local daily; post comments in real time; or add your thoughts after the debate. As of this writing, 15 comments have been posted at the Independent and 20 at the Register’s website.

Four candidates are running against Mayor John DeStefano, who’s been the city’s top elected official since 1993, and who may be vulnerable this time around because of budget problems, a rising crime rate and a sense that the electorate may be experiencing what might be called DeStefano fatigue.

But with five candidates on the stage, five journalists asking questions and another four journalists live-blogging the proceedings and interacting with those posting comments, keeping track of what was going on proved to be a bit of a challenge. (Fun fact: One of my colleagues at Northeastern, journalism professor Laurel Leff, has been working at the Independent this summer and was one of the live-bloggers.)

And though the hall itself was reportedly packed, it’s unclear how many people were watching at home. About 20 members of the public posted comments to the “Cover It Live” section during the debate, not counting me.

Of course, it would be easy enough to put together a more streamlined debate, but that would involve nixing the civic-engagement part of it. And getting people interested in local affairs is a key goal at the Independent — as it should be at all news organizations, since people are not going to pay attention to the news if they fundamentally don’t care about what is happening in their communities.

In fact, the Independent recently won a national award for the Ravitch event and for several issues-oriented webcasts it’s hosted in collaboration with the NBC affiliate. Yesterday, Independent publisher and editor Paul Bass spoke with John Dankosky of WNPR Radio (who also participated in last night’s debate as a live-blogger) about the New Haven mayoral race and his vision of how media technology can be used to involve the public in the conversation.

It’s something that the preening panelists at last night’s Republican presidential debate in Ames, Iowa, might think about.

New Haven Independent photo by Thomas MacMillan. Republished by permission.