For decades, governments around the world have relied on the news release to spread the word about programs and policies. About a year ago, communicators in Ontario took a close look at their own news releases and realized that the format for this essential communications tool hadn’t changed since the 1940s.
Despite massive global change in communications trends in those 60 years, the news release stayed the same. It was way behind the times in a world where news is decentralized, immediate, 24/7 and mobile. Gone are the days when television broadcasters and newspapers were the only sources of news. Bloggers, podcasters – citizen journalists – contribute to a communications landscape that is vibrant and ever-changing. Today, people want information quickly in easy-to-digest bits.
So Ontario set out to modernize the way it communicates with citizens, changing its news format and delivery to reflect the new ways people consume information.
Paperless news release
A recent Nielsen analysis found that people read about 20 percent of the text on an average web page. They don’t read everything, and they don’t read start to finish. Instead, they scan content, customize it, and jump quickly, from section to section.
So out went the decades-old news release with its long, dense style, acronyms and jargon. In came a brand new format that speaks to today’s audiences.
Now, releases are rarely more than one page and begin with headlines that tell the story. The new format separates information into four clear sections: News, Quotes, Quick Facts and Learn More. Hyperlinks are used extensively to connect readers to in-depth information. The paperless “news-you-can-use” style is also social-media ready, allowing readers to share with others. Most importantly, it aims to banish “bureaucratese” and provide people with information in plain language.
Social media newsroom
Next came a new home for the new release: the Ontario Newsroom (www.ontario.ca/news). The newsroom gives media and the public access to government news any way they want it: on the web, via email or using RSS. For the first time, news from 27 ministries is all in one place.
A Top Story section highlights major announcements. A news ticker chronologically lists the most recent releases. A features section provides a behind-the-scenes look at government programs. Content is organized by subject and community of interest, not by ministry, so it’s more intuitive for visitors and easier to find.
Canada is home to some of the most voracious consumers of online video in the world, and the newsroom has also brought the government firmly into the video age. Canadians watch about 10 hours of video online every month, with news and current events a top viewing category, so major announcements feature video stories alongside the news release.
Ontario is using its newsroom to help it establish a social media presence. The 90-second stories are easy to share and embed in external websites. Users can subscribe to RSS feeds, post Ontario news to Facebook accounts, and use sites like digg and del.icio.us to organize and share stories with others. Owners of other websites can embed newsroom videos and import content to their sites using RSS feeds.
The newsroom also provides direct services to the media such as customized emails, either as it happens or in a daily digest.
Smart IT solution
Working in partnership with IT colleagues, the team found a smart and affordable solution using open source software that required only minimal changes and hosting infrastructure. Ministries no longer need to use an external wire service to get their releases out because the media can sign up to get them directly, which results in more cost savings.
David Nicholl is Ontario’s Corporate Chief Information & Information Technology Officer. He thinks the newsroom is an excellent example of what’s possible when government looks beyond traditional approaches when developing new platforms.
“Agile development and low cost are the keys to success in our rapidly changing work environment,” he says. “The Newsroom shows us that efficient, leading-edge enterprise solutions can be achieved with the innovative use of open source software.”
Rhonda McMichael is ADM, Cabinet Office Communications and Maria Pontikis is newsroom coordinator, Cabinet Office Communications.