The debates about news on council websites (Should it be there? What is ‘news’? Should press releases just die?) seem to have gone quiet at the moment so it seems as good a time as any to post about a little bit of research we’ve been doing on the side at work.

As part of trying to get to grips with how we handle news within our new site design the content team (that’s me and Dave Serjeant)have been asking each other some questions about how we manage the flow of news onto our website (the other questions, about agenda have been answered by others within the organisation).

The obvious next stop on the thought-train was ‘what do other people do?’ Are we publishing more than other counties, or less? Do other counties have it on their homepage? Can you subscribe to their news feeds in some way? Is it press releases, informal news updates, events, a mix?

And so we embarked on a small piece of benchmarking research to take a look at how English county council’s present and publish their news. I emphasise here the word small – we don’t have huge amounts of time to look into this and so the research is intended to be a very high level overview of a specific sample of types of council.

At the moment we’re doing gathering this information a couple of councils each day, looking for:

  • Name of council
  • URL
  • Do they have features on the homepage? How many?
  • Total number of news stories published online in November 2011
  • Average number of news stories published online each day in November 2011 (total number divided by number of working days)
  • Is the news on the homepage or only in a sub-section of the website?
  • Where it is a sub-section at what level in the structure does it sit?
  • Is ‘news’ made up of press releases only, informal updates and events, or a mix?
  • Can you subscribe by RSS or email?
  • Any other notes

We’re definitely not looking to judge whether a council is doing it well or badly, or whether they have taken the right or wrong approach. I think those questions are best answered through user research with a sites real visitors rather than a quick and dirty peer fact-finding mission.

We’re aiming to have gathered this by Christmas and to have summarised our results in a short paper. It could, of course, be exapanded to cover more questions or define the news type more specifically. It would be interesting to do the same for other types of council or to include other parts of the UK.

Is anyone else doing small bits of research like this? Is it to answer a specific question or just to benchmark? Would anyone find this snapshot useful when we’ve done (if we’re able to share)?

Now, here’s Tom with the weather…