The Region

The Symposium Goes Cyber

The Internet's role in the debate

Published June 1, 1996  | June 1996 issue

When Minnesota Public Radio's Civic Journalism Initiative planned a symposium on the issue of economic development incentives, the intention was to involve as many people as possible, says Leonard Witt, executive director of the Initiative. So, in addition to the conference, published materials and programming on public radio stations, the Initiative also used the Internet to get the message out.

And it worked, according to John Pearson, manager of Online Services for MPR. "It was one of our more popular sites this spring," Pearson says of the many Web pages offered by the radio station. At its peak, the Economic War site was receiving more than 300 visitors a week, accounting for thousands of hits, Pearson says. "It would be impossible to imagine this [symposium] without it."

The Economic War Web site included updates on the May conference in Washington, D.C., summaries and full texts of 11 papers prepared in advance of the conference, and other background information. Also included were audio broadcasts of public radio news stories and a public forum for discussion.

One of the most-visited elements of the Web site was a case study developed by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Web surfers were invited to become an adviser to the governor of North Carolina and—after reviewing a wealth of information on the pros and cons of using economic development incentives—write a memo to the governor on the issue. More than 40 people submitted memos, which were then reviewed by the Kennedy School; the top two memo writers were invited to attend the Economic War conference in Washington, DC, May 21-22.

The winners of the case study contest were Karis Rieke Gust, a University of Minnesota student from Richfield, Minn., and William Patrick Wagner, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Their essays, along with those who received honorable mention and the top essays from students at the Kennedy School of Government (who were ineligible to win), were printed in full on the Web site.

If the case study contest had run for a longer time, more students—as well as others—would have probably entered, according to John Donahue, an associate professor in the Center for Business and Government at the Kennedy School. Donahue, who attended the Economic War conference, led the effort at Harvard to establish the case study on the Web site, and he said he was pleased with the responses that it generated. The Economic War case study is only the second conducted by the Kennedy School—the first investigated the possibility of a third-party candidacy in the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

Donahue, who is completing a book on the subject of economic incentives, used the case study as a teaching aid for one of his classes, as did other professors, including Lee Munnich Jr., director, State and Local Policy Program, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Munnich, who also attended the Economic War conference, had students in his State and Local Economic Development Strategies Workshop submit memos to the Kennedy School. In addition, Munnich conducted a mock advisory session in which he posed as the governor of North Carolina and, after taking counsel from six students who were members of his "cabinet," he heard the views of the state's residents—played by the rest of the class.

"The class really enjoyed it. They got into it," Munnich says. "It's a great topic because it has so many dimensions and is not easily solvable." Over a period of several years, Munnich has scheduled a debate for his class on this topic between Arthur Rolnick, research director at the Minneapolis Fed, and Timothy Bartik, senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich. Munnich says the debate is well received by the students because it helps them understand the meaning and importance of their classroom work, which includes developing their own economic development strategy for a state or city. "It's a good way to learn," Munnich says.