What are the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy? part II

Maximizing the Availability of Relevant and Credible Information

To lead full lives in America’s democratic republic, citizens need two kinds of information: civic information and life-enhancing information. These may come from the same sources or through the same media. The same information sometimes serves both purposes, but they remain distinct categories. Successful problem solving for both individuals and communities requires access to both. Yet, millions of Americans lack ready access to relevant, credible information in either or both categories.

Salvador “Chava” Bustamante is a former labor organizer currently working with the California organization Strengthening Our Lives. SOL promotes the involvement of Latinos in politics. As a speaker at the Commission’s September 8, 2008, public forum, Mr. Bustamante highlighted the dual nature of the information people need to live as successful citizens in a democratic community. He said:

Fifteen years ago, I became a citizen, and I have been voting in every election. The reason I do it is because I want to participate in all the decisions that affect my life and the life of my community…. But being part of a democracy to me means more than one man or woman equals one vote. Democracy to me means making available all the opportunities in our society to as many people as possible all so we all can prosper…. Democracy is giving everybody an opportunity to better their lives.

Civic and social information is the information people need to “participate in all the decisions that affect . . . the life of [a] community.” People need to know their rights and how to exercise them. They need to know how well public officials and institutions function. They need the underlying facts and informed analysis about the social, economic, political and cultural factors that shape the community’s challenges and opportunities. They need news.

But, as Mr. Bustamante emphasized, democratic citizens also need life-enhancing information. This is information related to people’s personal welfare and ambitions—how to protect and advance their health, education, and economic position. Members of underserved populations have a special need for information about available services that can benefit them and their families. Mr. Bustamante’s straightforward testimony made the point poignantly. Speaking of his own life in the United States, he said, “Personally, I feel like I wasted a lot of time trying to find information about how to reach my goals. I know that if I would have had access to information about how to get my GED or training opportunities for a better job, I probably would have continued my education rather than working in the fields for 12 years.” Many Americans share Mr. Bustamante’s experience or something like it.

Information Ecologies

In terms of serving these two distinct information needs, every local community offers a specific information ecology. Its environment will include people interested in finding things out and sharing what they know. It will include people who know how to access at least some of the facts that community members need.  The community will have formal and informal networks for people to exchange knowledge, ideas, opinions, and perspectives. It will have organizations that generate and transmit news and information. It will have institutions that help people sort through the overwhelming torrent of words, symbols and ideas bombarding them daily. Virtually everyone will be involved in creating and receiving information.

But, as the Commission heard frequently, not all information ecologies are equally effective. Few work equally well for all community members. Some communities and their citizens are conspicuously better off than others.

Communities Need Strong Information Intermediaries

The problem of information access is not a problem of volume. People are frequently awash in information, but they are desperate for trusted assistance to help make sense of the information they have. Everyone depends to some extent on intermediaries to help acquire, verify, select, and make sense of information. The range and quality of intermediaries will always be central to a healthy information ecology. This is true for both civic and life-enhancing information.

Libraries are vital actors on this stage. There are 9,198 public libraries in the United States, with over 16,500 outlets. Americans use them. Visits to public libraries totaled 1.4 billion in 2005. The circulation of materials topped two billion items.18 Over 68 percent of American adults today have a library card. This is the highest number since the American Library Association began tracking this statistic in 1990. Over three-quarters of all Americans used public libraries in the year leading up to a September 2009 survey.19 Young adults between 18 and 30 are the most likely to use libraries and the most likely to say they will use libraries in the future.20

Moreover, public libraries increasingly emphasize civic and media training and serve as key centers for community dialogue. Yet, public libraries are typically strapped for resources. A 2006 study by the ALA showed that many libraries sustained deep cuts in fiscal years 2003, 2004, and 2005.21 As tax revenues dwindle, many libraries are having to cut hours and programs just when they are most needed.

Higher education institutions are also key information intermediaries. They have become increasingly important as sources of expertise and talent for social and economic development. This is dramatically evident in the evolution of land grant university extension services. No longer does “extension” signify a lonely agent driving an aging station wagon out to share crop information with area farmers.

Many extension programs offer consulting services for small towns and rural areas doing strategic planning for economic growth and environmental sustainability.  They sponsor public health programming and financial counseling. They publish online agricultural newsletters.

These and similar programs are evident across the full range of higher education.  From the largest research universities to America’s more than a thousand community colleges, the best of the higher education sector is translating faculty teaching and research into practical resources for individuals and communities.

The nonprofit sector is also likely to provide important information services.  Local foundations and other nonprofit initiatives—for example, America’s 15,000 senior centers—frequently channel information to community residents about issues of health, education, and economic opportunity. The Internet has been a boon to such activity. Even very low-cost, non-interactive Web sites may function effectively to deliver basic information to people looking to address personal and family issues.

Journalism Is Essential to Community Health

Journalists are key intermediaries in terms of local news and information flow.  The Commission understands journalism broadly to encompass “the gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing of news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.”22

Throughout the twentieth century, the practice of journalism found numerous outlets. Mainstream daily newspapers, community weeklies, the ethnic and alternative press, private and public radio and television, and cable news organizations have all been part of the mix. These media are now joined by an expanding array of online sources. Some new media resemble their predigital forebears. Others more closely resemble social networking sites and collaboratively gather, edit, and disseminate information.

During the months of Commission deliberations, near-daily news stories detailed the financial difficulties of metropolitan daily newspapers. Headlines report newspaper company bankruptcies, the shutdown of some newspapers, and threats to close others. The newspaper industry lost 100,000 jobs over the last decade, although this figure is hard to evaluate without knowing how many of those were journalists. The Project for Excellence in Journalism estimates that, from 2001 to the end of 2009, the total job loss among newspaper journalists will likely pass 14,000. That is roughly 25 percent of the industry’s news workforce lost in nine years.23 It is no wonder that “whether and how to save newspapers” are questions much discussed across the blogosphere.

The Commission agrees there is serious cause for concern. Newspapers may have their shortcomings, but in many communities, they have been for a century or longer the primary source of fair, accurate and independent news. They are usually the major provider of “beat” and investigative journalism. They often set the news agenda for other community outlets, including both broadcast and new media.  They have been critical to how cities, towns and regions understand themselves and their circumstances. Television and radio are also critical news sources, but are unlikely to offset fully any drop that local communities experience in original, verified newspaper reporting.  That is because the average radio station provides under an hour of daily news coverage,24 and television stations, even as they increase their news coverage, are doing so with fewer and less experienced journalists on staff.25

From the standpoint of public need, however, the Commission believes that the challenge is not to preserve any particular medium. It is to promote the traditional public service functions of journalism. The key question is, “How can we advance quality, skilled journalism that contributes to healthy information ecologies in local communities?”

The Changing Face of Journalism

Journalistic institutions do not need saving so much as they need creating. The 2007 Newspaper Association of America count of daily newspapers in the United States was 1,422. At the same time, there are 3,248 counties, encompassing over 19,000 incorporated places and over 30,000 “minor civil divisions” having legal status, such as towns and villages.26 It follows that hundreds, if not thousands of American communities receive only scant journalistic attention on a daily basis, and many have none. Even accounting for community weeklies—a 2004 survey identified 6,704 such papers nationwide27—it is likely that many American communities get no attention from print journalism at all. Joe Hansen of Montana’s Big Timber News Citizen Newspaper Group and the Executive Director of the Western EMS (Emergency Medical Services) Network, told the Commission that no one should assume that local media in smaller towns cover a larger percentage of the community’s relevant events. Coverage falls short everywhere.

The Commission applauds efforts throughout the country to find new solutions and business models to preserve valued journalistic institutions and create new ones. We recognize there is a transition underway requiring fresh thinking and new approaches to the gathering and sharing of news and information.

Network technology may have hastened the decline in revenues to existing mass media institutions. But that same technology can lead to a new ecology of journalism in which reporters and their publics intermix in new ways.

Some journalism organizations are already using network technologies to address cuts in coverage of local news. Among the most exciting aspects of the technology revolution is the opportunity it creates for emerging concepts like networked journalism and open source reporting.28 We have already seen the rise of “citizen journalists.” These are nonprofessionals who use commonly available text, audio and video tools to create their own news stories or contribute to others. There are likewise “citizen editors,” bloggers who collect news stories created by others that they believe are most interesting and relevant to a potential audience. A next stage is emerging with new forms of collaboration between full-time journalists and the general citizenry.

Networked journalism allows news enterprises to reorganize so that full-time staff members act as nodes for networks of citizen participants who cover every “beat” conceivably relevant to the news organization’s audience. Through networked journalism, technology can enable a diffusion of the news-gathering functions, creating greater coverage of local affairs. Technology also permits new depth in local news. In “open source reporting,” reporters, editors and large groups of users all work on the same story.29

Local Nonprofits Can Also Perform Some Journalistic Functions

New, low-cost communication tools have likewise enabled non-profit organizations to undertake journalistic activity in response to the decline in local news. Muhammed Chaudhry, the President and CEO of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF), presented one example at the Commission’s September 8, 2008, forum in Mountain View, California. He related the evolution of his organization in terms that will likely sound familiar to other non-profits.

Chaudhry described the difficult information landscape his organization confronts with regard to its core focus—public education. There are 33 separate school districts in Santa Clara County, 19 in San Jose alone. As a result, according to Mr. Chaudhry, “There is no cohesion of message on public schools in general regarding their challenges, successes, or needs.  There is not one body, a clearinghouse, articulating, ‘Here’s what our schools need; here’s what our teachers need.’”

At the same time, according to Chaudhry, cutbacks have diminished local media’s coverage of schools. The San Jose Mercury News dropped from eight reporters covering education to three. As for television, “[t]here are four major networks that cover the entire Bay Area population, which now exceeds six million people,” he continued. “Providing strong localized coverage of our schools? Impossible.”

Mr. Chaudhry then offered a brief snapshot of the information opportunity his organization saw amid its complex information ecology:

If we want to engage citizens in the process of change in our education system, we must do three things: inform, inspire and involve. We must inform the public of the challenges and opportunities our schools face. We must inspire them to believe that there are real solutions to our education problems and that through their action, we can implement those solutions. Finally, we must involve the public into action on the information we are able to deliver to them.

Informing comes first. And that comes by getting information out. Where we’ve seen traditional media struggle, SVEF believes there is opportunity . . . . An organization like SVEF takes on the role of ‘reverse reporting.’ . . . We can create a constant stream of information that an outlet, like the Mercury News, can use to draw readers. We can make it topical and compelling to readers, but we also ensure that it is localized and thus relevant to our audience. The Mercury News, in our example, plays less of a role of ‘reporting’ information and more the role of ‘connecting’ readers to information.

In short, the SVEF is contributing to journalism.

Situating journalistic activity in nonprofit advocacy organizations raises critical ethical questions. Independence of judgment and sensitivity to conflicts of interest are hallmarks of the best journalism. Because nonprofit advocacy organizations are committed to mobilizing public support for their particular issues, striving for dispassionate reporting will pose important issues. With appropriate training and resources, however, local nonprofits can help their communities by “filtering, integrating, analyzing, contextualizing, and authenticating information”30 that is relevant to community welfare.

Such new intermediaries will likely supplement, rather than displace conventional news organizations and new forms of for-profit news.  The traditional values of journalism cannot be completely outsourced. The Commission expects that news gathering and dissemination will have many new players, both public and private, performing journalistic functions. And in that process, the role and values of traditional journalism will be extremely important.

Just as networked journalism is creating new models for collaboration, new models for independent journalism are also emerging. Some new initiatives are taking advantage of opportunities arising from the economic crisis facing news organizations. For example, there are new projects that simultaneously create opportunities for aspiring young journalists, while reclaiming the experience and talents of mid-career journalists who have lost their jobs at local journalistic enterprises.

Public Access to Data Requires Government Support and Cooperation

A key variable affecting the information ecology will be the ease of getting relevant facts and data. Government is a central actor in determining that access. Government agencies create and maintain information about government activity.  They know how citizens can acquire government services most easily. Government can provide leadership in offering access to information in forms that are usable by everyone, including accessible media for people with disabilities.31

Governments are also frequently the chief collectors of social information. They track where people live and work, how schools perform, what houses are worth, which businesses are opening and closing, public health patterns, and much more. Sharing this information with the public (while respecting privacy and confidentiality where appropriate) can empower individuals and groups to spot new business opportunities. It can reveal avenues for local improvement. It can trigger important stories in local media.

Governments could do much more to make available the civic, social and economic data they possess. The coalition behind 2009 Sunshine Week, a national initiative to spur public dialogue on open government and freedom of information issues, sponsored a national survey to determine the online availability of 20 categories of information.32 As the organizers explained, “The categories for the survey were selected for generally serving the overall public good—the kind[s] of information people need for their own health and well-being and that of the community.”  Only half the states offer even a dozen of these categories online. One state— Mississippi—offered only four. In the case of campaign finance reporting, one observer calls the current pattern “failure by design.” Many states allow candidates to use paper forms to report contributions and expenditures. This significantly impairs government’s capacity to easily share public information. As a result, the public does not gain timely access to the information.

Government performance also falls short in the preservation and handling of public records. Every state has open records laws. So does the federal government.  Yet, freedom of information audits routinely show failures to turn over documents that the law requires agencies to disclose. Compliance is too often slow and uncooperative. Both journalists and members of the public sometimes encounter demands for extraordinary fees.

Citizens frequently have no obvious recourse short of litigation when they are denied their information rights. The Commission supports the efforts of local nonprofit groups to gather and disseminate a wide variety of data on community conditions. Government could support and facilitate disclosure efforts far more aggressively.

The bottom line for local communities is that people need relevant and credible information in order to be free and self-governing.


  • The current economic challenges facing private news media could pose a crisis for democracy.
  • Public media should provide better local news and information.
  • Not-for-profit and nontraditional media can be important sources of journalism.
  • Public information belongs to the public. Government must be more open.
  • Informed communities should be able to measure their information health.

SOURCE: http://www.knightcomm.org/part-ii-a/

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