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Are the information needs of local communities being served?

Last week, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy arrived in Silicon Valley to hold the first of its three planned community forums. I was asked to speak on a panel that day about “technology and innovation” but hung around for most of the day to listen to the other two panels and the wide-ranging discussion.

This is timely and important work. I’ve spoken with numerous community leaders in Silicon Valley in recent months who are growing more anxious about what will happen to the quality of civic life if the coverage of local news continues to diminish.

Amy Gahran (who also blogs here at Idea Lab) took up this subject at Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits blog where she asked of the commission’s work: “How important is local, really?”:

“I suspect that clinging reflexively to “local” as the paramount criteria for “relevant” reflects a newspaper perspective that was never a good fit for most people, and that never really served most people’s information needs well.”

But, in fact, that’s exactly the issue here: Even in Silicon Valley, there are growing numbers of city councils and counties that are no longer covered. There are school districts barely covered. And local elections are now barely covered with any depth. The result is a growing anxiety that less information about local issues will lead to less civic engagement. Despite the explosion of virtual networks, we still lives our lives in the real, physical world. And there are issues and information that I would argue are vital and distinct as they relate to your personal geography.

Sounds grim, right? Except there’s also an opportunity to create local information networks that could be far better than the ones that are ebbing. Even at their apex, newspapers still only covered a sliver of the news and information that hit closest to home for most local communities.

To tackle this vast subject, the Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute announced earlier this year the creation of this15-member commission. The commission is being co-chaired by Marissa Mayer, a vice president at Google, and Theodore Olsen, the former solicitor general of the United States, and it includes other such notable figures as Michael Powell, the former chair of the Federal Communications Commission.

The commission is asking three big questions:

*What are the information needs of communities in our American democracy?
*What are the current trends affecting how community information needs are met?
*What changes will ensure that community information needs will be better met in the future?

A version of my remarks are posted here.

But I wanted to highlight a few issues that were discussed during the community that struck me:

*Trust. I wrote about this issue in a column last week for the Mercury News. The question fundamentally is how does a community filter the explosion of information and evaluate which sources are reliable? This sparked one of the more interesting conversations on Monday. It raised a second question about whether there needs to be some new kind of intermediary, or whether we can count on the wisdom of crowds to help establish reputation and trust and responsibility.

*Community information is a broader conversation than just journalism. When people get together to discuss what comes next after newspapers, there tends to be a lot of journalists in the room, and so a lot of the conversation revolves around journalism. Certainly, that’s a critical component. But when I think about community information, I think of things like a visit my family made on our way to Yosemite recently. We stopped in a Target in a small town in the Central Valley and at the front of the store were two computer kiosks. They were there because apparently you have to apply for jobs online at Target. But in this digital era, how are folks in that area able to find out about jobs, let alone apply, if they’re not digitally savvy?

*Digital literacy. However things evolve, it seems clear that citizens will need a higher degree of digital literacy to be informed consumers or active participants as they choose. I know the Knight Foundation is going through some soul searching about its mission in this changing landscape. But while I don’t think we can expect foundations to fund the journalism we need forever, the area of digital literacy seems like a great place for foundations and educational institutions to focus their efforts.

2 Responses

  1. This reminds me of the philosophy of a small daily that was owned by the LA Times in the 1970s for which it was my great pleasure to work in Southern California in the 1970s. The philosophy was you open a bureau in the burgeoning Orange County suburbs, send a reporter to city hall and hang on to the flags at city hall and the school board like everything. The result? Folks flocking to the suburbs with kids in schools and taxes to pay would read you. It worked well for awhile. Later, the people coming in didn’t seem to be all that concerned, and the experiment pretty much dissolved. I think digital literacy is important, don’t get me wrong. But I think relevance is the key as well as providing your content quickly and on any venue the audience demands. Niche newspapers — like those in small towns and college campuses — remain relatively healthy, but they need to remember relevance too as the user changes modes. Just don’t forget local and relevance.

  2. I agree: relevance is key. Great point. That also came up with the commission. You should consider submitting some thoughts to them at: http://www.knightcomm.org.

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