Are the Info Needs of Local Communities Being Served?

    by Chris O'Brien
    September 15, 2008


    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 this 15-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 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.

    Tagged: community google innovation knight foundation silicon valley
    • Amen Chris. I was honored to address the inaugural gathering of Knight’s new commission in DC over the summer and share Front Porch Forum‘s story. We blanket a metro area with online neighborhood forums. More than one-third of our pilot city (Burlington, VT) subscribes and visits FPF every other day on average. Local online — as in geographically local — is hugely popular here. We’re looking forward to expanding into new communities in the future.

    • Peter Shane

      Chris, This is very helpful. Thanks again for shedding real perspective on the issues facing the Commission.

    • Amy

      Great points, Chris

      I hope you didn’t misunderstand my remarks (many people have). I am not saying that local info is not important from a civic perspective. Obviously, it is.

      Rather, my point was that local is only one way to define a community — and for many folks, it’s not even the most important or interesting way to slice that pie.

      Communities of civic significance self-organize along various lines, many of which have little or nothing to do with geography. My concern re: the Knight Commission is that so far they appear to be interested only in communities as defined by local geography — and so might be missing the big picture for how to better serve and engage more citizens in civic activities.

      – Amy Gahran

    • Further on this topic, Chris, you might want to check out the series I just launched on my blog Contentious.com, where I try to pull together my thoughts on the big picture of engaging citizens and communities of civic significance in the democratic process

      See: Being a Citizen Shouldn’t Be So Hard! Part 1: Human Nature

      I’ll publish the next 3 parts of this series over the next few days. I’d love it if you could check it out and share your thoughts. My goal is to strengthen and streamline this work to be able to contribute it to the Knight Commission in a useful fashion.


      – Amy Gahran

    • Amy:

      Thanks for the response, and I’m glad to hear you say that, re: local communities. I totally agree that community takes many forms, and the ‘Net enables a host of new opportunities there. And there is a host of exciting ways to bolster civic engagement in different ways.

      I’ll dig into your series this week and give more specific feedback. Keep in mind, a lot of my feelings about this issue are colored by the areas I’ve seen newspapers retreat from. But again, this represents both problem, but enormous opportunity to create new systems that a far better than those that are ebbing.

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