The time has come for new thinking and aggressive action to ensure the information opportunities of America’s people, the information health of its communities, and the information vitality of our democracy. Every advance in communications technology expands the possibilities for American democracy, but every information system also creates potential winners and losers.
The information revolution is benefiting those in the middle class and up and, in a different way, many young residents of urban and suburban communities. They have never had greater access to more relevant information. But many Americans are in danger of remaining or becoming second-class citizens in the digital age, whether because of low income, language barriers, lack of access to technology, limited skills and training, community norms, or lack of personal motivation. The poor, the elderly, rural and small town residents, and some young people are most at risk. Those who belong to more than one of these groups are especially vulnerable. To take perhaps the most dramatic example of an enduring divide: “Only sixty-eight percent of households on Tribal lands have a telephone; only eight Tribes own and operate telephone companies; and broadband penetration on Indian lands is estimated at less than ten percent.”1
If the problem were simply “not keeping up” with the latest information technologies and capabilities, the situation would be bad enough. But many people are now losing the information sources they have relied on, as newspapers, TV, and radio reduce news coverage to survive financially. In a democracy, the very idea of second-class citizenship is unacceptable; yet, for many, second-class information citizenship is looming.
The inability of some to participate fully in community life through a loss of information harms not only those directly affected. It also harms the entire community. Democratic communities thrive when all sectors are active participants.
The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy believes America is at a critical juncture. Information technology is changing our lives in ways that we cannot easily foresee. Critical intermediating practices—journalism perhaps most obviously—are facing challenges of economics, organization, and values. As dramatic as the impacts have been already, they are just beginning. How we react, individually and collectively, to the information challenges and opportunities now presented to us will affect the quality of our lives and the very nature of our communities.
As the Knight Commission’s full name attests, its fundamental charge has been to identify and articulate the information needs of communities in a democracy. The Commission has addressed that mandate by reviewing academic and industry research across a wide range of disciplines; hearing directly from experts on media, community and public policy; staging public hearings across the United States; and drawing on its own collective expertise.2 Through this process, the Commission has come to understand “information needs” in a particularly expansive way. The question “What are a community’s information needs?” is more than a question about the categories of knowledge that people require. It is best understood as a question about the kind of information ecology—that is, the kind of environment for information and communications—that a community ought to become.
In short, America needs a vision for “informed communities,” places where the information ecology meets the personal and civic information needs of people. This means people have the information they need to take advantage of life’s opportunities for themselves and their families. It also means they can participate fully in our system of self-government, to stand up and be heard. Paramount in this vision are the critical democratic values of openness, inclusion, participation, empowerment, and the common pursuit of truth and the public interest.
To achieve this vision, the Commission believes that the nation and its local communities need to pursue three ambitious objectives:
- Maximize the availability of relevant and credible information to all Americans and their communities;
- Strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information; and
- Promote individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.
The Commission might well have reached these conclusions even without the economic downturn of 2008. Public testimony before the Commission showed the nation’s vast information needs are being met unequally, community by community. Some populations have access to local news and other relevant information through daily newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, local cable news channels, hyper-local Web sites, blogs, mobile alerts, and service that connect to police reports and other sources of local information. Others are woefully underserved.
Key democratic institutions are under obvious stress—public service journalism perhaps most of all. Access to news and information is critical to democracy. Journalists serve as watchdogs over public officials and institutions, as well as over the private and corporate sector. They provide information for citizens to run their lives, their communities, and their country. News organizations also foster civic understanding, engagement, and cohesion. When they work well, they help make communities open, officials accountable and publics engaged.
For over a decade, many local news institutions have been in crisis from financial, technological and behavioral changes taking place in our society. Before the recession, many newspapers were facing falling subscriptions and declining advertising revenue. With the crash of 2008, they are struggling even more.
Some observers worry that many newspapers may not recover or will become only a shadow of their former selves.3 Some local broadcast news programs are losing audiences and revenues.4 In many communities, news organizations are increasingly less able to meet the needs of citizens. For example, a 2009 American Journalism Review survey found 355 newspaper staff reporters covering their respective statehouses full time—a decrease of more than 30 percent over the last six years.5 Nearly three-quarters of the respondents to a 2009 Associated Press Managing Editors survey expressed their belief that shrinking staffs were hurting their capacity to keep readers informed.6 There is plainly reason to be concerned for local journalism, and, therefore, for local democratic governance.
New technologies are rapidly changing the processes for acquiring and disseminating news and information. Emerging media have become amazing forces for enabling people to connect. But their full potential is not yet realized in the service of geographic communities, the places where people live, work, and vote.
A Moment of Opportunity
The economic downturn of 2008 added urgency to all of these concerns. It was like an earthquake shaking the global economy to its core, and the aftershocks of uncertainty are rattling families, communities, institutions, and the nation. But such crises often create opportunity, and the Commission believes the current moment is a time of great possibility.
It is a moment of technological opportunity. Experiments in social communication abound. The advent of the Internet and the proliferation of mobile media are unleashing innovation in the creation and distribution of information. Those who possess and can use sophisticated devices interact ever more seamlessly with a global information network both at home and in public.
Wireless devices may bring new services to the consumer at gigabit speeds within the next three-to-five years.7 Even now, mobile devices are increasingly popular as a way to connect to the Internet. They represent a chance for Americans who cannot afford a personal computer to connect to the communication revolution, just as millions of people do around the world.
African Americans and English-speaking Latinos currently represent especially active populations of mobile Web users. Between the end of 2007 and early 2009, roughly 48 percent of African Americans and 47 percent of English-speaking Latinos accessed the Internet via a mobile device as opposed to 32 percent of the general population. As reported in 2009 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, African Americans on any given day are 70 percent more likely to access the Internet on a handheld than white Americans.8
It is also a moment of journalistic and political opportunity. Media firms are searching for economically sustainable models to make their reinvention viable. Many news organizations, old and new, are embracing new technologies to create innovative processes for connecting the public to the information it needs and wants. Political leaders and many government agencies are staking out ambitious agendas for openness. The potential for using technology to create a more transparent and connected democracy has never seemed brighter.
The Commission has created what it hopes will be a helpful framework for seizing these opportunities. The following is the Commission’s articulation of community information needs and the critical steps necessary to meet them.