Knight Commission Report on Informing Communities: crib notes on the seminal 2009 project

Almost two years later, I read the entire Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, the report of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities.

Debuted in September 2009, I tackled the 80-page document for “the Hardly. Strictly. Young conference I attended in April at the University of Missouri, which was dedicated to brainstorming alternative recommendations for implementing that report.

Not a journalism-only report at all and backed by a year of conversation, outreach and testimony, I wanted to share my notes and thoughts on diving into the seminal report.

Executive Summary:

  • The growth in access and benefit of greater information tools is happening unequally in the country
  • Three objectives are necessary for more informed communities: (1) maximizing relevant and credible information, (2) strengthening the capacity for individuals to engage with information and (3) promoting individual engagement with information and the public life of the community
  • “Journalistic institutions do not need saving so much as they need creating”
  • The Commission ‘applauds’ the search for new business models to fund these efforts
  • “The United States stands at what could be the beginning of a democratic renaissance”

Introduction:

  • Most dramatic example of challenges: “Only 68 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 10 percent.”
  • Biggest promise: “Wireless devices may bring new services to the consumer at gigabit speeds with the next three-to-five years” [and the report is almost two years old]

Section One:

  • Importance: “a 2008 MIT study found that members of Congress who are covered less by their local press work less for their constituencies, as evidenced by lower federal spending in their districts.”
  • Problems in funding journalism: (1) “information creates what economists call ‘positive externalities,’ [t]hese are benefits from the public as a whole from which no individual can profit, and (2) ‘much information is also non-rivalrous,’ which means because sharing such information doesn’t reduce its quality, there is a natural free-rider problem
  • “Beginning in the 18th century, the Posal Service subsidized the delivery of newspapers” [p. 16]
  • Two kinds of information to be informed: (1) civic information to be aware and involved and (2) life-enhancing information to connect with services [23]
  • Libraries, universities and nonprofits will fill these roles, including media literacy education and various information sources [26]
  • ‘Local Nonprofits can also perform some journalistic functions ‘like the Silicon Valley Education Foundation that, in response to coverage drops from the San Jose Mercury News, made it a mission to ‘inform, inspire and involve’ [29]

Knight Recommendations

  1. Direct Media policy toward innovation, competition and support for business models that provide marketplace incentives for quality journalism.
    • “The journalism supported by marketplace incentives… is likely always to provide the lion’s share of original and verified reporting.” [33]
  2. Increase support for public service media aimed at meeting community information needs.
    • “Public stations do not have a strong record of spearheading local investigative journalism, and most public radio broadcasters have little or no local news reporting staff.” [35]
  3. Increase the role of high education, community and nonprofit institutions as hubs of journalistic activity and other information-sharing for local communities.
    • Nonprofits and foundations should fund ‘information portals’ and short-term fellowships to cover state and local government
  4. Require government at all levels to operate transparently, facilitate easy and low-cost access to public records, and make civic and social data available in standardized formats that support the productive public use of such data.
    • “Make information available; people will find ways to use it productively.”
    • “In short, information should be available in ways that people can remix, mashup and circulate for private or public purposes.”
    • “Major technology companies could make an enormous contribution to the public interest by volunteering expertise and facilities that could help accomplish this ambitious objective.”
  5. Develop systematic quality measures of community information ecologies, and study how they affect social outcomes.
    • The Knight Commission provided an Information Community checklist, which one of the groups wanted software tool for

Questions I still have:

  • What percentage of Americans would engage and consume news if it was perfectly tailored, personalized, delivered and engaging? I’m not sure we can truly engage everyone as ignorance is one the privileges of a functioning democracy.