The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Day 1 Friedland & Williamson
The Information Needs of A Community
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Leader: Lewis A. Friedland, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Scribe: Heidi Williamson, Berks County Community Foundation
The Role of the Daily Newspaper
Communities across the country are seeing their daily newspapers continue to decline. The papers are no longer family owned, and are run by general managers who don’t have the community connections and relationships that publishers did in the past. Most of the communities have cut back on local stories and have fewer reporters. One exception to this trend is in Dallas, where the local paper is cutting back on national and international news in favor of local stories.
In general, readers are not as blindly trusting of the newspaper and what is reported there as they were in previous generations. As newspapers become better able to track what people are reading, their priorities have shifted to more popular areas such as sports, which show higher readership that traditional news areas such as politics. Yet the media is changing rapidly, so while newspaper readership may be dwindling, people are still getting news and are perhaps even more engaged than before, as the current election cycle is proving.
Weeklies are gaining in popularity, and newspapers are still an important source of information, although much of it is now accessed online. There is a need to determine how much activity there is among those we assume have no access.
There is concern that reporters are younger and not as familiar with the history of local issues. There is a feeling that the reporters, whose average tenure is two years, don’t know the questions to ask to get to the heart of an issue.
The participants also see evidence of a general disrespect for journalists, particularly as news reporters often become the news themselves. This lack of respect is concerning because as readers’ confidence in local reporters wanes, and the number of local stories shrinks, we lose the watchdog factor that is so important in a democracy.
The “Daily Me”
Niche, fragmented news sources are replacing traditional media. Weeklies, local business journals, ethnic and foreign language papers are growing in popularity, but these niches don’t provide as broad a lens. For example, weeklies often cover suburbs, rather than urban areas, which can lead to a bias for more conservative reporting.
This leads to each of getting our “Daily Me,” mentally filtering all of the available sources and seeking out only what we need when we need it (i.e. traffic, weather). The explosion of information is an explosion of complexity, leading us each to look for individual, rather than community, information. This fragmentation leads to a loss of a common “page” that we’re all on, and ultimately a lack of information sharing/thoughtfulness about bigger issues.
In the past, newspapers served the editing function, telling us what was important to pay attention to, but we don’t acknowledge the paper that way anymore – or use it that way.
What do communities need?
Reinventing the past is not the answer. Treating the age of newspaper prominence as a golden age is not necessarily accurate because not everyone was truly represented and readership totals varied.
Yet there continues to be a need for public knowledge. There is the potential that ethnic and other niche publications may be a place where broader news can thrive. There is also a need for accountability, and investigative news is important to communities and democracy. There is also a need to present the news in multiple formats (video, blog, etc.)
Potential Community Foundation Approaches
Two approaches were posited for Community Foundation to consider:
Models and Examples
What else can community foundations do?
Community foundations can encourage the flourishing of niches by providing grants for the training and tools that people need to start doing more information sharing via technology such as video, podcasting, and other forms of citizen journalism. Foundations can also ease into the news ecology by focusing on community wide issues, encouraging the use of new media to aid the discussion of big issues, reach out to new audiences, and by leveraging the networks and relationships we already have. In this way, community foundations become the local “Google” of civic activity.
Community foundation can also:
What can Knight do?
Community foundations are not responsible for generating the news, but can serve as a facilitator to encourage others to strengthen the community information infrastructure. Partnerships with other nonprofits are key, particularly working together to share the information and knowledge that is already being generated. We can then use that knowledge to stimulate community dialogue.
In order to get started, many community foundations will need support, including a way to map and measure the information needs and gaps in their communities.