This essay has been cross-posted from the Nieman Journalism Lab.
Way back in the age of paper, in 1986, professor James Beniger, then at Harvard, produced a useful chart on the civilian labor force of the United States. It showed how the bulk of American workers had moved during the past two centuries from working in agriculture to industry to service, and now, to information. Point being: the digital age didn't just sneak up on us. It's been a long, slow evolution. So shame on us for not changing our rules and laws and institutions for this new age.
We were well warned. Just after World War II, the Hutchins Commission said that traditional media could do much better: they should take on the social responsibility of providing the news 'in a context that gives it meaning.' In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission said mainstream media wasn't diverse enough to properly tell the story of this changing nation. Same decade: the Carnegie Commission said the status quo was simply not working, that public broadcasting must be created to fill the gap.
After that, a stream of reports ' from the University of Pennsylvania, from Columbia University and others ' agreed and repeated the same three fundamental findings:
Hutchins: Our news systems are not good enough,
Kerner: They don't engage everyone,
Carnegie: We need alternatives.
Here comes digital media, and ' boom! ' an explosion of alternatives. And we're all ' shocked? Apparently. So let's try it again. This time, the big report comes from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, prepared by the Aspen Institute with a grant from Knight Foundation, where I work.
A new examination of a familiar problem
Why a new commission? We are...