News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Knight Commission

March 09, 2010

National Broadband Plan: Opportunities for community news, civic engagement

On March 17, the FCC will deliver to Congress the controversial new National Broadband Plan—and this morning the nation got a preview of what this plan offers at an event co-hosted by the Knight Foundation at the Newseum in Washington DC. There will be much in this plan that could affect the future of US civic engagement, local news ecosystems, and the news business.

News organizations and news entrepreneurs should give this plan a close read—and also the recently published US consumer survey on broadband that the Brookings Institution conducted on FCC’s behalf. Getting familiar with this information now could help you spot emerging opportunities for providing news and info that strengthens local communities.

By Amy Gahran

(This is part of a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” See all posts in this series.)

The full National Broadband Plan has not yet been released—despite numerous “preview the plan” notes on, the actual document is not online yet. However, on Feb. 18 the FCC did publish its recommendations for key national broadband priorities, which should be reflected in the forthcoming plan. (See press release, report.)

The Obama Administration authorized the FCC to create a National Broadband Plan as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009—which included several broadband initiatives intended to accelerate US broadband deployment. Widespread broadband is considered to be a crucial component of the development of a viable “digital public square.” Since broadband expansion could also expand the availability of public wireless net access, this could also prove to be a significant boost to mobile net access.

The Knight Commission recognized broadband’s potential for civic engagement in recommendation 8 of its 2009 report:

“Set ambitious standards for nationwide broadband availability and adopt public policies encouraging consumer demand for broadband services.”

In that report, the Commission also expressed skepticism about whether the federal government’s current approach to broadband policy “is sufficient to ensure the US will reach full-fledged universal digital citizenship.”

Similarly, the US consumer survey on broadband offers crucial market context for local news/info providers. This data is very fresh—it was gathered October-November 2009. It focuses on home access to broadband, which is crucial from a civic engagement perspective since people tend to follow civic issues outside of work/school hours. A few highlights:

  • Broadband users value community news. Nearly 40% of surveyed broadband users said they consider keeping up with community news an important reason reason for going online. Only staying in touch with family and friends was rated important by more users (68%). African-American broadband users are especially likely (51%) to say that the Internet is very important to them for keeping up with community news and entertainment. A third of rural broadband users say their online access to community news is important.
  • US Broadband is widespread, but unevenly distributed. Currently 65% of US adults use a high-speed internet connection to go online from home. However, only 52% of households with an annual income less than $50,000 have broadband at home. And only 46% of US adults whose highest level of education is a high school diploma have home broadband. Also,  59% of African-Americans and 49% of Hispanics have home broadband.
  • Local/community news broadband demographics. Among broadband users, slightly more women (82%) than men (78%) get local news online. Parents are especially likely to get local news online (86%). A majority of broadband users in all age groups get local news online, ranging from 86% for 18-29 year olds to 58% for seniors 65+. Education level has a minor effect: 75% of adult broadband users with less than a high school education access local news online, compared to 85% for college plus. Income level shows a similar variation: 75-85% for all income levels, with the lowest level of local news importance falling in the middle income range ($50-75,000).
  • Cost affects usage. 36% of non-broadband users cite cost as the main reason they do not have home broadband. Also, broadband billing often lacks transparency: “On average, Americans pay nearly $41 per month for broadband service, but half of those who receive their broadband in a bundle with other services cannot identify the Internet portion of their bill.”
  • Perceptions of relevance.According to the FCC/Brookings consumer survey, 22% of Amercians do not use the internet at all. Of that group, about 35% indicated the internet is not relevant, interesting, or useful to them. Many non-internet users are also low-income. However, ArsTechnica recently reported on a new Social Science Research Council study that appears to counter the common myth that the internet and home broadband are less useful or relevant to poor people.


ACTION STEPS: When it is available, download and review the National Broadband Plan (which will be posted to, and consider how it might affect your community and business in the coming years.

Track the action. Either attend (if you’re in the DC area) or watch the archived webcast of this March 16 event: Top Congressional tech staffers will discuss Setting the Table for the National Broadband Plan: Where to from Here?. Representatives of the main Congressional committiees hashing over the plan will be there: the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. (Good committees to start monitoring regularly.)

The National Broadband Plan is highly controversial—expect a big political battle here. Large, established businesses such as cable companies, broadcasters, and telcos have much at stake and are throwing substantial lobbying muscle toward protecting their interests. Expect that the there will be changes to the plan between the time it goes to committee and the version that eventually makes it to the floor of Congress.

Another great resource for tracking this issue is Drew Clark’s blog—one of the best sources of news and update for national, regional, and state broadband issues.

Track what’s happening in your state broadband task forces, commissions, or authorities. For local or community news ventures, this might be the most effective place to sway broadband policy to encourage local news and civic engagement.

Assess local obstacles to broadband penetration. Ask locals about the reasons cited by survey participants about why some people aren’t adopting broadband. Consider that the Knight report noted: “Communities cannot realize the full benefit of broadband deployment unless people actually connect to broadband networks. Thus the Commission encourages [efforts] to make broadband service more attractive.”

In other words, if broadband becomes universally available and affordable throughout your community, what will it take really create a viable, popular digital public square that most people will use and value? How might you strengthen your community (and your business) by working toward that goal?

March 19, 2010

National Broadband Plan: What it actually says about civic engagement

On March 17, the FCC finally presented to Congress the National Broadband Plan—a 360-page proposed policy to encourage the development of a robust, ubiquitous broadband infrastructure throughout the US. Last week I discussed why news orgs and journalists should pay attention to this plan.

Enhancing civic engagement is a key theme of the published plan. In fact, an entire chapter is devoted to this topic.

Here are some civic engagement highlights of the plan—and some possible implications for community-level news and information…

By Amy Gahran

(This is part of a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” See all posts in this series.)

Right at the top of Chapter 15, Civic Engagement, the National Broadband Plan highlights the connection between broadband access and the faltering traditional news business:

“The transition to new information technologies and services can open new doors to enhance America’s media environment—but with traditional sources of news and information journalism under severe stress in the current media and economic environments, we confront serious challenges to ensure that broadband is put to work to strengthen our democracy. Civic engagement starts with an informed public, and broadband can help by strengthening the reach and relevance of mediated and unmediated information.”

The plan’s civic engagement chapter makes 14 specific recommendations to create a broadband infrastructure that actively supports civic engagement at all levels of US society and government. The chapter’s second recommendation (15.2) specifically echoes and cites Recommendation 4 of the Knight Commission’s “Informing Communities” report:

Recommendation 15.2: Government should make its processes more transparent and conducive to participation by the American people:
  • For the Executive Branch, independent agencies, Congress and state and local government, all government meetings, public hearings and town hall meetings should be broadcast online.  
  • Congress should consider allowing the American public to track and comment on proposed legislation online.

“...As a guiding principle, the Knight Commission has declared, ‘the public’s business should be done in public.’ Public hearings and town hall meetings are among the most direct and frequent opportunities for the public to engage in their democracy. Video streaming of government meetings expands access to the government by eliminating geographic limitations and allowing for ‘time shifting,’ so that a person who is unable to watch a meeting in real time (because they are at work, for example) can still watch the proceedings and provide feedback. That is why federal, state and local governments should require that all public agency meetings and hearings be streamed over the Internet. Additionally, these events should offer closed-captioning services to increase accessibility for persons with disabilities and, to the extent practical, enable individuals to ask questions online.”

POSSIBLE OPPORTUNITIES: Coordinating video streaming is not necessarily a strength of government, especially local government. If Congress provides funding for universal video streaming of meetings and hearings at all levels of government, there might be outsourcing opportunities for CSPAN-like businesses. News organizations and news professionals could be players here.

However, an even more crucial role for journalism and journalists in this kind of service would be offering context. Anyone who’s attended government meetings and hearings knows that it’s pretty hard to figure out what’s going on unless you’re already very familiar with the process, issues, history, players, interests, and jargon. News professionals could use broadband to provide easy real-time access to relevant context—news stories, backgrounders, documents, links, live text or audio commentary, etc.—that would help viewers understand what they’re watching.

Similarly, the language and formatting of legislation is generally excruciating to read—so mere availability would not necessarily encourage engagement. Furthermore, our state and federal legislative process is such that multiple “live” copies of the same bill often are available simultaneously, confusing people who are not government insiders. Where exactly should one leave a comment?

Journalists and others who are accustomed to following and explaining legislation might find business opportunities to layer context on proposed legislation—making it easier to understand what’s going on, what happens next, optimum timing for comments, and also getting citizens’ questions answered (since often people have questions before they can formulate comments). This is an example of applying journalism skills as a direct service, rather than simply as a means to create content that’s supported by ads or subscriptions.

Other aspects of Chapter 15 of the National Broadband plan may provide additional journalistic opportunities related to civic engagement. For instance:

“Recommendation 15.6: Congress should consider increasing funding to public media for broadband-based distribution and content.”

...This is followed by other recommendations to revise the Copyright Act to make it easier for public broadcasing organizations to use copyrighted material, and also to create a “federated national digital archive to house public interest digital content.” And further:

“Congress should consider amending the Copyright Act to enable public and broadcast media to more easily contribute their archival content to a digital national archive and grant reasonable noncommercial downstream usage rights for this content to the American people.”

...which could prove to have interesting implications for mashup culture—included journalistically minded uses of content.

WHAT’S NEXT: Macworld recently published a pretty good overview of what happens with the National Broadband Plan now that Congress is considering it. Of special interest to broadcasters is this point: “The FCC will also ask Congress to give it new authority to sell spectrum now controlled by incumbents including U.S. television stations.”

FOLLOW THE ACTION: On Twitter, the hashtag #BBplan provides lots of news and view on the plan. As I mentioned last week, the BroadbandBreakfast blog and state broadband commissions also are key sources as this policy debate unfolds.

April 02, 2010

New report examines public library’s growing role as online civic hub

In the past year, about a third of Americans age 14 and over (about 77 million people) accessed the internet at a public library. US libraries and librarians are assuming a fast-growing role as a lifeline that connects people to jobs, news, education, services, health information, friends and family—and also community/civic participation.

A new report in the US IMPACT series of studies, How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at US Libraries, examines in detail how libraries are helping people meet a variety of online needs. It provides particularly intriguing insight into who’s using library internet to engage with community life, and how they’re doing it. Keeping up with the news is a big part of that picture…

By Amy Gahran

(This is part of a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” See all posts in this series.)

Who’s using library internet? According to the IMPACT study, one third of the 77 million library internet patrons “used library computers to learn about politics, news, and their community. Among these users, 81% reported keeping up with current events, 80% reported learning about candidates or issues, and 25% reported managing a club or nonprofit organization.”

What kinds of people are most likely to use library internet to participate in civic and community life?

  • Lower income. People who earn $66,000 or less for a family of four (three times the current US poverty line).
  • Ethnicity. Hispanics are most likely; then Native Americans, African Americans, and mixed-raced individuals. Whites are least likely.
  • Youth. Users aged 14-24 led the field.
  • Gender. Men were 20% more likely than women.
  • Education. People with at least some education beyond high school were most likely.

Findings on civic/community engagement: The IMPACT report defined online civic engagement as “individual and collective actions using online resources designed to identify and address issues of public concern, including efforts to work with others in a community to solve a problem or interact with the institutions of representative democracy.” 

I was intrigued that this study characterized keeping up with the news as primarily an activity associated with civic/community life—not as simply “media consumption,” as it often is in other studies about online use. This could indicate something unique about the perspective of library internet users, or simply the assumptions of the organizations behind the survey. (It was conducted by the University of Washington Information School and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. More about the survey.)

The report also examined how people use library internet access to engage communities. One specific activity discussed was organizing and managing community groups. Many survey participants claimed this activity is important to them. About 4 million people learned about starting an online presence for a club or community organization at the library— and 35% of these people actually started a club or association. Specific activities included:

  • Scheduling or reporting on meetings.
  • Promoting activities or attracting new members.
  • Seeking grants or funding.

The report noted, “57% of library internet users who looked for funding (about 1.2 million people) indicated that they had applied for funding—and 68% who  applied (over 813,000 people) actually received funding. This is concrete evidence that libraries are providing necessary tools and monetary support for people to engage in community activity.”

ACTION STEP: GO TO THE LIBRARY. Earlier, this blog post series recommended that news organizations partner more with public libraries, since libraries are natural sites of media literacy. But the IMPACT report indicates that libraries are also an increasing hub for civic and community “literacy,” too.

Therefore, journalists and others involved in ventures that provide news, information, and connection about civic and community life should probably start hanging out at the local library. Get online there, and start to assess who uses your local library’s internet access—and why.

More importantly, volunteer at your local library to assist library internet users. Most libraries are eager to work with volunteers. Once you get start working with the library and its patrons, learning their priorities and needs from the inside, you can forge relationships and spot opportunities for partnership and collaboration between the library and your local news or information venue.

Library volunteering also could be a channel to reach people who are not only underserved by local media and internet access, but also who are especially likely to be community leaders in those populations. The report noted: “In society at large, typically only a small percentage of the total population are community leaders and enablers. The characteristics of library internet users who are more likely to engage in [starting or managing online communities] ...suggest that the library is providing a way for emergent leaders to help their community take care of itself—which could in turn provide a safety net for people who might otherwise lack support.”

ACTION STEP: FUNDING COLLABORATION. Recommendation 7 of the Knight Commission report says:

“Fund and support public libraries and other community institutions as centers of digital and media training, especially for adults.”

..Like all public institutions, libraries are facing a severe funding crisis. They’re also eligible for many types of grants and other funding sources beyond tax revenue. Look for opportunities where partnering with a local library in your program and on your grant applications would make sense. If it’s a good fit, both parties—and the community—could benefit.

However, be sensitive to the unique concerns of libraries. They face specific legal and political issues, and librarians also have their own strong culture. So before approaching a library with a funding partnership idea, start volunteering first to build relationships, credibility, and knowledge.

April 05, 2010

Going on the record: Civic engagement is for journalists, too!

The traditional culture and ethics of professional journalism encourage journalists to hold themselves aloof from the communities they cover; to maintain objectivity through distance. Generally this means not voicing personal opinions on politics or controversial issues, and not engaging directly in civic processes. Sometimes even voting, campaign contributions, or speaking up at civic meetings are considered dicey territory for “real” journalists.

Now might be a good time to question this tradition…

By Amy Gahran

(This is the final guest post in a series by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” See all posts in this series.)

The advent of the Obama administration has led to substantial policy activity in areas that directly affect the work that journalists do, the communities they serve, and ventures that publish and distribute journalism. Earlier in this series I discussed the civic engagement implications of the proposed National Broadband Plan, the FCC’s Future of Media project, and the emerging government 2.0 movement.

Currently, US government at all levels is seeking (or at least is claiming to seek) to become more transparent. Obviously, this won’t just benefit communities and citizens. Journalists and news organizations also stand to reap direct benefits from increased government transparency.

Similarly, the ability of journalists and news organizations to continue to work effectively hinges partly on policy issues such as net neutrality, and the outcome of the FCC’s Future of Media project. (UPDATE Apr. 6: Today Mashable reports that “A U.S. appeals court has ruled that the FCC doesn’t have the right to enforce net neutrality principles for ISPs.” This could significantly affect the long-term prospects of anyone—but especially anyone not with a major media organizations—who relies on broadband for content distribution or community building.)

As Robert Niles says in OJR this week, online publishers can no longer afford to remain politically neutral. It’s time for journalists, news organizations, journalism schools, and other journalism organizations to speak up on their own behalf. To publicly participate in relevant civic processes. To push for policies that will further the interests of journalism and the communities served by journalism.

ACTION STEP: Find and use all opportunities to comment publicly in media policy debates. Doing so does not “taint” journalistic purity or otherwise sully your reputation. These actions cannot damage your credibility or compromise your objectivity—because if you’re being honest with yourself (and your audience) you cannot be objective when you’ve got so much at stake.

A good example of this comes from the Society of Environmental Journalists. In March, SEJ submitted a list of eight suggestions for improving transparency to the OpenEPA discussion forum. Suggestions included:

“1. End the practice that prevents EPA scientists or employees from talking to reporters without press office permission and a press officer present.”

“4. A presumption that press officers and other officials are talking on the record unless otherwise agreed to explicitly in advance by both sides. ‘Background’ should be the rare exception, not the standard operating procedure.”

“7. Improve press office inclusiveness to include routinely a broader spectrum of media types that make up today’s changing news media landscape.”

Submitting these suggestions supports SEJ’s ongoing efforts to work with EPA to improve transparency at the national and regional levels. But better EPA transparency would also translate to better environmental reporting at the local level, too.

(Disclosure: I’ve worked with SEJ in various roles for many years, but I was not involved in this particular engagement effort.)

Many states also have sites to collect public ideas on increasing transparency. The Pew Center on the States recently listed several. Where these sites exist, journos and news organizations should use them to lobby publicly and specifically for the kinds of transparency changes that will enhance journalism and democracy.

Also, submit public comments on the FCC’s Future of Media project. The deadline has been extended to May 7. This is a valuable opportunity to offer input on core issues affecting all aspects of the media business. It looks like most comments are being submitted via the FCC’s electronic comment filing system. Reference docket No. 10-25 in comments you leave there, and be sure to related your comments back to the specific questions posed by FCC. (See the document embedded at the end of this post.)

My closing thought for this series is: Civic engagement really IS for journalists, too. We’re definitely affected by government policy and transparency. We have legitimate interests. And if we don’t speak up in civic processes, on the record, our views won’t really count.

So put aside any cultural qualms about “getting involved.” This is a story journalists are living and working, not just covering. This is our story. If we don’t claim a leading role, we’ll be relegated to the background. Ultimately, communities would pay the price for our reticence.

FCC Future of Media Questions


November 03, 2010

Election coverage: Quick newsroom action today could boost community engagement

Everyone wants to know how yesterday’s midterm elections turned out, so today is a peak time for the news business. Right now, most daily news organizations are probably seeing much higher-than-usual traffic to their web sites—as well as above-average audiences for print and broadcast news.

...All about a topic that is fundamentally about civic and community engagement. Imagine that.

Robert Niles wrote today in Online Journalism Review that community engagement is the key to local news venues winning back audiences and advertisers. With this in mind, I’d like to suggest how news orgs might capitalize on today’s peak traffic…

By Amy Gahran

Elections tend to pique public interest, but in the long term citizens care mainly about issues that affect them directly. Therefore, persistent topic pages focused on community impacts are a better “hook” to foster broader community interest and engagement than traditional election news stories which fall of the radar quickly. (It also doesn’t hurt that topic pages yield significant search engine visibility benefits, too.)

So, today you should create some topic pages that highlight likely long-term local community impacts of today’s election results.

If your content management system allows you to easily designate topic pages (and it should!) then today you should set up web pages intended to track over time how the races or issues decided in this election will affect the communities you cover.

For instance, here in California, the defeat of Proposition 23 means that many locals are hoping for more local jobs and other economic benefits related to green energy and clean technology. Therefore, a Bay Area news org might do well to set up a “green economy watch” topic page today, and there list stories about Prop 23 and other related election news.

Don’t go crazy—just pick 3-5 obvious long-term, hot-button issues that probably will be significantly swayed by the latest election results. Funding for education, public safety, and the environment are likely suspects. Then, designate someone responsible for updating these page over the next six months (an hour or two a week to post fresh links).

Keep these topic pages simple: just a quick overview stating the topic and perhaps asking leading questions, followed by links to coverage and other items in reverse chronological order. (This tutorial intended for local bloggers works equally well for news orgs.)

Engagement generally improves when you demonstrate that you’re listening as well as talking. Therefore, your election-impact topic pages also should republish especially thoughtful or relevant community views. You should gather these views not just from comments submitted to your news site, but also from public posts to Twitter, discourse on your news org’s Facebook presence, or from the public Facebook pages or sites/blogs of other key local players.

Aim to showcase a diversity of views (political, geographic, economic, ethnic, etc.) which are expressed with civility and good-spirited humor. Don’t neglect to respond directly to these community members to show them how you’ve showcased their remarks. Such recognition encourages everyone to make better contributions to the public conversation. It also increases link-sharing to your topic pages.

Make sure your topic pages are mobile-friendly, especially for feature phone users. Skip the fancy graphics and complex navigation. Get right to the point, in a page that loads fast and displays well on a very small screen over low bandwidth.

Include sharing tools on your topic pages—and on all your election news. Encourage people to e-mail, text, share or like on Facebook, and tweet your news. This helps foster a sense of shared ownership or responsibility for the story and for the issue. Also, provide an option for people to sign up to get e-mail alerts (daily or weekly) with fresh updates to a particular topic page.

If your content management system does NOT make it easy to create topic pages, then knuckle down and manually hack a few pages together. Then, when you upgrade your CMS to make topic page generation easy—and that’ll be very soon, right?—you’ll already be ahead of this game. (Next week I’ll be covering a third-party tool called Scribble Live which can streamline integrating real-time and ongoing coverage from many sources into pages on your site.)

Create short redirect URLs for these pages that are easily transmitted via print and broadcast. If you don’t have your own URL shortener, use so you can track clickthrough and estimate secondary sharing. You want it to be as easy as possible for people to find your topic pages. Mention these topic pages and their short URLs alongside your related print and broadcast coverage.

Finally, promote your election-related topic pages prominently on your site today, and especially in the coming week. Do this on your home page, on your elections section head page, and in a house ad throughout your site at a minimum. Also, make sure that every story that you add to your topic page receives a prominent link (at or near the top, if possible) back to the topic page.

If community engagement is a priority for your news org (something the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy strongly recommends), you can find more ideas for accomplishing this goal in my KDMC series on building civic and community engagement.

March 04, 2011

Turning local news into a service business

Increasingly, it looks like relying too heavily on advertising isn’t such a good long-term prospect for established daily local news organizations. So what’s next?

It’s always been easier and more lucrative for news organizations to sell services (primarily advertising) than content. Some new research from Pew, and the new Community Information Toolkit from the Knight Foundation, might point the way to new types of services that news organizations might help create and sell. But this would require a radical rethinking of what the local news business means…

By Amy Gahran

In his Feb. 27 post, The Publisher’s Dilemma, media consultant Frédéric Filloux offered a sobering analysis of the revenue prospects for online and print advertising for the Washington Post—and he pointed to the general challenge of running an ad-based daily print business in the digital age. Toward the end, he noted:

“As the failure of advertising-based models sinks in, the paid-for model is gaining traction. It is not likely to work on the web but it is finding its way on mobile devices where payment is (slightly) more natural and easier to implement.”

The question is, what kind of news would mobile users pay for? Paywalls have been an almost-total failure for general-interest news, especially at the local level. And while the jury’s still out on paid news apps for smartphones and tablets, or subscription-based offerings such as News Corp’s iPad-only The Daily, I’m skeptical of their revenue potential.

Meanwhile, newer ventures have taken a different approach to providing local news and context: rather than paying journalists to report and write news stories, they automatically collect and present geographically relevant local public data (example: Everyblock), or they aggregate local headlines, blog posts, and social media updates (examples: and Fwix).

Today, a ReadWriteWeb post is pretty down on tech-based local info services—calling them “lightweight” and “uninspired.” I think that’s a matter of taste. Also, compared to mainstream news venues, the far shorter history of tech-based local ventures is amply peppered with premature obituaries.

But against this backdrop, this week in Miami, at its Media Learning Seminar, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced the first draft of the Knight Commission’s Community Information Toolkit.

This document outlines how community members can assess the quality and availability of local information, build an information scorecard against which they can benchmark progress, and create an action plan to improve local information and civic engagement. This process seems to have more in common with how services like Everyblock work than with how news organizations have traditionally functioned—although it isn’t quite like either.

Also this week, the Pew Internet Project debuted a new report, How the Public Perceives Community Information Systems. Here are a few of the report’s findings that should interest news organizations:

  • Print and broadcast news organizations still get the highest marks for being people’s most important source of local information.
  • “Those who are avid news consumers are more likely than others to be civically active.”
  • “Broadband users and library patrons are more likely than others to feel good about their ability to gather information to meet their needs. Those who have found helpful government information online feel better than others about their own ability to make their communities better.”
  • “Broadband users are sometimes less satisfied than others with community life. That raises the possibility that upgrades in a local information system might produce more critical, activist citizens.”

In addition, Pew noted: “Many of the local leaders who attended community workshops for this research initiative argued there was another variable that mattered in understanding the effectiveness of local information systems. That variable related to the flow of information—to citizens’ capacities to search for, aggregate, process, and act on information that is relevant to their needs. The community leaders reported that it was often the case that their stakeholders were not aware of the most useful information in the community and not certain how to act effectively on the information they did have. They also noted there were times when local governments were not effectively communicating to residents what information was available.”

To me, that sounds like a market opportunity—especially if you have a strong brand in a community.

All of this got me thinking: News organizations often are the major trusted brand for community information, and in many cities the local governments and agencies are not doing a stellar job of making local information available and useful (what we call in Oakland, CA, for instance: “Government 0.0”). So maybe there might be room for local news organizations to focus less on stories and ads, and more on making information useful, relevant, findable, and actionable through services for the mobile devices almost everyone has in their hands right now.

These services could be delivered on the freemium model—basic info for everyone, and more specialized premium services targeted at people who are especially engaged on local issues. The goal would be to help people understand what they need to do to help their communities. This is a natural fit for mobile media, which people approach with a generally active mindset.

Would this model support a newsroom of hundreds in big office buildings, as in the golden days of the daily news business? Certainly not. But if you weren’t paying for daily (or any) print or broadcast production, that could make better economic sense—and better serve communities. And if people came to see these trusted brands as active, useful partners in their efforts to improve thei communities (rather than detached observers), then they might be willing to pay for these services.

This requires a radical change of mindset. Honestly, I don’t think most news organizations could manage that. But some might.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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