The first things that come to mind when you think of the “environment” are often global warming, recycling, or some kind of pollution. Maybe it has something to do with sound of honking taxis outside, but generally there’s some sort of implied physical dimension to the environment. Or maybe you just think of Al Gore.
Last week, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy released a report on a different kind of environment: the information environment. The report is largely a response to the downward spiral of local newspapers across America. If these pillars of the information community collapse, the theory goes, we should all wonder where Americans will get the information they need about their hometowns.
The decline of newspapers has been widely covered here in NAC and elsewhere, but the Knight Commission’s report is unique in that it actually moves beyond hand-wringing. Rather, it is a detailed and thoughtful attempt at conceptualizing both the information needs and assets of communities in the 21st century. As such, it outlines a series of 15 recommendations designed to facilitate the development of healthy information environments.
These 15 recommendations run the gamut from supporting network neutrality to encouraging media literacy, from better funding for public service media to developing marketplace incentives for quality journalism. Some of the recommendations are discrete – such as better funding for libraries – and others are diffuse and nebulous: “Expand local media initiatives to reflect the full reality of the communities they represent.” The authors are careful to say that they don’t believe in propping up newspapers, but they do strenuously argue that journalism itself must survive. Though some of the particulars of the Knight Commission’s idealized future may be up for debate, the breadth of the vision – in all of its 150 page glory – cannot be denied.
Given the heavy-hitters on the Commission – 2 former Chairs of the FCC, Reed Hundt and Michael Powell; Walter Isaacson, the President and CEO of the Aspen Institute; Theodore Olson, former Solicitor General of the United States – it’s no surprise that the release of the report was greeted with coverage from the New York Times, the Washington Post and a slew of other publications. The hard part will actually making any tangible progress.
Many of the recommendations seem feasible: they can be achieved simply by directing funding to address certain concerns. More money for public media, more money for libraries – shouldn’t be too hard, right? The problem is, truly addressing these concerns at the local level means increased funding for thousands and thousands of libraries – and that’s a lot of money. Likewise, Recommendation 4 sounds great:
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.
But, again, the true scope of this goal is overwhelming – and the costs are astronomical. To upgrade every single computer in a city government – at the police stations, fire departments, water department, city hall, libraries – and develop the necessary software to make their operations “transparent” and accessible would cost a fortune. And the workforce development and upkeep for such a system? Simply out of reach for most cities.
Still, the Knight report at least presents a series of goals that can be targeted. Perhaps it will raise awareness of the problems that communities face as newspapers fail. Maybe it will help steer the efforts of individuals across the country that are already engaging with this issue. And, who knows, it might stimulate the serious investments in the information environment that our communities need.