Welcome to the Knight Commission Blog


This is a new blog of the Knight Commission on Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, one of four Knight Foundation media initiatives. The Commission is jointly coordinated by the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, directed by Charles M. Firestone, and the Knight Foundation’s Journalism Program, directed by Eric Newton.

We’ll feature commentary from guest bloggers, and the first bloggers, Josh Wilson and Kristie Wells, will begin by updating from the town hall Commission sessions Monday, September 8, 2008 on the Google campus.

Questions? Thoughts? Let us know in the comments.


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19 Responses to “Welcome to the Knight Commission Blog”

  1. Lou Says:

    Glad to be able to follow remotely – many thanks for liveblogging (in advance ; ) and of course, the webcast!

  2. Charlie Firestone Says:

    Citizenship is the key focus for information needs: what do we need to exercise our responsibilities of citizenship? I think those responsibilities include the obligation of individuals to vote if they have the franchise, to be informed about the candidates and issues on which they are voting, and to ably participate in local (state and federal) issues to the extent they choose to. That means we each need a bundle of literacies: reading and writing, news literacy, digital literacy, civic literacy and more…

  3. Charlie Firestone Says:

    Emmett Carson is looking for ways that people can asertain the common good out of increasingly segmented media channels. Again, one element is going to have to be media literacy: citizens need the tools to gather and cut through the facts and opinions to come to common ground.

  4. Amy Gahran Says:

    Thanks for webcasting this, and liveblogging. I’ve just posted about it to Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits:


    Here’s my basic question with the focus of the Commission’s efforts:

    I question the Commission’s strong focus on geographically defined local communities.

    It seems to me that with the way the media landscape has been evolving, geographically defined local communities are becoming steadily less crucial from an information perspective. I suspect that defining communities by other kinds of commonalities (age, economic status/class, interests, social circles, etc.) would be far more relevant to more people — although more complex to define.

    I’m not saying local doesn’t matter. But in many senses, “local” is just one set of ripples on the lake of information — especially when it comes to “news.” And for many people, it’s not even the biggest or most important set of ripples.

    So my question for Knight is: Why do you assume that geographically defined local communities should be the paramount focus of people’s informational diet, or even to support democracy? Did you seriously consider any other perspectives?

    Today, you’re at Google — where folks are used to viewing people’s information needs as a complex mosaic, where no one filter is paramount for everyone. I hope you take advantage of their insight.

    – Amy Gahran

  5. Charlie Firestone Says:

    Transparency (Kim Walsh): a second really important area for information needs. Unless information is available or obtainable by an enterprising reporter or citizen, local citizens will not be able to gain access to the information they need.

  6. Amy Gahran Says:

    Yes, I agree with Charlie — Transparency is a crucial need. Right now, access to public information can be easily undermined in many ways. I’ve experienced that directly here in Boulder CO, but that applies at all levels of government. This is an issue that definitely goes beyond local.

    – Amy Gahran

  7. Charlie Firestone Says:

    Whoops. Transparency was brought up by Judy Nadler.

    Amy, I think the Knight folks know that there are many communities to which each of us belong, many virtual or communities of interest. The problem is that there are many issues which are geographical, our government is set up that way, and often the communities of interest overshadow local communities in discussions like this. Also, this is essentially a look at local news by looking at it from the demand side.

  8. Charlie Firestone Says:

    Interesting that there would be a transparency issue in Boulder, given that they are pioneering the country in providing individuals with smart energy meters so as to make everyone’s energy consumption transparent to themselves.

  9. Charlie Firestone Says:

    Civics literacy — and the media need to be a part of that.

  10. Amy Gahran Says:

    Charlie, what I question is that Knight assumes that local is the primary defining characteristic of info that people need for civic engagement. I suspect local info functions more as a layer of context for most people.

    It’s always easier to work with people’s preferences than to convince them that they should want something different. I’m concerned that Knight’s efforts here are coming from a newspaper culture that assumes local is paramount (because local was the core of the newspaper business model) along with an “eat your veggies” approach to civic info and engagement.

    I doubt that either of those strategies work very well.

    It might make more sense to find ways to add layers of civic context and relevance to the information content and channels people already prefer. And to realize that in today’s world local is not the be-all and end-all for many people.

    – Amy Gahran

  11. Amy Gahran Says:

    Charlie, Xcel’s Smart Grid pilot project in Boulder is, so far, a lot of political smoke & mirrors IMHO. Notice that the city abandoned its utility municipalization effort at about the same time Xcel decided to pilot SmartGrid in Boulder. And the plans for who would pay for smart meters & appliances, and when they’ll be available, is pretty vague.

    – Amy Gahra

  12. Alberto Ibargüen Says:

    Thanks to Amy for raising a key focus question in her comments.

    I agree that geographic definition is only one way to slice the issues of the information needs of communities. But newspapers are not the reason for our look at information needs through the lens of geography.

    We chose to look at information needs of communities defined by geography because our democracy is structured along geographic lines. Until only the last few years, information systems and democratic structures existed in relatively the same geographic space, effectively informing communities that used the news and information to do its business. Consider the reach of a local radio station when they used to do a lot of local news – or tv stations (that were local news and information entities affiliated with national networks) or newspapers (until USAToday, there were only local and regional newspapers).

    The reach of each of those means of delivering info was roughly similar to the areas that elected/selected the people who then made decisions on big and small issues affecting pretty much everything from taxes and the environment to what books were used in local public schools. They also influenced the communities’ view of themselves and what they did and valued (from movies to sports to defining stories of odd news). But the point is not that we want to revive broadcast or print newspapers but that we believe that you cannot run a community in a democracy structured like ours without effective, general sharing of news and information that informs the community and we believe that shared news and info is what bonds communities.

    As a foundation, we’re focused on experiments that will use digital platforms for the sharing of news and information, whether social, economic, political, arts/culture, etc., that help give people a sense of place and of their relationship to it. (Please see the various media innovation initiatives described at http://www.knightfoundation.org). We’ve also supported research by the Gallup organization to define what causes identification with place (results to be announced very soon).

    But these could be wrong premises. Or they may be premises that are less relevant going forward, given a population more interested in other ways to bond. As Amy suggests, the younger the citizen, the more likely it is that his/her communication preferences are digital and are more focused on subject matter and areas of interest than the physical community or political subdivision where they happen to live or send their kids to school. That reality will surely influences our thinking.

    And maybe the conclusion we’ll reach is that the powerful force of new communications is so strong that, if a community in a democracy needs informed participants, we need to redefine communities. And maybe that the future structure of our democracy needs to be changed to fit the way we get information…not the other way around.


    Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation

  13. Adam Thierer Says:

    Kudos to Amy Gahran for challenging some of the traditional assumptions governing the debate over media “localism.” She is correct to point out that because of “the way the media landscape has been evolving, geographically defined local communities are becoming steadily less crucial from an information perspective.” And Alberto Ibargüen nails it when he concedes that “these could be wrong premises. Or they may be premises that are less relevant going forward, given a population more interested in other ways to bond.”

    I agree. But I also want to ask challenge the scholars here to address what I regard as the two fundamental realities about “localism” that few media scholars or public officials ever bother discussing:

    (1) Measurement / Definitional Difficulties

    First, it is impossible to scientifically measure exactly how much “local” fare citizens demand–and even defining the term presents another significant challenge. Many analysts and critics run around saying that citizens demand this or that when it comes to local information or media content. Really? Do you have some sort of magic media localism measuring cup that tells us the proper mix of local vs. national inputs? Then show me the data!

    As far as I can tell, nobody has anything approaching solid empirical evidence on this front. It’s almost all conjecture.

    (2) Increased Competition and Consumer Choice are the Real Localism Killers!

    Second, and far more importantly, even if one admits that many citizens do continue to demand a fair amount of local information and media content, the reality is that left to their own devices, many citizens have also voluntarily flocked to national (and even international) sources of news and entertainment. So, the really interesting question in the media localism debate is this: what are we going to do to save local media (or local media outlets) if citizens are voluntarily migrating their ears and ears away from local fare simply because so many other out-of-market informational / entertainment options are now at their disposal?

    Consider a few cases studies about our evolving “local-vs.-national” media desires:

    * The nationally-focused USA Today didn’t exist 30 years ago, but it is now America’s most popular newspaper. Likewise, daily editions of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times—papers of national, even global scope—are delivered to homes and offices across the country each day. Indeed, as of 2006, 56% of the daily circulation of the New York Times was outside of the New York area. So, in an attempt to preserve local voices, should the New York Times be prevented from delivering papers to homes outside the New York metro area? Should distribution of USA Today be somehow restricted so that citizens would have access to only local papers?

    * Similarly, with the rise of cable television and cable “superstations” (nationwide networks) throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Americans have increasingly turned to national news and entertainment options in the video marketplace. CNN, Fox News, ESPN, HBO, and Showtime, and TNT are just a few examples of popular national networks that have captured the public’s attention and viewing allegiance. Although the idea of 24-hour national news, sports, and weather channels was once mocked, it is now clear that the public demands such options. Further, nationwide direct broadcast satellite (DBS) services spread quickly across the nation and have been particularly popular in rural communities, as have satellite radio services (XM and Sirius). Consequently, in an attempt to preserve local media, should national or international cable & satellite programming options somehow be limited?

    * Finally, the rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web has also driven many citizens to shift their attention to national and international sources of news and entertainment. For example, few Americans had access to BBC News or the Financial Times 20 years ago. Yet, those respected British news sources can be accessed by almost anyone in the United States today, and they are growing increasingly popular. Should we, therefore, place some sort of limitations on the reach of the Net to discourage consumption of the endless variety of global fare now available to all citizens?

    You get the point: SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE! Our collective attention spans have become severely strained from the cornucopia of choices now at our disposal. Information overload has led to audience fragmentation in the extreme. There are only so many hours in the day, yet there are countless more media choices at our disposal today than in the past, when local choices we typically the first or only choices. Today, local choices are just a few more choices along the seemingly endless continuum of media choices. This is what Amy Gahran seems to be getting at when she says, “in many senses, ‘local’ is just one set of ripples on the lake of information — especially when it comes to ‘news.’ And for many people, it’s not even the biggest or most important set of ripples.” That is exactly right.

    In closing, here’s the most interesting question of all: If the current movement toward national and international platforms for news and entertainment is a natural cultural and technological development, as it appears to be, should government have any role in curbing the resulting mix of national versus local media outputs? Indeed, even if the viewing and listening choices made by citizens result in a decline in local media relative to national programming, would we want the government to limit consumer choices to stop this natural progression?

    Such a proposal would be viewed by many as elitist and anti-consumer, and it would probably be completely unworkable anyway. And yet, a lot of people are running around Washington today insisting that government must intervene in the media marketplace to “save media localism.” But how, exactly, is government suppose to do that when citizens have quite clearly opted for a different mix of information / entertainment inputs??

    Few ever talk about these pesky facts in the ongoing debates about the future of “media localism.” Instead, it seems that we just continue our wishful thinking about the way things used to be, or the way some might hope things might work going forward. Well, guess what: the citizens voted with their feet — or, rather, their eyes and ears — long ago. And “localism” lost. As they old saying goes: We have met the enemy, and they are us.

    — Adam Thierer, Progress & Freedom Foundation

  14.   Local: Just One Set of Ripples on the Lake of News and Information — contentious.com Says:

    […] Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. Earlier this week, I posted this comment (and this one) on the Commission’s blog questioning the Commission’s assumption that […]

  15. Amy Gahran Says:

    First of all, thanks to everyone (especially Alberto Ibargüen) for sharing such thoughtful comments on this topic.

    Also, my apologies for offering such a belated response… I had writer’s block last week. But over the weekend I was able to pull my thoughts together on this topic.

    I’ve got a lot of thoughts. Too much to post in a blog comment.

    So I’ve written 4-part series for my blog, Contentious.com, exploring ideas for improving civic info systems and civic engagement.

    I just published Being a Citizen Shouldn’t Be So Hard! Part 1: Human Nature.

    The other 3 parts will follow over the next few days. My goal is for my readers and others to help me hone these ideas so I can strengthen them and present them more formally to Knight, as an effort to support the Commission’s process.


    – Amy Gahran

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