Knight Commission Details Information Needs of Communities

Alberto Ibarg?en, president of the Knight Foundation.
Alberto Ibarg?en, president of the Knight Foundation. (2006 Photo By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009

Saving journalism and achieving digital democracy might seem like a pretty tall order.

But that is the task of a high-powered commission that says, in a report being released Friday, that the country's growing hunger for information is "being met unequally, community by community." The elaborately named Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy raises the specter of two Americas -- one wired, the other not so much.

Citing estimates that more than one-third of the country has no broadband connection to the Internet, "that's a hell of a lot of Americans who don't have access to the way we're communicating," says Alberto Ibarg?en, president of the Knight Foundation, which commissioned the year-long study with the Aspen Institute. "When an urban kid who wants a job at McDonald's or Wal-Mart has to apply online, if you don't have digital access, you can't apply."

The panel, co-chaired by former solicitor general Theodore Olson and Google Vice President Marissa Mayer, pays tribute to the importance of newspapers as "the primary source of fair, accurate and independent news" in many cities. But the report pointedly fails to offer a strategy for survival, saying "the challenge is not to preserve any particular medium or any individual business." Instead, it focuses on promoting "the traditional public service functions of journalism," in whatever form.

Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and a former Time managing editor, says the report's focus is "not how do you save dying metropolitan newspapers. There's a wariness to assume that the old institutions should be preserved just for their own sake." He says the challenge is "coming up with a way that people who provide good and relevant information can pay their mortgage and put food on their table."

Ibarg?en, a former Miami Herald publisher, calls the plight of newspapers "a terrible reality to face. But the truth is we've always known that the First Amendment ensures freedom of speech and the press, but doesn't guarantee your business."

The business is already faltering. The report cites an estimate that 14,000 newspaper journalists have lost their jobs in the past nine years -- roughly 25 percent of the workforce. The panel says nonprofit organizations can fill part of the gap, as can citizen journalists -- using text, audio and video -- by collaborating with full-time journalists. But the report is short on specifics, and does not suggest public subsidies for newspapers, as some members of Congress have proposed.

Google's Mayer said newspapers need new business models, "but it's clear the solution isn't coming fast enough, so we need acceleration and people trying new things." She pointed to such revenue sources as Google AdSense, which she says has funneled $5 billion a year to publishers by automatically serving up online text ads -- a story on dog grooming would fetch a display for local outlets -- to match a site's content.

The Knight study is critical of public broadcasting, saying it needs to become "more local, more inclusive and more interactive." To accomplish this, "the government as well as private sector donors should condition their support of public media on its reform." What these operations need to do, Ibarg?en said, "is figure out how you include the public in the broadcasting. They really do come out of the tradition of I write, you read."

The commission's mandate is so broad that its members embraced goals that few would quarrel with but that would require substantial largess in lean times. The report is filled with lofty-sounding goals: "Strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information." "Increase support for public service media aimed at meeting community information needs." "Increase the role of higher education, community and nonprofit institutions as hubs of journalistic activity."

But it is short on detailed prescriptions of how to get there or who will pick up the tab. Toward that end, the report will be presented, during panel discussions at the Newseum, to such notables as Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; Aneesh Chopra, the Obama administration's chief technology officer; Ernest J. Wilson III, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; and Vivian Schiller, National Public Radio's chief executive.

The report's most sweeping finding is that there is a "broadband gap," a "literacy gap" and a "participation gap" that falls heavily on younger, poorer and more rural Americans. "These threaten to create a two-tiered society with limited democratic possibilities for too many individuals and communities," it says.

Isaacson sees a strong government role in providing broadband. "Nations that will succeed in the 21st century," he says, "are those in which citizenry has access to the free flow of information. It's an important economic investment to make sure more than just a slice of our society is connected in the information age . . . just like it's a good investment to have a public school system."

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