This week, under the leadership of Sen. John Kerry, the Senate's Commerce Committee opened hearings on the future of journalism and the role of information in supporting American democracy. The hearings are timely, in light of a technological revolution that threatens the newspaper and broadcast news industries and raises questions about the quality of democracy if there is no widely shared, reliable local news.
For the first time in the history of the republic, high school students can more easily learn about swine flu or the crisis in Darfur than about corruption in city government or decisions by the local school board. Until recently, the circulation area of a newspaper -- or the reach of a local television or radio signal -- roughly coincided with the physical boundaries of cities and counties from which we elected mayors, school boards and members of Congress. All politics was local and so was daily news coverage. It was news that was shared generally -- connecting neighbor to neighbor, paid for by the relationship between advertisers and customers.
Our information systems helped define American communities and helped give them individuality and character. Those systems have changed.
The new systems are digital, mobile and not bound by geography. The citizen is a user of information more than a passive consumer.
Mine is not a lament for the past, which excluded many, especially women and minorities, from the main pages of newspapers and the evening news. I welcome the democratization of media and its possibilities. The question is not how to save the traditional news industry, but how to meet the information needs of communities in a democracy so that people might, as Jack Knight used to put it, "determine their own true interests.''
The stunning clarity of the First Amendment, that Congress shall make no law abridging five basic freedoms -- including free speech and free press -- should inform every action government takes in this arena. Nevertheless, there are least four areas where congressional action might properly and significantly support our national transition to a better, digital world.
First, nothing Congress can do is as important as providing universal, affordable digital access and fostering its adoption.
If the future of democracy's news and information is online, then we must ensure everyone is online, and bring technology training, digital literacy and higher quality networks to our local communities. Three great divides block this goal. They are economic, geographic and generational.
In an age where entry-level jobs require online applications, access must be generally available and affordable.
Rural areas are notoriously underserved and should be a focus of government concern.
Age is the third great divide. Groups like AARP are focusing on this issue and could be willing partners in training and outreach.
The $7 billion allotted in the federal stimulus for universal digital access is a smart, initial investment. But it is not nearly enough to ensure universal access. The establishment of a federal bank or cooperative to advance the digital connection of America is an important concept.
Additionally, support should also be given to media literacy programs to help citizens become more sophisticated media users.
Second, times of great change are times for experimentation. The federal government could support open-source, digital experiments through universities or other not-for-profit organizations that would share knowledge for the benefit of all.
A MORE USEFUL WEB
The Knight Foundation has supported experiments like Spot.us, the MIT Media Lab, the World Wide Web Foundation and Everyblock, each looking for ways to make the web more useful and locally relevant. We also support online news organizations that provide citizens with news about their communities, like Voice of San Diego, MinnPost in Minnesota, and ChiTown Daily News in Chicago. Information about these and many other experiments can be found at www.knightfoundation.org.
Other foundations have seriously engaged in this area and more are joining. But foundation-supported investments are small by comparison to what government could do.
Thirdly, Congress could adjust current laws. Newspapers and broadcast face great challenges but continue to provide a news service of incalculable value in a democratic society.
Congress might review existing intellectual property laws to ensure fairness, and anti-trust laws to enable newspapers to collectively negotiate with large information aggregators that currently pay little or nothing for information originating from news organizations.
Congress might also seriously encourage the creation of not-for-profit or limited-profit, local news organizations. They might also provide incentives for the conversion of for-profit news businesses into nonprofit, community-based, mission-driven organizations.
By relieving profit pressures, these measures might help as society continues to figure out what's next.
Finally, Congress should push for an enhanced role for public media.
PUBLIC MEDIA 2.0
Public media reaches the entire nation. That has enormous educational, news and security implications. The Obama transition team discussed a concept they called ''Public Media 2.0,'' an approach that would make PBS and NPR more inclusive and engaging of their audiences. Allowing these organizations to meet their local news potential would be a great service to the nation.
We are living in a moment of extraordinary creativity. We will be a nation of media users, not consumers. We're going from the information model of one-to-many, of ''I write/You read'' to many-to-many, made possible by technology.
Before Gutenberg, the monks copied illustrated manuscripts and were the keepers of information. Long after Gutenberg, during the Renaissance, society more or less figured out how to handle information. Today we are again living in those uncertain in-between years, when Gutenberg's technology broke the old rules and allowed something new called literacy.
It would be wrong for Congress to determine what news and information gets to our citizens. I believe the Senate knows and understands this. But the inquiry Senator Kerry has begun should be the starting point of great and serious action by Congress, leading to the encouragement of experimentation to enable markets to find their way, to promote the evolution of public media 2.0, and, most urgent of all, to provide affordable, digital access to every American.
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