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Peter M. Shane

Peter M. Shane

Posted April 29, 2009 | 07:22 AM (EST)

We Need Your Input on Community Information Needs


In a post last week, I explained the origins of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs in a Democracy and its initiative to address three critical questions:

1. What are the information needs of communities in a democracy?

2. How well are those information needs being met in contemporary America?

3. What public initiatives might help ensure that community information needs will be better met in the future?

To help the Commission in its work, PBSEngage! created a public input web page. Users may offer comments on a downloadable draft introduction to the Commission's report and answer five straightforward questions about how people are finding -- or not finding -- the information they need to accomplish their goals, whether as citizens or in their private lives.

A week into this discussion period, which will run from April 22 to May 8, we have received well over 600 answers to our specific questions -- and many more if we count in the other blogs, Facebook cites, and Twitter accounts (use #publicinput) through which people are sharing their thoughts.

It would also help the Commission to get more specific reactions on the draft introduction. It's little more than nine pages to read, but I here quote five key passages with which you might want to agree or disagree:

1. "The information needs of the democratic citizen are both civic and personal. " "Democracy means people govern themselves within the bounds of liberty and equality. In its American version, however, democracy means something more. It connotes a commitment to the freedom of the individual in daily life. It means opportunity to pursue one's personal goals and objectives, within the law, however one chooses. "

2. "A person who cannot file an online job application, who cannot get a free and reliable first round of advice on his or her physical ailments, who has to write or telephone for education-related information and then wait for its arrival by conventional mail - this person is falling into second-class citizenship. This is true even if we put aside the actual civic activities that online connectedness makes possible. Millions of Americans lack the tools or the skills to match their information-rich contemporaries in pursuing personal goals."

3. "Information and engagement must work together to produce community success. Engagement marks a critical point where community and individual information needs intersect. What is needed to avoid failure is not just information. Communities need policies, processes, and institutions that promote information flow and support people's constructive engagement with information and with each other."

4. "News is a critical element of the information flow on which individuals and communities depend, and effective intermediaries are critical in the gathering and dissemination of news. The journalism of the future may or may not take the familiar form of newspapers. But there have to be skilled full-time practitioners who frame the hard questions and chase obscure leads and confidential sources. They must often translate technical matters into clear prose. Where professionals are on the job, the public watchdog is well fed. Part-time, episodic, or uncoordinated public vigilance cannot have the same impact."

5. "There are reasons of elementary economics why the private market for information cannot satisfy all of a community's essential information needs. People underinvest in information because its content and impact are uncertain. People underinvest in information because some information makes life uncomfortable, revealing hard truths. People underinvest in information because they suspect that they can benefit, without paying, from the investments that other people make. As a result of these basic facts, producers of information operating entirely in a free market will always underproduce because they can never recover the full value of what they produce through the market alone. Because information is a public good, America has a long history of providing social support for the development and transmission of news and information. Private and public investment are both needed to support information intermediaries."

If you would like to criticize, amend, or reinforce any of these thoughts -- or others in the introduction -- the Commission would love to hear from you by May 8. You may put comments below, of course, but we are trying as much as possible to focus the interchange at the PBS Engage! web site. You can put comments about the draft report in the open field box at the bottom of the PBS page.

If you would like to know even more about the Commission's work, the site also allows you to post questions for Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products and user experience and a Commission co-chair. Your questions, as well as your insights, are truly welcome.