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Community news in decline: democracy in peril?

April 15th, 2008

newspaperFor almost 5 decades, newspaper readership has been on the decline. Recently, both newspaper and TV stations have been making substantial cuts to their newsroom staff. The result is less news content being created. This poses a challenge, according to the Knight Commission:

With “the thinning down of newspapers and local television in America, there is measurably less local, civic information available,” said Alberto Ibarguen, president and chief executive of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “So what are the consequences of that?”

(see AP news report)

But news use on the Internet has been growing rapidly for the last ten years, both in terms of overall use and in terms of kinds of uses. And with the grow of blogs, there is a proliferation of alternative content on communities. Still, these trends represent shifts in the types of readers and the types of content available to readers, and it is unclear what the net impact is (pun intended).

For example, theVoterGuide.org is enabling media companies to collect and present more detailed candidate information on more candidates than newspapers or television companies could ever do before. And they can do it with fewer staff and at a lower cost than ever before. Hundreds of thousands of voters are availing themselves to this rich, new source of information.

One insight I draw from this experience is that there is emerging new model for creation of high quality political content. In the case of Voter Guide Toolkit, it is candidate generated content. There may still be a role of media companies in defining races and issues, but information technologies can vastly reduce the cost of creating a comprehensive guide. And citizens will also have an increasingly important role in generating (and perhaps even editing) content, something as demonstrated by e-thePeople.org, wikipedia and blogs.

I’ve been invited to participate as a member of the “brain trust” by the principal investigator, Peter Shane. In addition to Peter, the Commission is being led by Ted Olson (yes, the Bush appointee and First Amendment expert) and Marissa Mayer (VP of search products and user experience at Google). I am honored to contribute what I can, and I am eager to follow the progress of this important Aspen Institute initiative. I’ll keep you posted!

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