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The Growing Cost of Ignoring Local News


What communities need to thrive.

Last week the Knight Commission released the major findings of a two-year study into the specific information needs of communities in an increasingly tech-driven and media-saturated world. The 148-page report, ambitiously titled "Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age," attempted to identify the type of information communities need not just to function, but to thrive.

As the commission was quick to point out, this wasn't just a narrow look at the well-publicized plight of traditional media outlets such as newspaper companies New York Times (NYT), Gannett (GCI), and McClatchy (MNI) or local radio conglomerates like Citadel Broadcasting (CTDB). Rather, it was an effort to understand how people get everyday information about their schools, where to shop, how to get a job, and what's going on in local government.

It's one of the ironies of the digital age that through the Internet and 24-hour news channels, the world has become a much smaller place, while in many respects, our local communities have become more distant. We can learn all about Michael Jackson's death within minutes of it happening but it can be maddeningly difficult to get accurate information on the impact of swine flu at our local schools.

The report also pointed to the gap in the ability of many people to access information -- particularly those without broadband connections -- as well as the gap in skills and experience needed to benefit from the emerging digital infrastructure. Essentially, there's infinitely more information available but many of us are less well-equipped to take advantage of it.

In assessing how information affects us as individuals, the commission made an important conclusion: No matter how much time we may spend on the Internet or consuming global media, we still live our lives in relatively small communities. "In the end, our democracy is structured geographically," said Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience at Google (GOOG), who served as co-chair of the commission. We elect officials and pay taxes based on geography. And people still spend 70% of their income within five miles of their homes.

The report is intended to be the beginning of an ongoing debate. To protect and strengthen our democracy, we must find ways to close the access and knowledge gaps.

"The digital age is creating an information and communications renaissance," the commission writes. "But it is not serving all Americans and their local communities equally. It is not yet serving democracy fully. How we react, individually and collectively, to this democratic shortfall will affect the quality of our lives and the very nature of our communities."

Is an information shortfall hurting your local community? Do you feel you know much more about national problems than local issues? Shouldn't it be the other way around? Let us have your thoughts below.

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© Monica Vila, The Online Mom.

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