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Informing Citizens

by Susan Patterson

January 7,2008

I’ve been a newspaper person since junior high. Maybe earlier, actually. One of my favorite childhood memories was going about town on Saturday mornings with my dad to the hardware store, to the feed and seed, and down the inky/greasy spiral stairs to watch the presses run at the Shelbyville Times-Gazette.

Though now I’m just a newspaper reader, I’m both intrigued – and dismayed – by the tsunami of change in the media world. More than three decades ago, two reporters from the Washington Post wrote a series of articles that brought down a president and the status of print journalism soared. The Post was doing what newspapers at their best do: hold governments and companies to account. In fact, the Post did then – and newspapers still do today, I believe – set the news agenda for the rest of the media.

Yet, the ink-on-paper daily news business is in decline. Newspaper circulation has dropped 30 percent since 1985. Phil Meyer, a UNC professor and author of “The Vanishing Newspaper,” has calculated that the first quarter of 2043 will be the moment when newsprint dies in America.

At the same time that newspapers are dealing with technological and market forces, our need for reliable local information is growing. It has to matter to you whether your community is sufficiently informed to manage its affairs. The news and information we most care about is not fiction, not entertainment and not even opinion. We need news that helps us run our communities and our lives.

And, as they say, all politics are local. You do not vote to improve another country. You vote to elect people who will tax you, who set environmental policy, who will sit on your school board or serve as your mayor. These involve specific geographic areas. That’s why it’s critical that we harness the media that is all around us – to serve us at home.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, for whom I now work, was founded by journalists. Because of our abiding interest in journalism and communities, Knight has launched the 21st Century News Challenge – to encourage even more digital experiments in transforming community news.

First-round winners ranged from MIT to MTV. We gave money to MIT’s famed Media Lab to test in geographic space the gizmos that they’ve been inventing for their own sake.

We made a grant to MTV to hire 51 Knight MyJo’s – mobile youth journalists – who, over the course of the next few months, will cover the presidential campaign and then send their reports by text and video clip to cell phones of other kids on their network. Watch for news on the second round of winners this spring.

Dan Gillmor, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, offers another idea. He recently challenged community foundations to help meet the information needs of their communities. Among his ideas for community foundations:

• Provide seed funding for a network of local blogs
• Pay the salary of an investigative reporter at a local newspaper
• Fund local media-literacy education so folks understand the need for quality journalism
• Help get local and regional governmental data online in ways that anyone can easily use

Whether you think text-messaging teens or foundation-supported reporters are good ideas, I hope you’ll agree that for our democracy to survive, we need informed citizens.

More than 40 years ago, one of our founders, Jack Knight, described the role of newspapers this way: “We seek to bestir the people into an awareness of their own condition, provide inspiration for their thoughts and rouse them to pursue their true interests.”

Those words are still meaningful to me. If you have thoughts about how we can meet the information needs of our community today, I’d like to hear from you.

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