05/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Help Identify the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy

A national study on the information needs of communities in a democracy needs your help.

In late 2007, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded a grant to the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C. to organize the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. The Commission's charge was to undertake the first major study in the digital age assessing how information needs are being met in communities nationwide. I had the good fortune to be chosen as executive director for the initiative.

Aspen set about recruiting a distinguished group of Commissioners who would bring about as much diversity as you can embody in 15 people in terms of professional background, political outlook, age, race, and gender. Since June, 2008, the Commission has met five times and conducted three full-day community forums around the country. It has focused its investigation on three big 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?

The Commission anticipates issuing a final report that will include an introductory framework proposing a way of understanding the information needs of communities in a democracy and a set of findings in key areas along with specific recommendations.

Here is how you can help: The Commission has today released a draft of the report's introduction. Its key thesis is this:

"[M]eeting the 'information needs of communities in a democracy' requires systems for creating and sharing information that simultaneously enable individuals to lead their lives effectively and foster positive social outcomes for the community as a whole. Creating these systems means:

oAssuring that individuals have access to quality information;
oStrengthening the capacity of individuals to engage with information; and
oPromoting individual engagement with information and the public life of the community."

The Knight Commission is now partnering with PBS Engage to seek public reaction to this introduction. The Commission also wants ideas that will help shape the Commission's findings and recommendations. All you have to do to be part of the effort is go to between April 21 and May 8, 2009.

You can download a copy of the draft, catch a video sampling of the Commission's public forums and meetings, and use the site to offer your insights and opinions. If you like, you can simply respond to a set of short questions we have posted. You can answer helpfully whether or not you have read the Commission draft.

Three other pieces of background are critical to put this effort in context.

First, the Commission is focused on geographically defined local communities. That's where we live. The quality of where we live is deeply connected to our health and welfare. In the words of Richard Florida: "Despite all the hype over globalization and the 'flat world,' place is actually more important to the global economy than ever before." Moreover, the institutions of American democracy are organized geographically. The public officials most responsible for the impact of government on the quality of Americans' day-to-day lives are typically elected or appointed by states, counties, and cities or towns. Also, the advantages the Internet has wrought in connecting us with issues and organizations on a national and even global scale have probably outpaced developments in promoting local information flow.

This does not mean that all the information people need to lead their lives is local. It does not mean that the networks of information and support on which we rely are always local. What it does mean that thinking of public needs in terms of geographically defined communities is important, especially in a democratic context.

Second, this Commission's charge is not to "save the local newspaper," or any other institution. Journalism is a central practice in any community's information environment. But the Commission is looking at information broadly. It is trying to understand the full range of public news and information needs from the public's point of view.

Third, this is truly an independent Commission. The Knight Foundation is widely identified with a wide array of significant initiatives in the arenas of journalism and community. But the Foundation and the Aspen Institute have scrupulously avoided trying to script the Commission in any way.

Please give the Commission your help. Your insights can make a difference.