Problem: Where can people find the local information they need, whether it’s about a school board meeting, a new construction project or a nearby robbery? Solution: A community hub, with all the information aggregated in one online source and pushed out via libraries, in-person meetings, community radio, small run print publications and cable access TV.

That’s my conclusion after studying all the input received by PBS Engage when it passed on the questions from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. Those questions all sought to get to the heart of one issue: What are the information needs of people in local communities, and what can we do as a society to serve those needs? I also asked that question on a post at Idea Lab, which David Sasaki answered with an excellent view of how mapping applications can boost community involvement.

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Peter Shane

Before sifting through the 600+ comments that the inquiry received on PBS Engage so far, I talked to the Knight Commission’s executive director, Peter Shane, who is an e-democracy expert and law professor at Ohio State University (and author of Madison’s Nightmare: How Executive Power Threatens American Democracy). Shane told me how the Commission had received great input from people at three face-to-face community forums, but said they weren’t out to figure out a new business model for newspaper journalism.

“This was not a Commission to save the local newspaper,” Shane said. “The idea was to look at the need for news and information very generally. That was exciting but made this much more complicated. We also wanted to think of this in the context of geographically defined local communities, because that’s how our democracy is organized. If the local news and information environment are really not working, then it has to have an impact on governance and that’s not good.”

I decided to create a template of sorts for how a community information hub might work. I realize that there are missing details aplenty, including how each part might be funded, organized and staffed. But perhaps it could be one starting point for the Commission’s upcoming recommendations. I’ve included voices from the PBS Engage site who have relevant comments, as well as some audio clips from Shane taken from our phone interview.

One comment I found that really summed up my thinking was from Jennifer Siaca of New York:

There’s no shortage of quality information. The issue is recognizing the type of information that people need expanded access to and finding a trustworthy mechanism for delivering it (by trained reporters and citizen journalists with relevant experiences and expertise). Consider the various dimensions of information: local, statewide, national; formal and informal; personal, business, government, social. With this in mind, local governments and news outlets (here, I mean ‘old media’) should work together to develop portals that can address a citizen’s information needs from the outcomes of their local school district decisions to what their Representative and Senator are working on to what local non-profits’ volunteer needs are. This would require government to be open and flexible, and news outlets to be objective. The next step would be to connect into other forms of ‘new media’ to ensure that people are able to access this information through a myriad of entry points.

8 Steps to Build the Ideal Community Information Hub

1) Crack open government data and access.

There was a strong sentiment for government agencies and officials to publish all their information online, whether it’s about public meetings, data on property assessments or new rules and regulations. One early pioneer in aggregating that information is EveryBlock (a grantee of the Knight Foundation), and its founder Adrian Holovaty commented at Idea Lab about the site’s challenges in getting government info:

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EveryBlock iPhone app

One way governments can help is by publishing raw data to the public. A great example is in Washington, DC, where the city has put together quality data feeds and has made them available for free on its website. More cities should do that.

Social media consultant and former Yahoo marketer Ryan Kuder said he liked EveryBlock, but thinks its focus on larger cities needs to be customized for smaller communities:

We need to allow neighborhoods to curate and share their own information and discuss the things that are more important to them. More like Twitter or Tumblr than Topix or Outside.in…By enabling communities to centralize the discussion around local issues and share the news and content that is most important to them, you’ll get more interaction between neighbors, which leads to stronger, more active neighborhoods.

In the PBS Engage feedback, “cheez” from Grapevine, Texas, said he would take the concept of open source governance further, with direct democracy via online voting. Plus:

[Make a] requirement for all government to be transparently conducted online, with only defense and intelligence budgets closed to line-by-line public scrutiny, and retention of any and all correspondence relating to the laws, and I’m quite certain you’d see a class of ‘activist citizens’ who would take pains to educate themselves on the laws under proposal, and conduct vigorous debate over the proposed laws.

2) Bring together all stake-holders in the community for face-to-face discussions.

We can sing the praises of digital connectivity to the heavens, but that’s not going to get the attention of everyone in the community. There has to be as much real world “meatspace” connections made as there are in the virtual world. So having community meetings, social events, block parties — and reaching people at their home, office or leisure activities is paramount to spreading the word and getting people involved in a community hub.

As Geoffrey Hing of Bloomington, Ind., noted:

Local governments are notoriously bad at creating interactive, collaborative web presences for local government issues. So, these discussions often take place in online spaces (blogs, mailing lists, social networks) that are invisible to local government stakeholders. Local governments need to build better websites that keep both policy makers and community members in the information loop. This dialog needs to be integrated with more traditional information-sharing spaces like flyers, pamphlets, town-hall meetings, and forums.

3) Teach digital media literacy as a basic course for all. Bridge the digital divide.

If you build an online community hub, who will come? Those who are most connected to technology. And who will utilize it best? Those who understand the basics of digital media. So any attempt at engaging the citizenry in such a hub would require first that people on the wanting side of the digital divide can get access to the broadband Internet, and second that they are given training to understand what they are seeing. Question #4 on the Engage site
asked: “Do you think everyone in your community has access to the networks they need (online or in-person) to find important information?” The resounding answer was NO.

Carl Williams of Wichita, Kansas, explained the dire need for media literacy:

The information is readily available through various media outlets and through the library. The sad truth of the matter, however, is that what is missing is the basic education that prepares citizens to recognize that 1) they need a particular kind of information; and 2) where they may be able to find that information.

Mariel of Chevy Chase, Maryland, wants to expand access to help expand minds:

Create community computing centers, maybe just one or two computers, in public spaces, other than libraries (maybe kiosks, which have proven successful in India) with easy instructions or a support person to help people access the Internet. Though people under 70 in urban centers may think everyone has a computer in their home, think again. People living in rural or suburban environments often do not keep computers in their homes, limiting their news sources to television news, radio, and newspapers. Their access to different views about world, or even domestic and local events, is limited to what is provided to them by editors and writers. Internet access opens minds and hearts. It is essential to spread access to all parts of the population.

Listen to Peter Shane from the Knight Commission explain the importance of revamping K-12 education with digital media literacy:

4) Create an online hub that aggregates local information.

This would be the heart of the idea, the place online that is a clearinghouse for local information — accessible to everyone. Plus, there would have to be a way to allow citizens to interact with the site, whether to upload their own information and stories, rate the quality of information or give instant feedback. Such a website would include pointers to government data feeds, forums, email listserves, local blogs, local media, events calendars, election info. Smart local commercial media would partner with such a hub, and the site would be promoted widely throughout the community — online and off.

Louisa Peat O’Neil of Silver Spring, Maryland, has this idea for the hub:

Create standardized community notice boards online and in print. A wiki would work best — someplace open so that all organizations could contribute. Or a social media site a la Facebook, where the ‘faces’ were the organizations and the ‘walls’ contained clear, succinct lists tagged by subject of upcoming events with email alerts to people in the neighborhoods affected. So I wouldn’t find out after that fact that the bus route that thousands of people (including me) use each day has been truncated.

And Mike Jeffries of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., added in that:

One well-organized, comprehensive city or county site would change my informational life. (The sites we have look like they were designed by bureaucrats.)

Dawn Van Ness of Virginia likes a mix of online and printed materials:

Publish via the web the minutes and meeting schedules, maybe even transcripts; currently it is sporadic and inconsistent. Then once that is established, the public could have emails with updates. Those who prefer could sign up for a printed version or go to the library to print pages.

5) Boost community radio with local reports, roundtable discussions, deeper looks at issues.

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Community radio in Nepal

While the Internet can be a powerful multimedia way of presenting information, it’s not the perfect solution for everyone. The community hub will have to rely on legacy media to deliver news to people who are disconnected or who rely on broadcast media for their information needs. Shane of the Knight Commission was surprised how many people mentioned that radio is still an important medium for them to get local information, and the popularity of NPR proves that out. However, many other local commercial stations have failed at providing even the most basic local news and information, leaving that to underfunded community stations.

However, two Knight News Challenge grants went to radio-related projects, one connecting community radio stations in India, the other connecting stations in the U.S.

In the Engage feedback, Beth L. Olson said that she is lucky in Hovland, Minn.:

We are blessed with a community radio station that makes it their business to address local issues. They broadcast public forums, air current issues on the ‘First Thursday’ conversation and air local commentators on their AM/PM and Saturday morning Calendar show.

As Dale Schellenger of Denver pointed out:

Low-powered, locally owned and operated FM radio stations can provide information that nationally owned and operated stations will not.

Hear Peter Shane from the Knight Commission talk about how people still want local information on radio:

6) Disseminate information with smaller run print publications.

If regional metro newspapers are hurting, small community papers might have a chance to shine. Why? They have lower overhead, they are in touch with readers and small businesses, and they are already serving a hyper-local market. The ideal community hub would partner with such publications to make sure local civic information is distributed to homes or coffee houses and diners so that people can peruse important stories and share them in person with co-workers and neighbors.

And these publications could be more than just local newspapers. They could include ethnic press, public notices, meeting notes, advertising circulars, or any printed notices that can be passed around a community or posted easily.

As Galen in Montana noted:

Internet is wonderful…but local government needs to bear in mind that Internet penetration in the U.S. is still incomplete (and in fact lags behind many nations). Not everyone has a computer, let alone high-speed broadband…And almost no one watches ‘civic’ or ‘public access’ channels regularly. A print medium is still a requirement.

Robin Garr of Louisville says that local ownership of newspapers is key:

It’s an impossible dream, but as a start, allow the major chains that have all but killed local journalism to die of their own ailments. Restore local media to local ownership… Somehow get newspapers back into the hands of local owners committed to practice journalism as a public trust and who do not insist on usurious returns on investment as their reward.

7) Rethink public access TV with online hooks.

One other legacy media outlet for community discourse is public access TV. Mike Rosen-Molina looked at how that medium is changing in the age of YouTube for MediaShift. While some cable companies are trying to kill off those stations, they still provide a vital way to reach people who are more aligned to the TV than to other media. And projects such as the Knight-funded Tools for Public Access TV could tie these stations to the Internet in innovative ways.

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Denver 8 community news

Carol Piaseczny of Denver noted:

In metro Denver, Channel 8 has carried live and taped coverage of government events such as City Council meetings. However, as a Direct TV subscriber courtesy of my Qwest bundle, I no longer can access that channel, which is a disappointment.

Paul Berg of Arlington, Mass., said that governments can play a role as well:

Local governments are increasingly finding Public-Educational-Government (PEG) cable access TV, [which is] useful in providing information to residents, including live TV coverage of local government and school meetings, coverage of local special events, and discussion programs with local newsmakers.

Wallace Stuart of Plymouth, NH, said there are large forces at play:

The problem here is that state and federal regulators, powers in Congress, and the big telecom lobby all want community out of the way so they can fill the channel spaces with big money makers. Luckily, my town in central NH is fully supportive of PEG access TV. However, local municipalities are not always supportive and join with opponents to keep PEG access out. This needs to change.

8) Make libraries an important real-world hub.

One of the least noted aspects of creating a community hub is the vital importance of the public library in town. The library has always been a beacon of information in communities, providing books, CDs, videos and Internet terminals at low or no cost. They can take the next step and become community learning centers, helping people with digital literacy and finding information online.

Dick Waters of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, likes libraries as learning centers:

Each library should have a ‘training room’ equipped with quality hardware and software and with good trainers (who may or may not be members of the library staff). Classes should be free as far as the basics are concerned; more advanced training could/should have a registration fee (free lunches all of the time are not the way to go).

Or Maggie S. of Somerville, Mass., sees libraries as sponsors of forums:

Libraries and newspapers are very important. It makes me nervous to see smaller local papers die off — you lose an integral piece of the community, and counterpoint to local government. I’m not sure what the answer is here — seems like maybe something will come up organically on the Internet, like a message board — or perhaps libraries could sponsor discussion forums and the like.

Listen to the Knight Commission’s Peter Shane discuss the importance of public libraries:

Note: MediaShift was a recipient of a grant from the Knight Foundation, and runs the Idea Lab blog as part of that grant.

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What do you think? What would you add (or subtract) from this template, or how would you make it work? And if you’ve seen something similar to this in operation in your community, please link to it in comments.

Photo of community radio in Nepal by Ian Pringle via Flickr.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.