From 2007 to 2009, I lived in Sri Lanka and co-edited a weekly newspaper. It was a simple news outlet, just a few pages delivered directly to a very select audience, people fleeing the Sri Lankan civil war.
People living in displacement camps in northern or eastern Sri Lanka got this newspaper, called Lifeline, every week. The articles covered what they needed to know about how to get back on their feet after leaving everything behind, how to find a job, how to get medical care, what their housing rights were, and how to find missing family members.
All of this was funded by the US Government, which supports many media efforts around the world to help educate and inform populations in need. Much of this work is filtered through local journalism outlets.
I’ve been a journalist my entire adult life, but until I went halfway across the world, it didn’t really sink in that information is a basic right—as vital as food, water, and a roof. I’ve explored this concept in war zones, natural disaster areas, and impoverished nations, and what I have found is quite simple: People in hard situations, like the displaced Sri Lankans, need information to survive.
Americans are no different. A 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project showed that 72 percent of adults follow local news, specifically local newspapers. And the US government conducted a study whose results showed that only about 43 percent of Americans who make less than $25,000 a year have home Internet access. It’s clear that, in the midst of moving toward digital news, many people still need access to information that doesn’t require a computer.
Take New Orleans, the city with the country’s highest murder rate and a history of catastrophe: Almost half of New Orleans residents make $35,000 or less. These statistics are especially relevant in light of recent news that the local paper, the Times-Picayune, is diminishing its daily print schedule to three days a week. This is not surprising, considering the emphasis of other prominent papers on their digital products. The concern, however, should not be about a business decision, but on how the citizens of New Orleans are going to get important information if they are not online.
More than $140 million dollars were spent by the US government in 2010 to make sure Pakistanis, Kenyans, Indonesians, and others, got relevant, targeted news and information, according to a report published by the Center for International Media Assistance. That same support is not offered enough here at home, especially in places like New Orleans. If people don’t have access to the Internet, and local news sources like the Times-Picayune are not in the business of printing papers, there needs to be an alternative.
Consider community radio station KILI, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. KILI sits atop a small hill, looking down over the Badlands, and the reservation’s 40,000 inhabitants, one of the poorest populations in America.
Many in the community use KILI like a local telephone, spreading essential news and information by literally driving up the hill to the station, and going on the air, or dropping off some news with a DJ. The local cops have a show, as do area health practitioners, and even elders trying to preserve the traditional Lakota language.
I spent a few days sitting in with KILI staff last year and saw firsthand how they impact their community, and how difficult it is to keep their station on the air. KILI survives on donations of everything from computers to toilet paper, a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year, to people handing DJs a dollar bill for their gas money to get to the station in the morning. The ramshackle building looks like it could slide down the hill at any moment. Yet its existence is essential to locals who spend most of their days driving around the massive, 11,000-square-mile reservation.
While there are many KILIs around the US—community papers, radio stations, and more—these front-line information services need to be better supported, and expanded.
The US government needs to create a new fund for community media outlets that supports them and trains them to serve as a kind of humanitarian newswire, focusing on getting neighborhoods vital information. The larger media landscape will continue on the business path it has always followed, but communities in need can’t wait for that behemoth to turn its attention their way.
We don’t have to go to war-torn countries like Sri Lanka to explore the idea of information as a human right. We can do it right here, in the United States, on Indian reservations, in immigrant communities, in struggling cities. Lets stop lamenting the fall of big media entities and start supporting the survival of the small but vital community media outlets that are reaching people who need basic, targeted information to get through the day.