But the future of news reporting is a priority for the Knight Foundation, whose money comes from a family that once owned twenty-six newspapers. Knight has given tens of millions of dollars to nonprofit reporting projects and university journalism instruction, and is encouraging the hundreds of community foundations around the country to join with it in supporting local journalism, as the San Diego Foundation has done with the Voice of San Diego and the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation with the St. Louis Beacon. Knight conducts an annual seminar with leaders of community foundations to encourage grants to local news nonprofits and has started its matching grants initiative to donate with them. “The bottom line,” said Eric Newton, Knight’s vice president, “is that local news needs local support.” Knight foundation president Alberto Ibarguen has also been talking with national foundations for the past two years to encourage more of them to provide more support for local news reporting.

Some foundations have recognized the importance of news reporting to the advancement of their other objectives, while trying to protect the independence of the reporting. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which has long supported health care policy research, started its own nonprofit news organization in 2009. The California Healthcare Foundation, which also funds research, has given $3.2 million to the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California to support a team of six California newspaper journalists for three years to expand health care reporting in the state. Michael Parks, an Annenberg faculty member and a former Los Angeles Times executive editor, directs the team, which has helped newspapers in half a dozen California cities report on local hospitals, the pattern of Medicare reimbursements to doctors, and causes of mortality in the state’s central valley. “We went to newspapers and asked what stories they have wanted to do, but were unable to do—no resources, no expertise, whatever,” Parks said. “We can help.”

What other new sources are there for public information?

The Internet has greatly increased access to large quantities of “public information” and news produced by government and a growing number of data-gathering, data-analyzing, research, academic, and special interest activist organizations. Altogether, these sources of public information appear to be a realization of what Walter Lippmann envisioned nearly ninety years ago when he argued that, in an increasingly complex world, journalism could serve democracy only by relying on agencies beyond journalism for dependable data. He urged journalists to make greater use of what he termed “political observatories”—organizations both in and out of government that used scientific methods and instruments to examine human affairs.

Digital databases, for example, enable journalists and citizens to find information in a fraction of the time it would have taken years ago—if it could have been found at all. Routine documents a reporter once had to obtain in a reading room of a government agency or by filing a Freedom of Information Act request can now be found online and are easy to download.

Access to much of the information is dependent on new online intermediaries. Neither house of Congress, for instance, nor any city council of the twenty-five largest American cities nor most state legislative houses make an individual legislator’s roll-call votes available in easily usable form, for example. However, that information is now available online for a fee from three different Congress-watching organizations and for free on the Web sites OpenCongress.org, GovTrack.us, and Washingtonpost.com. Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy has created a keyword-searchable online database of federal court records that is much less cumbersome to use than the database maintained by the courts themselves.

Some of this public information comes from government agencies that have been around for a long time, like the Government Accountability Office or the Security and Exchange Commission. Others, like the Federal Election Commission (1975) or the Environmental Protection Agency, which produces the Toxic Release Inventory (1986), or the individual departments’ and agencies’ inspectors general (most of them established through the Inspectors General Act of 1978) are products of the past several decades. All produce abundant information and analysis about government and what it regulates, information that both resembles and assists news reporting.

Outside government, advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations have sometimes created what resemble news staffs to report on the subjects of their special interest. It is then up to journalists to separate the groups’ activist agendas from their information gathering, which, in many cases, the journalists have grown to trust. Taxpayers for Common Sense, founded in 1995, for example, has painstakingly gathered data on congressional “earmarking” that is the starting point for journalists who report on how members of Congress add money to appropriation bills for projects sought by special interests, constituents, and campaign contributors.

Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson are the authors of "The Reconstruction of American Journalism." Leonard Downie Jr. is vice president at large and former executive editor of The Washington Post and Weil Family Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Michael Schudson is a professor of communication at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.