We understand the complexity of establishing a workable grant selection system and the need for strict safeguards to shield news organizations from pressure or coercion from state councils or anyone in government. As stated earlier, we recognize that political pressure has played a role at times in the history of the arts and humanities endowments and in public broadcasting. But these organizations have weathered those storms, and funding for the sciences and social sciences has generally been free of political pressure. With appropriate safeguards, a Fund for Local News would play a significant role in the reconstruction of American journalism.
More should be done—by journalists, nonprofit organizations and governments—to increase the accessibility and usefulness of public information collected by federal, state, and local governments, to facilitate the gathering and dissemination of public information by citizens, and to expand public recognition of the many sources of relevant reporting.
With the Internet, the compilation of—and access to—public information, such as government databases, is far easier than ever before. Yet much of this information is not easily available, and the already useable information is not being fully exploited by journalists. Optimal exploitation of these information sources is central to the mission of journalism, as it is to the practice of democratic governance. Governments, nongovernmental organizations, and news organizations should accelerate their efforts to make public information more accessible and to use it for news reporting.
With the Obama administration taking the lead, governments should fulfill “open government” promises by rapidly making more information available without Freedom of Information Act requests. News organizations should work with government agencies to use more of this information in their reporting. The federal government has some 24,000 Web sites, a massive bounty of information that should be made more accessible by opening closed archives, digitizing what is not yet available online, and improving its organization and display so everyone can use it easily.
News organizations should also move more quickly and creatively to involve their audiences and other citizens in the gathering and analysis of news and information, as Josh Marshall has done with readers of his TPM blogs, Minnesota Public Radio has done with its Public Insight Network of radio listeners, and ProPublica’s Amanda Michel is doing with her citizen reporters. Local news organizations should collaborate with community news startups that utilize citizen reporting, as The Seattle Times has committed to do with neighborhood blogs. University scholars should archive and analyze these experiments and produce guidelines for “best practices.”
Involving thousands of citizens in the collection and distribution of public information began long before computers and the Internet. For over a century, the Audubon Society has relied on thousands of local volunteers for a national bird count that might be termed pro-am scientific research. This is similar to the reporting that volunteers all over the world do for Human Rights Watch, or the information-gathering that health workers do for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The original gathering and reporting of information also includes expert investigations like those of the inspectors general in federal agencies. All of this work amounts to “adjunct journalism”—public information gathering, analysis, and reporting that is adjunct to the news reporting journalists do and available for them to use. It should be fully integrated into what journalists, scholars, and the public recognize as reporting in the public interest.
Where do we go from here?
What is bound to be a chaotic reconstruction of American journalism is full of both perils and opportunities for news reporting, especially in local communities. The perils are obvious. The restructuring of newspapers, which remain central to the future of local news reporting, is an uphill battle. Emerging local news organizations are still small and fragile, requiring considerable assistance—as we have recommended—to survive to compete and collaborate with newspapers. And much of public media must drastically change its culture to become a significant source of local news reporting.