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This Week in PubHub: Community Information Ecosystems

August 20, 2011

(Kyoko Uchida manages PubHub, the Foundation Center's online catalog of foundation-sponsored publications. In her previous post, she looked at four reports that examine the recent past and future prospects of journalism and the news media.)

The twentieth-century mass media model is being replaced, we're told, by a "new news ecosystem" in which the consumer of news increasignly is also a producer of news content. But for all its openness and egalitarian qualities, questions remain as to how well this ecosystem functions as a local community information system, whether people trust the information it delivers, and what investments are needed to make it better? This week in PubHub, we're highlighting four reports that examine how well the rapidly evolving news business is serving local communities.

The Chicago Community Trust report Linking Audiences to News: A Network Analysis of Chicago Websites (54 pages, PDF) analyzes the structure of the local news ecosystem -- more than four hundred Web sites -- in the Chicagoland area by mapping the way these sites are connected to one another via hyperlinks. Among other things, the report found that nearly 80 percent of the sites are rarely linked to from other sites and therefore unlikely to be found by consumers of local news and information, while more than 40 percent do not link out to other sites. Sites that are widely linked to include the region's mass transit systems, museums, and sources of original reporting such as chicagotribune.com and online-only publications like gapersblock.com and chicagoist.com. The report also found that whereas online-only sites are most likely to link to other sites, traditional media sites tend not to, while specific content-oriented sites tend to share links among themselves but are rarely linked to from sites outside those fields. Funded by CCT, the Knight Foundation, and the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the report calls for encouraging more linking among locally focused sites as a way of creating and encouraging a better-informed community.

So how does the public view community information ecosystems, what are the factors that shape those views, and how do those views in turn influence civic life? Those are some of the questions raised in How the Public Perceives Community Information Systems (13 pages, PDF), a report from the Monitor Institute, the Knight Foundation, and the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Based on surveys conducted in Philadelphia, Macon, Georgia, and San Jose, California, the report found that those who believe local government does a good job of sharing information are more likely to be satisfied with its performance, as well as the performance of other local institutions, the overall community, and the local information ecosystem (including the local media, libraries, public forums, and broadband connectivity). The report also found that confidence in local government transparency and increased access to local news and information are linked to a stronger sense of civic empowerment and active community engagement.

The Knight Foundation's Community Information Toolkit: Building Stronger Communities Through Information Exchange (53 pages, PDF), another product of the foundation's collaboration with the Monitor Institute, offers guidance and resources for community leaders interested in leveraging the power of information for community improvement, including a template for identifying local issues and how information affects them, data collection and assessment checklists, a scorecard for visualizing information ecosystem findings, and an action plan template.

One important element in a robust community information ecosystem is a high-quality online hub, a "well-publicized portal that points to the full array of local information resources," a 2009 report from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy argues. Creating Local Online Hubs: Three Models for Action (34 pages, PDF), a 2011 report from the Aspen Institute and the Knight Foundation, describes what such a hub might look like, including core elements such as local government information, community news and commentary, and links to community resources. The report calls on government at all levels to facilitate access to relevant data, seed money, and infrastructure; on local libraries, media outlets, and colleges and universities to help develop content, technologies, and information resources; and on businesses, foundations, and venture capitalists to provide financing and in-kind support.

At the moment, the community information field is dominated by the Knight Foundation, which has invested considerable resources in examining the state of community information networks and their potential for boosting civic engagement. Are you aware of or involved in an interesting community information project? Do you think the "new news ecosystem" is living up to its potential to foster community improvement through increased civic participation? And if it's not, what can foundations do to help build a new news ecosystem that works for all Americans? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

And don't forget to visit PubHub, where you can check out new featured reports every week and browse more than a hundred and fifty reports that address topics related to journalism and media.

-- Kyoko Uchida

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