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Charlie Firestone talks of democracy’s need for information

“Information is just as important to the health of the community as safe streets, good health, and clean air.” KnightReport_cover2 That is the basis of the Knight Commission Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age report, according to Charles M. Firestone, director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program. “Oddly enough,” Firestone told Leonard Witt in this Future of Journalism video interview,” the jobs in journalism and newspapers are drying up, but the interest in the role of information in our communities is great. People get this.”

Leonard Witt: Hi, I’m Len Witt and I’m here with Charlie Firestone. And he is with the Aspen Institute, and he’s been working with the Knight Foundation on something called informing communities. Tell us what you do at Aspen and then tell us a little bit about this informing communities initiative.

Charles Firestone: So I run something called the Communications in Society Program at the Aspen Institute. We’re a small policy program, non profit and non partisan. And we teamed with the Knight Foundation on something called the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, which was a Blue Ribbon Commission headed by Ted Olson, who was former Solicitor General of the United States under George Bush, and also Marissa Mayer, who is head of Search and User Experience for Google. And it had a wide variety of people who all agreed that information is as important to the health of the community as safe streets, good health, and clean air. They came out with 15 recommendations in this book called Informing Communities. And the recommendations are clustered around the idea of need for access to credible information; the need for the capacity of an individual to deal with that, essentially media news and digital literacy; and the need for public engagement once you have the information, so that you can actually bring the news to bear on your civic problems.

Leonard Witt: We’re at the National Convention for the League of Women Voters and you talked about the report, and it just seems that no one really has an answer yet. So are you optimistic about this- the future, or pessimistic?

Charles Firestone: Yeah, I think that’s just the nature of the person. I’m optimistic. I know that there are a lot of problems. There’s always a lot of problems. I think there are a lot of great new technologies. I think there’s a lot of people. There are more people than ever going to journalism schools. Oddly enough, the jobs in journalism and newspapers are drying up. But the interest in the role of information in our communities is great. People get this. The business deal…the real issue is the business models for journalism. And that’s significant. I’ll grant you, and I know you’ve been working on it yourself, a great deal. But there are more people than ever paying attention to news. There is great news criticism. It’s just we, we’re in a period of experimentation and unfortunately we don’t have the answers yet.

Leonard Witt: Did your commission feel like people were right now, well informed or poorly informed?

Charles Firestone: I think, you know we didn’t measure it. We didn’t go out and do our own study. We think, generally, more on the more poorly informed than the well informed. There are so many things we need to be informed about. As I think you yourself said, we’re in a period of information overload. And there’s a lot of information, but making sense of it is a problem. And the ability to, to take those facts that are out there, and do something with them is rarer than it should be. So we’ve got a long way to go.

Leonard Witt: Yeah, so what would be the best case scenario in your mind?

Charles Firestone: Well, I think the best case scenario is the community comes together and says we need to take this as a major effort on our community just like they might do urban renewal or one thing or another. They decide as a community that they want to be an informed community. We’re about to do something called The Search for America’s Most Informed Community. It’s a bit of a gimmick, but we want all communities to be informed. And what does that mean? It means a variety of things, but that the localities are making their information available, in readable form online, that it’s open and transparent, that journalism is thriving, that public broadcasting, or public media in a local community is thriving; that the schools are teaching digital media, and news literacy, that the library is supported, and also a center for literacy in all these areas; and that the public is engaged through town meetings, face to face, and using the media.

Leonard Witt: I think in the past, I don’t think the whole community was really being covered, especially low income people, people of color. I think they were left out of the conversation. Does that get remedied in what you’re thinking of now?

Charles Firestone: I think it needs to be. I think you’re totally right about that, whether they be minority communities or whether they be rural communities or even suburban communities which are normally a good target for an advertiser, isn’t really served or often hasn’t been served by a large metropolitan newspaper or broadcast station. Now we’re starting to see more hyper-local news operations. You know, again, we’re really at the beginning stages of this, but what we said in the report was news doesn’t so much have to be saved as invented or journalism. And there’s going to be new inventions. There are new blogs. There are new ways of communicating–Social media, Facebook is really just in its infant stages for what it will mean for local engagement and democracy.

Leonard Witt: Okay. So any final statement you’d like to make about the Informing Communities or the state of journalism, etc?

Charles Firestone: Well, not on the state of journalism. The state of journalism is it’s changing. Somebody said the answer is the answer changes. But the last sentence in the report says information is everyone’s issue, so whoever’s seeing this, I’m just hoping you’ll take that up.

Leonard Witt: So, do you think enough people will actually mobilize, come together, do something to make this happen? Or are they too apathetic or what?

Charles Firestone: No, I think it’s going to be hard. We need to be working to do that and it’s not going to happen naturally. We have to get out there and get organizations – we’re at the League of Women Voters National Convention. If we can get the league to be taking up this issue and other organizations and journalism schools and other schools of communication, and you know it’s just going to be pounding away like any issue. We have to just work it.

Leonard Witt: Alright. Well, thank you very much.

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