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Seeking a digital roadmap to keep communities connected

June 24, 2008 |  3:13 pm

Newsboy statue at St. Louis public library branch It used to be so simple to stay abreast of important community news and information: You grabbed a copy of your hometown newspaper or tuned in to your local TV or radio station.

The rapid growth of the Internet has changed that, threatening the future of those 20th century purveyors of news (like the long-gone newsboy represented at left) while giving people access to so much information it can be difficult to sift through it all.

With those changes in mind, an eclectic group representing the worlds of media, technology, business and government convened in Washington, D.C., this morning to begin a yearlong study of how to keep communities connected in the digital age.

"The advantages that the Internet has brought to Americans in connecting with issues and organizations on a national and even global scale have outpaced developments in promoting local information flow," said Peter M. Shane, an Ohio State University law professor and executive director of the group. "Many Americans find it easier to track developments in the U.S. EPA than in their own city council."

The group is called the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, a joint project of the Knight Foundation and Aspen Institute. Shane joked that the group had been unable to come up with a good acronym (no wonder). The first meeting was in the spanking new Newseum, a $450-million monument to the news business -- or, as some critics have called it, a mausoleum for a dying industry.

The commission snagged some impressive names. It is co-chaired by high-profile Google executive Marissa Mayer (who was ill and unable to make the first gathering) and Theodore B. Olson, a respected Washington attorney who served as U.S. solicitor general from 2001 to 2004. The other members ...

... include Paul Sagan, chief executive of Akamai; Benjamin Todd Jealous, president-elect of the NAACP; and two former Federal Communications Commission chairmen, Michael K. Powell and Reed Hundt.

With the media landscape changing, the commission wants to go back to the basic role of information -- informing members of local communities so they can exercise their democratic rights -- and make policy proposals about how to rebuild those connections in the 21st century.

But first they've got to get up to speed on the technology. Although some members have tech backgrounds, others are more old school when it comes to new media. One, former L.A. Times Editor John S. Carroll,  joked that as a lifelong newspaper reporter and editor he was thinking of applying for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. And Olson noted in his opening remarks that "I guess we're webcasting this, whatever that means."

But the commission is willing to learn. That's part of the reason it chose someone from Google as the co-chair, said Alberto Ibarguen, president of the Knight Foundation, which put up $2.3 million to fund the initiative.

"We can't ignore that that's the future,'' he told me during a break, referring to the role of Google and other Internet companies in delivering information.

The commission plans public forums in Missoula, Mont.; Philadelphia; and a still-to-be-determined location in Silicon Valley. It's also soliciting comments on its website. The members are looking for feedback, so if you've got some insights, pass them on.

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Puzzanghera, a Times staff writer, covers tech and media policy from Washington, D.C.

Photo by bfistermn via Flickr.