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Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Where's MPI?: Media Policy Week in Review

Published:  September 24, 2010
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Logo for the The Knight Commission Report on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.

Today through tomorrow, Michigan State University College of Law is hosting a conference with an intriguingly global title: “Bits Without Borders: Law, Communications & Transnational Culture Flow in the Digital Age.”  With immigration as an integral element of American culture, it is easy to see that such “transnational flow” of all kinds of information is both active and growing within the U.S. MPI fellow Phil Napoli will be joining a panel on “Diversity in Digital Global Age” and has submitted a paper entitled “Persistent and Emergent Diversity Policy Concerns in an Evolving Media Environment: Toward a Reflective Research Agenda.

As those studying media now struggle to determine how people are getting their information (print vs. online vs. mobile devices and so on), a similar topic of inquiry is where exactly all this information is going—both geographical and demographic consumption. Napoli notes that the drastic changes in the American media landscape have significantly altered the flow of information in both these respects.  

“...online distribution has meant that geography no longer serves as a meaningful mechanism for limiting the range of content options available to media consumers or the range of audiences reachable by advertisers, or, for that matter, the timing via which content is available to different geographic audience groups. Geographical boundaries therefore are becoming increasingly ineffective tools from the standpoint of media distribution strategy and pricing.” (8).

Such media diversity concerns are evident even in the relatively small geographical areas that constitute communities studied by MPI case study: Scranton, Seattle, the District of Columbia, Minneapolis-St. Paul and the Research Triangle, North Carolina.

A familiar voice can be heard early and often in the trailer for Connected States of America, an upcoming documentary for which TelecomTV’s Guy Daniels drove across the U.S. for six weeks researching the role of broadband in this country. The first words of the trailer are those of MPI Fellow Sean McLaughlin: “Information is the currency of democracy. In rural communities, in remote communities, we find whole pockets that have virtually no access to the Internet.”

Though McLaughlin borrowed the first half of this quote from Thomas Jefferson, it definitely has relevance for modern America. The Internet is the mode of “currency” exchange in both metaphorical and literal ways; McLaughlin proceeds to point out that money is the deciding factor in broadband access, and people with money (particularly lobbyists) have a disproportionate influence over legislation regarding broadband.

Working as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, fellow Sasha Costanza-Chock is also one of the people behind a joint USC-Institute of Popular Education of Southern California effort called Mobile Voice (VozMob), or Voces Móviles. The project-—which promotes media literacy within immigrant communities, especially through the use of mobile devices—got some especially good press this week, as the subject of a front page story on Sept. 19 by Los Angles Times reporter Esmeralda : “Giving Immigrant Laborers an Online Voice”.

This is citizen journalism at its core: members of a particular demographic telling the stories that nobody else is telling. As MPI blogged earlier in the summer, cell phones and mobile devices are the life blood of modern citizen journalism, and VozMob’s organizers. Yet, in contrast to the popularity of mobile devices in chronicling big, sudden events, such as terrorist attacks, VozMob sees the usefulness in mobile devices as providing a voice to an underrepresented demographic that tends not to have computer access.

Jessica Clark has a piece in Media Shift concerning public media networks - IT describes both content networks, producer and outlet networks, alongside networking the public.  As Clark notes,

“Against the backdrop of widespread public experimentation with social media platforms like Wikipedia, Twitter and Facebook, these efforts by public broadcasters may seem like too little too late. But what's notable is that all of these networks have been built without policy support, earmarked funds, or consistent collaboration designed to link them together. Right now, taxpayer, underwriter and member dollars are still mostly dedicated to supporting broadcast stations and content. Imagine what would happen if that equation shifted?”

It’s a question we’re interested in exploring too.

MPI collaborator Colin Rhinesmith continues to blog on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Digital Divide Lecture Series. His latest report, Bridging the Digital Divide via Local and Federal Broadband Construction: UC2B, chronicles the lecture by UIUC Director of Networking Michael K. Smelzter on theUrbana-Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B) project.

The project is a consortium of partners including the university with the ultimate goal of providing “fiber connectivity & Internet services for 143 very broadly defined ‘Anchor Institutions’. These include: Schools, Public Safety, Government, Medical, Senior Living & Activity, Youth Centers, Social Service Agencies, Public Computing Centers.” According to Rhinesmith’s account, a significant portion of Smelzter’s lecture was spent on the funding difficulties of accomplishing this kind of broadband access—illustrating McLaughlin’s point in the Connected States of America trailer.

One seemingly unimportant line in a section on “Why is UC2B ‘Special’?” stuck out; Rhinesmith made note of the broad support it has received from the community. This begs the question: Is widespread community engagement and approval a requirement in order to make universal broadband a reality? At least in Urbana-Champaign, we see signs of a success story; the timetable is now to have broadband for the entire community by Summer 2013.

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