Ongoing Efforts to Map Our Information Needs

At the Free Press Summit: Ideas to Action this past April, nearly 100 participants attended a breakout session to talk about mapping local media ecosystems and meeting the information needs of communities. The session built on the ideas presented in the Knight Commission report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,” and produced a vibrant discussion that made clear there is a lot of exciting but disparate work happening in this area, and a lot of enthusiasm for making connections between media makers, researchers and communities. You can read a write up of the session here.

As a follow up to that discussion, and as part of the ongoing national conversation about how we map and meet the information needs of communities, I wanted to highlight a few recent projects that are moving the ball forward in local communities and providing very different models for how we can assess and understand a community’s media ecosystem.

1) National Center for Media Engagement’s Public Media Maps

Public Media Maps is a project of the National Center for Media Engagement, which helps public media organizations develop resources and strategies for connecting with their communities. The map is an impressive undertaking that captures a wide array of information about where people can access public media around the country.

2) New America Foundation’s Media Policy Initiative

The New America Foundation has been collecting data and collaborating with other mapping projects (like the Public Media Maps mentioned above) and has gathered many of those resources here. However, they have also gone a step deeper and are completing a series of community case studies in which they conduct an in-depth inventory of community information and media resources. So far, they have published reports on Seattle, Wash., Scranton, Pa., and Washington, D.C. Find all of their reports here.

3) CU-Boulder’s “Slices of Boulder”

Slices of Boulder is a project of the CU-Boulder Digital Media Test Kitchen, which brings together students and faculty at University of Colorado with innovative media and “bleeding-edge” technology companies to investigate and experiment with the future of journalism. The Test Kitchen describes it’s Slices of Boulder project conveniently in 140 characters (or less): “Boulder digital media-sphere captured & tracked as deep verticals of local news/info, designed as personalized aggregator for news consumers.” A key part of this project this summer has been undertaking an inventory of news organizations serving Boulder. In a recent blog post, Steve Outing, who leads the Test Kitchen, provides a striking chart outlining their findings.

4) J-Lab’s Philadelphia Study and New America Foundation’s Response

In April, J-Lab released a study of the state of Philadelphia’s news. From the report’s introduction: “Between late June and late October 2009, J-Lab conducted more than 60 interviews of Philadelphia residents, performed content analyses of the city’s two daily newspapers and four commercial television stations, and undertook a scan of the city’s 260 blogs, and hyperlocal or niche websites.” However, after the report was released, the New America Foundation released a critique of the J-Lab study claiming that J-Lab omitted key local news resources.

I point out both the report and the critique here because together they highlight the unique challenges inherent in trying to map the emerging and diverse media and information landscapes in a city. Reviewing each of these projects, and their different findings, raises questions about how we as a field are exploring these issues. Are we measuring and mapping the same things? Are we working from shared definitions and categories? Should we be sharing our data and assessing the bigger picture?

These questions, how we ask them and the answers we find, could have a bearing on foundation funding for news, journalism entrepreneurship and media policy. The amount of work being done in this area is an encouraging reminder that, across the country, people are eager to get a firmer grasp on how the changing media landscape is impacting their community. However, a shared agenda or set of principals could help make the data being collected more useful, more accessible, and more meaningful over the long term.

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