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Building Civic Infrastructure for the 21st Century

November 19, 2020
7 min read
The Challenge: The Production of Authoritative Information is Drying Up

The Challenge: The Production of Authoritative Information is Drying Up

The United States is in the midst of an information crisis. Important news stories go unwritten, quality journalism is overwhelmed by clickbait, and the business model for trustworthy reporting has been decimated by social media’s capture of advertising dollars. Since 2006, newspaper advertising revenue—which historically supported the production of highquality journalism—has fallen by 50 percent, creating a hole that digital subscriptions are not even close to filling. At least 300 communities that once had a local newspaper no longer do. In 2019, Google made $8 billion more in advertising revenue in the United States than all local TV and radio stations combined.1 At the same time that they are losing the funds to create journalism, independent media are also losing their direct relationship with citizens. Instead, news aggregators like Facebook and Google keep users on their own platforms with headlines and snippets for readers to skim.

The cost for democracy of this shift from a news producer-consumer relationship to a digital platform-user relationship is high. Local news production leads to increases in government accountability, voting, civic engagement, and overall democratic health.2 But high-quality journalism is expensive, and if the profits of good reporting do not accrue to the outlets that produce it, these outlets cannot sustain their work. As one local newspaper editor put it: “If that cycle continues indefinitely, quality local journalism will slowly wither and eventually cease to exist.”3

There are many excellent and urgent proposals to reinvigorate local journalism by pumping government and foundation funding into public-service journalism or by taxing digital platforms to pay for some of these efforts. Proposals from Free Press,4 Save the News,5 and other commentators,6 as well as those contained in the Stigler Report,7 prescribe important interventions to reinvigorate news. As important and necessary as such efforts are, they are only part of what is needed to sustain a civic information infrastructure.

Low-value information is crowding out real news. Even if the United States reinvests in public-service journalism, mere abundance cannot be relied on to ensure that high-value information wins the battle for attention. To be effective in informing the citizenry, journalism must be salient and trusted. It must be the signal that cuts through the noise. It must not simply be available to people, but be conspicuous in the flows of information that people consume. To be trusted, journalism must be worthy of trust because of its fact-based and public service principles, and it must also be seen as trustworthy through practices of transparency and data access. The creation of salience and trust will require efforts that penetrate through the full stack of information creation and distribution.

The Solution: A Full-Stack Approach to Civic Information Infrastructure

Inspiration can be drawn from past investments in public-service information infrastructure that go beyond the content layer to address other essential layers in the stack. These included investments in physical infrastructure like broadcast spectrum and satellite facilities. They included investments in distribution, ensuring that public-service media channels were actually received on broadcast receivers, and funding the transition to digital technology. The postal system also reflects a public investment in civic information infrastructure, as do the many state and local requirements that civic information be pushed out to citizens through notices placed in widely accessed media. An adequate 21st century civic information infrastructure will require government investment in physical access such as free or cheap broadband, digital distribution mechanisms to push information out to audiences, and protocols and tools to help users access data, verify information, and filter signal from noise.

Physical Infrastructure

The base layer of physical infrastructure provides the foundation that allows the rest of the stack to function. The digital-first format that characterizes 21st century media means that broadband must reach all members of the public, including those in rural areas, tribal territories, urban housing, and other underserved locations. Compared to their counterparts in other wealthy countries, Americans pay some of the highest rates for broadband while experiencing some of the slowest speeds.8 The coronavirus pandemic exposed the fact that tens of millions of Americans lack access to adequate broadband to participate in distance learning and work.9 A universal broadband guarantee, which treats broadband as a public good rather than a private endeavor, would lower barriers to access and make certain that public-service content is available to all.

Digital Distribution

The next layer up from physical access is digital distribution. Social-media platforms such as Facebook and Google are currently the principal gateways to civic information. If a government or journalist wants to reach people, they are beholden to these gatekeepers and their algorithms, and they have no meaningful direct access to users. Moreover, how content appears is likely to be de-contextualized and fragmented, as well as stripped of credibility cues and markers of trust.10 Investment in marking information salient to civic needs—such as voting or public health information—and pushing that information out to people is important. More significantly, there should be public options that serve as alternatives to private tech oligopolies so that nonprofits, governments, and public-service entities do not have to rely on private actors to host their content. Any such public options should be interoperable with private alternatives to ensure that moving from one platform to another is transparent to the user.

Tools and Protocols

Making interoperability and salience markers work will require standards and protocols that return power to users. For example, users should be able to apply filters to social-media platforms to select for important, truthful information. Standards for interoperability can ensure that public options for content distribution can exist alongside private ones. Indeed, standards and interfaces that allow users to carry their social networks from one platform to another are the only way to decentralize networks, and decentralized networks have always been an aspiration of U.S. media policy. Beyond these pro-competition standards, protocols that help tag authoritative information, authenticate producers, marginalize deep fakes and other forms of misinformation, and supply trust signals will help to boost signal over noise.

Conclusion

What is needed is a 21st century civic infrastructure stack of interconnected and interoperable but independent layers, all of which work together to address the issues of production and distribution of public-interest media. By ensuring that well-funded public-access media are supported by a framework of universally accessible physical infrastructure, digital distribution that supports civic information, and standards and protocols that help consumers surface authoritative information, traditions of supporting civic information infrastructure can be carried into the digital era.

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Photo Credit: nopporn / Shutterstock

Ellen P. Goodman is a professor at Rutgers Law School, the co-director and co-founder of the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy & Law, and a senior fellow with GMF Digital.


1 U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, “Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets,” October, 2020.

2 Amy Mitchell et al., “Civic Engagement Strongly Tied to Local News Habits,” Pew Research Center, November 3, 2016; Mary Ellen Klas, “Less Local News Means Less Democracy,” Nieman Reports, September 20, 2019.

3 Statement of Kevin Riley, Editor, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, quoted in House Antitrust Report, p. 61-62.

4 Craig Aaron and S. Derek Turner, “What a Journalism-Recovery Package Should Look Like During the COVID-19 Crisis,” Free Press, May, 2020; Timothy Karr and Craig Aaron, Beyond Fixing Facebook, February 2019.

5 Save the News, “Save the News Senate Newspaper,” 2020.

6 See Victor Pickard, Democracy Without Journalism?: Confronting the Misinformation Society, Oxford University Press, 2019; Philip Napoli, Social Media and the Public Interest: Media Regulation in the Disinformation Age, Columbia University Press, 2019; Gene Kimmelman, “The Right Way to Regulate Digital Platforms,” Harvard, Kennedy School, Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, September 18, 2019.

7 University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, George J. Stigler Center for the Study of the Economy and the State, “Committee for the Study of Digital Platforms Market Structure and Antitrust Subcommittee Report,” July 1, 2019.

8 Becky Chao and Claire Park, “The Cost of Connectivity 2020,” New America, last updated July 15, 2020.

9 Linda Poon, “There Are Far More Americans Without Broadband Access than Previously Thought,” Bloomberg, February 19, 2020.

10 Journalism has increasingly become “atomized” and misleadingly embedded in other content. See Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, “Digital Platforms Inquiry,” June 2019, p. 297.