Study Pushes for Net Neutrality, New Journalism Models

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The U.S. government should advance an "ambitious" plan for universal broadband availability and should ensure that broadband networks are open to all content and applications, according to a new study on public information needs in the digital age.

The wide-ranging study, released Friday, calls for new ideas to share news and information, even as the traditional newspaper industry appears near death.

"The time has come for new thinking and aggressive action to dramatically improve the information opportunities available to the American people, the information health of the country's communities, and the information vitality of our democracy," said the study, authored by the Knight Commission, an all-star group of 17 news, Internet and public policy experts.

Net neutrality, or open Internet, rules have been controversial in Washington, D.C., with many Democrats and consumer groups pushing for more regulations prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or slowing Web content and applications. As more broadband providers get into the Web content business, they will be tempted to give their content priority over content from competitors, they say.

However, many broadband providers and Republicans say new regulations aren't needed and could hurt the ability to manage networks and protect customers against online attacks and bandwidth hogs.

But the Knight Commission, including Republicans and Democrats among its ranks, said "the openness of networks as essential to meeting community information needs."

The commission called for more investment in bringing broadband to rural and other underserved areas, saying that about a third of U.S. rural communities don't have access to broadband. Only about a quarter of households with incomes of less than US$20,000 subscribe to broadband, the report said.

The U.S. government should also avoid regulations that make it hard for new types of journalism business models, such as nonprofit journalism, to succeed, the report said. Good journalism is essential for democracy, and new models of journalism are thriving, but traditional public service and investigative journalism are under "obvious stress," the report said.

"The digital age is creating an information and communications renaissance," the study said. "But it is not serving all Americans and their local communities equally. It is not yet serving democracy fully. How we react, individually and collectively, to this democratic shortfall will affect the quality of our lives and the very nature of our communities."

The study calls for the U.S. government to increase support for public media and push ahead with the government transparency and accountability efforts started by President Barack Obama. Local governments should organize community summits to address local issues, and private companies or local institutions such as libraries should create online hubs for news and information in each community, said the study, funded by the Aspen Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

"It is ... a moment of journalistic and political opportunity," the study said. "Information organizations, including many traditional journalistic enterprises, are embracing new media in unique and powerful ways, developing new structures for information dissemination and access. Political leaders and many government agencies are staking out ambitious agendas for openness. The potential for using technology to create a more transparent and connected democracy has never seemed brighter."

Some speakers at a launch event for the study mourned the decline of the traditional newspaper business. Even with a multitude of bloggers commenting on local and other issues, there's still a need for traditional journalists to actually write news stories to be commented on, said John Carroll , a Knight Commission member and former editor of the Baltimore Sun and Los Angeles Times.

About 25 percent of all newspaper journalists will have lost their jobs between 2001 and 2009, Carroll said, citing statistics from a Project for Excellence in Journalism. "More concerning to me is what appears to be the loss of the economic basis for professional journalism itself," he said.

The replacement for that loss has not yet arrived, he added. "We've been assured recently that's kind of the way it goes in revolutions of this sort," Carroll said. "Disruptive technologies come along, they break all the furniture and burn down the house, and then they return with gifts. But there's a bit of an awkward period between the burning down of the house and the full deployment of the gifts."

But Reed Hundt , former chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, noted that many journalism schools are seeing record enrollments as young people find new opportunities in nontraditional journalism. In the late 20th century the newspaper business was often seen as the standard bearer for the fundamental values of journalism, but that doesn't have to be the case, he said.

Big, centralized newspapers and TV stations often don't serve local communities well, he added. The Internet is "about creative destruction of that centralized model," Hundt added. "This era ... is immensely painful for the [journalists] who have been doing a great thing for the country."

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