Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How was the Commission created? What was the impetus for creating it?

A: The idea to initiate a commission on the information needs of communities developed during the Aspen Institute’s annual Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS) in Aspen, Colorado. While making recommendations during a roundtable discussion, several thought-leaders mentioned the importance of taking a fresh look at the issues of news and society from the perspective of communities across the nation. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute developed the idea and decided to collaborate on the project. The Aspen Institute and the Knight Foundation have been working together stemming from a project on the future of journalism and journalistic values. Knight was a senior sponsor of the FOCAS conference in Aspen where the idea emanated.

Q: Why did the Knight Foundation invest $2.3 million into such a broad, open-ended topic?

A: Quoting Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the Knight Foundation: “We live in a democratic society built on the premise of an informed electorate – yet the very structure on which that democracy is built—the local election held in a geographically defined community—is more and more an uninformed decision. That concerns us.”

Q: Who are your Commissioners?

A: The Commission is comprised of 17 respected leaders from the fields of media, public policy and community organization, including co-chairs Theodore B. Olson and Marissa Mayer. Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president and CEO, and Walter Isaacson, Aspen Institute president and CEO, serving as ex officio members. Peter M. Shane, the Davis and Davis Chair in Law at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, served as the Commission’s executive director.

Q: Why did you choose Ted Olson and Marissa Mayer as Co-Chairs?

A: The organizers wanted knowledgeable, fair, and forward-thinking leaders who are open to new ideas. Both are leaders whose qualities complement each other. Ted Olson is a wise and experienced constitutional attorney with extensive experience in first amendment law. Marissa Mayer, who heads the “user experience” for a major technology company, Google, has deep expertise in the ever-changing world of technology and user interaction.

Q: Why is Peter M. Shane the Executive Director?

A: Peter is a well-recognized expert in interdisciplinary approaches to democracy, with extensive administrative experience in organizing interdisciplinary inquiry. A law professor at Ohio State University Law School, Peter is an expert in e-democracy and the use of new information technologies to expand opportunities for the general public to participate in the formulation of public policy.

Q: How did you do your research and gather information?

A: The Commission held seven public forums and meetings in communities across the nation. It took testimony from more than 100 citizens: community organizers, educators, journalists from old and new media, labor leaders, technology engineers and strategists, entrepreneurs, futurists, public officials, policy analysts, economic consultants and community foundation representatives. Summaries, minutes, and webcasts of these meetings and forums are available here. The Commission reviewed academic and industry research across a wide range of disciplines, and was aided by an Advisory Group composed of a diverse group of academics, policy makers, and community and business leaders. With PBS Engage, it invited public input, using more than 1,100 recommendations to shape its final report.

Q: Are your recommendations directed to Congress? The FCC?

A: The goals and recommendations of “Informing Communities” are aimed at fostering community self-governance through the use of information resources. As such, the Commission calls for action by private firms, governmental bodies, the non-profit sector, and citizens generally.

Q: Did you work with the FCC to develop your recommendations?

A: No.

Q: Did you collaborate with other interest groups? Organizations? Communities?

A: Yes. The only way to be well-informed was to reach out to other experts in the field who have tried things that work and don’t work.

Q: Was the government involved in the creation of this Commission?

A: No.

Q: The Commission is non-partisan?

A: Absolutely. The Commission has a diverse group of Commissioners who agree that citizen access to and use of information for democratic purposes is not a partisan issue.

Q: Who do your recommendations affect? Businesses? Media? Local governments?

A: The recommendations aim to help citizens in communities gain better access to the information they need to govern themselves. Accordingly, they affect all stakeholders in the democratic process.

Q: Why did you choose to look at geographic communities?

A: American democracy is organized largely by geography, which is why the Commission has focused primarily on the needs of geographically defined communities Information is essential to community vitality. Informed communities can effectively coordinate activities, achieve public accountability, solve problems and create connections. Local information systems should support widespread knowledge of and participation in the community’s day-to-day life by all segments of the community. To achieve the promise of democracy, it is necessary that the creation, organization, analysis, and transmission of information include the whole community.

Q: What are “informed communities”?

A: “Informed communities” are places where the information ecology meets people’s personal and civic information needs. This means people have the news and information they need to take advantage of life’s opportunities for themselves and their families. They need information to participate fully in our system of self-government, to stand up and be heard. Driving this vision are the critical democratic values of openness, inclusion, participation, empowerment, and the common pursuit of truth and the public interest. The Commission sees these elements as essential in “Informed communities:”

People have convenient access to both civic and life-enhancing information, without regard to income or social status.

Journalism is abundant in many forms and accessible through many convenient platforms.

Government is open and transparent.

People have affordable high-speed Internet service wherever and whenever they want and need it.

Digital and media literacy are widely taught in schools, public libraries and other community centers.

Technological and civic expertise is shared across the generations.

Local media—including print, broadcast, and online media—reflect the issues, events, experiences and ideas of the entire community.

People have a deep understanding of the role of free speech and free press rights in maintaining a democratic community.

Citizens are active in acquiring and sharing knowledge both within and across social networks.

People can assess and track changes in the information health of their communities.