“The contemporary communications system is at once struggling with the threat that many major news outlets which have been the backbone of civic information over the past century are crumbling in the face of competition from new media. We may not be able to count on the traditional newspaper, news magazine or network newscast to do the work we could take for granted in the past….
“At the same time, we are seeing expanded communications opportunities in the hands of everyday people — including in the hands of academics and other experts who traditionally had little means of direct communication with the various publics impacted by their work. The problem at the present time is that existing channels of professional journalism are crumbling faster than we are developing alternative solutions which will support the kinds of information and communication needed for a democratic society….
“Thinking about a civic ecology helps us to recognize that while journalists do important work in gathering and vetting the information we need to make appropriate decisions as citizens, they are only part of a larger system through which key ideas get exchanged and discussed.
“We understand this if we think about the classic coffee houses which Habermaas saw as part of the ideal public sphere. The proprietors, we are told, stocked them with a range of publications — broadsides, pamplets, newspapers, journals, and magazines — which are intended to provide resources for debate and discussion among the who are gathered there on any given evening….
“By this same token, the present moment is characterized by both commercial and noncommercial forms of communication. As the comic strip, Zits, explains, ‘If it wasn’t for blogs, podcasts, and twitter, I’d never know whar was going on.’…
“Educational reform should go hand in hand with our efforts to restructure the civic ecology. As I’ve shown in my work for the MacArthur foundation, young people need to acquire a range of skills and competencies if they are going to meaningfully engage in the new participatory culture. As they scan the media ecology for bits and pieces of information, they need more discernment than ever before and that comes only if they are able to count on their schools to help them overcome the connected concerns of the digital divide, the participation gap, and the civic engagement gap.
“The Digital Divide has to do with access to networked communication technologies — with many still relying on schools and public libraries to provide them with access. The Participation Gap has to do with access to skills and competencies (as well as the experiences through which they are acquired). And the Civic Engagement Gap has to do with access to a sense of empowerment and entitlement which allows one to feel like your voice matters when you tap into the new communication networks to share your thoughts.
“Unfortunately, we’ve wired the classrooms in this country and then disabled the computers; we’ve blocked young people from participating in the new forms of participatory culture; and we’ve taught them that they are not ready to speak in public by sequestering them to walled gardens rather than allowing them to try their voices through public forums. …
“Jessica Clark and Pat Aufderheide have written about Public Media 2.0, suggesting that we should no longer think about public service media (as if the knowledge simply flowed from above) but rather public facilitating and public mobilizing media that creates a context for meaningful conversations and helps point towards actions which the public might take to address its concerns. It is no longer enough to produce science documentaries which point to distance stars without giving the public something it can do to support your efforts and absorb your insights into motivated action.
“It is no longer enough simply to inform. You must inspire and motivate, you must engage and enthrall the public, if you want to cut through the clutter of the new media landscape.”
- Excerpts from the MIT Center for Future Civic Media.