(Photo by Tim Karr for Free Press)

Towards a public choice for local news and information

Simon Galperin
Jun 26 · 9 min read

Information is power. But decisions about how information gets discovered, shared, and used are made by those already in power. In most places, the people who are most in need of information have little say in those decisions. Info districts is a proposal to change that.

The Community Information Cooperative’s “How to Launch an Info District” report is intended for people who want to organize their communities to change how decisions are made about what news and information gets produced, how it’s distributed, and — most importantly — why.

Social media platforms and the majority of our news media exist for profit. The products and services they provide maximize the extraction of information and wealth from our communities. Mission driven news organizations and public institutions exist for our benefit but most resemble for-profit corporations in their decision making. Foundational issues are decided on by a handful of people usually far removed from the impact of their decisions.

If news and information is what fuels democracy then it should be guided by democracy.

For the Community Info Coop, the process is the product. We believe you cannot have a democratic outcome without a democratic process. This guide — published thanks to support from the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri’s Missouri School of Journalism — outlines what a democratic process could look like if it was targeted at understanding a community’s information needs and mobilizing collective action to meet them.

We do this work because we believe that news and information is a public good. We believe information ecosystems can empower people instead of scare and profit from them.

Redesigning those systems to improve the way we communicate with each other and hold our institutions accountable is an international project. Platforms, governments, foundations, media organizations, and technology companies require democratization if we are to sustain and expand democracy in the 21st century.

It is an imperfect project. And one without end. But it cannot be done without a local effort leading and sustaining the change. Info districts are one part of that effort.

We’ll return to “How to Launch an Info District” as we continue our work. We’ll add new resources, share new findings, and make it more practical.

The following is an excerpt from the guide to introduce you to the the info districts concept. For more detail, read the full guide here.

To support the development of this new vision for public media, reach us at connect@infodistricts.org. We’re actively seeking financial and coordinating support. To follow our work, subscribe to our newsletter here.


What is an info district

TL;DR

  • An info district is a proposed type of special district.
  • Info districts support local news and information projects to facilitate civic engagement.
  • Like other special districts, they are established by local governments to provide a particular service to geographic area and are funded by a tax.

An info district is a proposed type of special district, defined by geographic boundaries, that funds local news and information projects to facilitate civic engagement. Info districts would be supported by a local tax and accountable to the community they serve through a public board and a participatory practice.

Special districts are established by ordinance or referendum to provide public utilities like libraries, fire protection, waste management, and nearly two dozen other types of services. There are nearly 40,000 in the United States and most U.S. states have at least a few hundred special districts.

In New Mexico, special districts manage flooding. In Illinois and New York, they fund libraries. Kansas has 600 cemetery districts. Texas has more than 100 hospital districts.

Each established by municipal, county, tribal, or state governments, special districts have a substantial degree of financial and administrative independence as they are governed by an independent public board and funded by dedicated taxes or fees, unlike governmental departments.

Why launch an info district

TL;DR

  • As a result of economic and technological shifts, more communities are becoming media deserts.
  • Media desertification poses a systemic risk to the health of local democracies and economies.
  • Despite a few positive trends, market-based approaches cannot solve this crisis.

A growing number of communities in the United States are becoming media deserts. These are places where there is little to no quality news and information being produced or distributed about a community for that community.

This desertification poses catastrophic problems for the civic health of these places. And more and more communities are affected every day.

Just since 2004, the U.S. lost 1,800 newspapers and at least another 1,500 have become “ghosts,” hollowed out due to staffing cuts and unable to adequately cover their communities.

In one study of 100 U.S. cities over seven days, 20% of local news outlets did not contain a single local news story and only 12% of the 16,000 stories shared that week were about “a local topic, locally produced, and addressing a critical information need.”

And Facebook recently reported that one in six Americans live in places where — in one 28 day period — there was not a single day where the platform was able to surface five or more recent news articles directly related to those users’ towns or cities.

Non-profit and independent online news organizations have emerged as a counter-trend to desertification. But only one in five of these new online organizations find sustainability and a threshold amount of wealth among the audience and advertisers is correlated with their success. With geographic inequality on the rise, that leaves fewer and fewer communities with the means to sustain dedicated local news organizations.

But even the fledgling organizations that take flight are managing precarious revenue from philanthropy, audience revenue, and advertising. And they function in information ecosystems that incentivize cheap digital content.

But research shows that a dedicated local news organization makes government more responsive and effective and less costly and corrupt. Local news makes communities more informed about local politics, increases voter turnout, and encourages civic participation. It reduces pollution, improves public health outcomes, and makes people nicer to each other.

Traditional market-based approaches will not meet the local news and information needs holding our communities back. And — in the case of communities facing racism, sexism, imperialism, and poverty — they never really have.

That is why the Community Info Coop developed the info district framework. It is a way for communities to organize digital public squares that meet their local news and information needs and more. Info districts are a fundamental revisioning of local democracy. And the time for democracy to evolve has come.

Suggested Reading:

The First Amendment as a Roadmap for Engaged Journalism by Peggy Holman

“The freedoms in the first amendment are more than a list. They are an ecosystem of how people participate with each other and their government in navigating the tension between individual freedom and the common good.”

The promise of an info district

Info districts are collective action mechanisms. Through them, communities can lay a foundation for their 21st century public square. They enable people to have a say in how their information commons is designed instead of relying on the goodwill of platforms, media companies, and advertisers.

It opens up so many opportunities to reimagine how people communicate with each other and the institutions that serve them. Here are just some of the services an info district might provide:

Paul’s packages kept going missing from the lobby of his apartment building. The landlord wasn’t responsive and the police couldn’t do much to stop it. Searching online didn’t turn up any solutions. So he asked his Community Information Organization (CIO).

The CIO helped Paul launch a Facebook group for his building. By connecting online and sharing information, they came up with their own solutions to reduce package thefts. They agreed to bring packages inside for each other and coordinated communication with the landlord to get a security camera installed in the lobby. Paul met his own information need and created capacity in his community to solve future problems.

Rosa is a parent who lives far from the two different schools her children attend. She works from home and makes her own schedule, so she’s usually the one transporting kids to school and activities. At every drop off and pick up, she’d sit in a long line of cars, wondering how many other parents could use help getting their kids to where they had to be.

Rosa’s Community Information Organization had worked with her childrens’ schools to launch a monthly newsletter for caregivers of students so she reached out. They helped her set up and promote a Google Form where caregivers could share their contact and general location information to build a carpool directory. As a result, Rosa saved herself one trip every week. This year, the carpool directory will be used for a 200+ student marching band.

Kai owns a small business and would prefer to spend and hire locally. They know how important it is to invest in their community but they find it hard to reach locals with that message consistently. On the other end, locals looking for work or to start businesses don’t know they can rely on Kai.

Thanks to Kai’s input, the Community Information Organization identified this miscommunication last year. Since then, their CIO’s quarterly business directory highlights businesses looking to buy and hire local. It also launched a local jobs board. This year, they’re partnering with a credit union and community college to coordinate a small business accelerator.

Brandie’s water has been bright blue for an entire year. It’s supplied by a regional water authority but all they told her is that they’re looking into it. Her municipal government’s hands are tied by tight budgets and red tape. She reached out to her Community Information Organization to see what she should do about it.

Brandie lives in a county where there are a few info districts. And it turns out there were residents in each of those districts that were experiencing the same thing. The CIOs in the county pooled resources and hired a journalist to work with residents to investigate this. Next month, the state is bringing charges against a chemical company for polluting her region’s groundwater.

Andre’s city holds a lot of public meetings that go undocumented. He wants to be informed about the issues being discussed and decisions being made, but he couldn’t attend them all even if he tried. The local newspaper used to send reporters to a few but they recently made staffing cuts. He brought this up with his Community Information Organization.

The CIO realized there were enough people like Andre that every public meeting could be documented if they worked together. The CIO created a program that trains residents of any age to document public meetings and share what they hear with the community. This year, they’ll begin paying “documenters” like Andre $50 for every meeting they attend.

Required Reading:

Don’t Just Engage, Equip from Darryl Holliday of City Bureau

“Equipping is not the same as empowerment because, much like the phrase “giving voice to the voiceless” assumes that people are voiceless, empowerment often assumes that people are powerless.

Equipping is recognizing that there is no cap on the amount of power people can create, recognizing the power people already have and providing access to resources that build power.

The difference here is key. With approaches that equip, your community causes the potholes to get fixed, the financial audit of local government and the mayor to be fired for corruption.”


How can we fund journalism that equips people to meet their own needs? Read the rest of “How to Launch an Info District” here.

Community Information Cooperative

Funding local news in the public interest

Simon Galperin

Written by

Fan of democracy and journalism. Working to bridge the gap between the two at GroundSource and the Community Info Cooperative.

Community Information Cooperative

Funding local news in the public interest

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