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Information needs and the future of journalism

When I left my position as a full-time staff writer for the Independent Weekly last summer to enter the Master of Public Policy program at Duke University’s Sanford School, I did so in the hope of better understanding how to address the question of how we will pay for journalism and what journalism will look like in the coming years. The question that haunted me with increasing intensity as I wrote an occasional column, The Monitor, about changes in the Triangle’s local media environment. I covered layoffs and buyouts at our local daily newspapers and debates over broadband access at the statehouse. The question broadened beyond journalism into a larger concern over how people will get access to meaningful news and information they need to fully exercise their rights and maintain a democratic society.

I came to Sanford to study with James Hamilton, an economist who studies media. His book All the News That’s Fit to Sell made a deep impression on me, as it analyzed media issues that were familiar to me using a deeply unfamiliar analytical framework. I wanted to learn economics, develop quantitative analytical skills and deepen my understanding of how public policy is made. The first year has been quite a ride. I overcame my fear of math (a phobia too many of us journalists suffer from) and completed courses in statistics, microeconomics, political science, policy analysis and ethics. My favorite course was Prof. Hamilton’s media policy and economics, naturally.

This summer, I have the opportunity to put many of these skills to work on a project at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. that produces work I have respected since my days as a junior editor at Salon.com. The Media Policy Initiative is a project funded by the Knight Foundation to explore information needs in communities. “Information needs,” as explained in the Knight Commission Report, means everything from journalism as we know it (conventional print and broadcast) to the availability of public information on government web sites to the ability to engage with such information through Internet-based technology and other forms of communication. As a Knight Policy Intern, I will be researching a writing a media ecology case study of the Triangle area of North Carolina.

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