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Sun., April 22, 2012, midnight

Gary Graham: ‘Digital divide’ is concerning

Staying informed and getting connected to the online world are not as easy to accomplish as those of us in the newspaper industry might sometimes think.

The challenge of obtaining timely and reliable news and information was brought home in some interesting ways at a daylong symposium on rural information needs earlier this month at Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. The symposium, as Murrow’s Dean Lawrence Pintak explained, was part of a larger initiative by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Knight Foundation on the FCC Information Needs of Communities project, involving 12 of the nation’s leading journalism programs.

I was invited to join the symposium panel of newspaper editors and publishers, local government officials, communications experts and academics to examine the information challenges facing small and rural communities. Pintak opened the conversation with a blunt assessment. He said he was appalled by what he called “the black hole of information” in rural communities. Later, his Murrow faculty colleague Doug Hindman cited WSU research in 2011 that found only 20 towns and cities in Washington have daily newspapers. Seventy-seven towns have weekly newspapers, including free distribution papers. The same research showed only 23 radio stations in the state provide local news.

In a post-symposium email to panelists, Pintak cited what I consider comforting research that found 72 percent of American adults say they follow local news closely “most of the time, whether or not something important is happening.” The telephone survey of 2,250 adults, conducted in January 2011 by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and Internet & American Life Project, found what it called local news enthusiasts are more wedded to their newspapers than others, relying on them for much of their local news, and 32 percent feel it would have a major impact on their ability to get the information they want if their local paper vanished.

Not surprisingly, Pew reported younger local news followers differ from their older counterparts in some important ways, including less reliance on local papers, potentially signaling changes to come in the local news environment.

While panelists touched upon the current state of local newspapers, television and radio, most of the conversation focused on Internet access, especially in rural communities. There’s been much written about what is being called a growing digital divide, a phrase referring to those who are fortunate enough to have high-speed broadband Internet versus those who have no Internet access or just the slower, dial-up version. Susan Crawford, a law school professor and former adviser to President Barack Obama for science, technology and innovation policy, described potential effects of the divide in an essay last December for the New York Times:

“Increasingly, we are a country in which only the urban and suburban well-off have truly high-speed Internet access, while the rest – the poor and the working class – either cannot afford access or use restricted wireless access as their only connection to the Internet. As our jobs, entertainment, politics and even health care move online, millions are at risk of being left behind.”

Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, who has been a proponent of expanding broadband access across the state, agreed the digital divide exists in Washington and is, in fact, growing. McCoy noted, “Economic development follows the trucks who are laying the fiber optic cable.” McCoy said there remain local hurdles to expansion because of what he called the intrusiveness of the technology in terms of cell towers and pole attachments.

Angela Wu, formerly Washington’s Broadband Policy and Programs director, added to the chorus of those who are sounding the alarm about the digital divide and pushing for broader access: “There is a privileged class that has developed because not everyone has access to all that is available online.” Wu said there is Internet access in many rural areas, but it is at “snail speed.”

Wu recently formed a nonprofit in Seattle called MIO (move-it-online), with a mission to help small businesses develop their online presence by using tech-savvy youth interns. MIO was recently granted tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status by the Internal Revenue Service. Wu’s research shows there are 160,000 small businesses of one to 10 employees in the state. It’s estimated that 45 to 55 percent of those businesses are not online.

Kristie Kirkpatrick, director of the Whitman County Rural Library District, told panelists that technology is simply not available in many rural areas. “So many people depend on libraries for information. We are busier than ever, even though book lending is down.” The Whitman County system has 14 branches, including the headquarters in Colfax, and all have some version of broadband.

So, what’s the next step in the conversation about rural information needs? Pintak promises that the discussion will continue and suggests that one critical step will be to help educate state legislators and local policymakers, as well as encourage digital literacy campaigns in rural areas.

I hope to revisit this topic of Internet access in a more detailed story later this spring. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts and suggestions on the subject.

Gary Graham is editor of The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at garyg@spokesman.com or @glgraham via Twitter.


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