Editor’s note: This column is drawn from a commencement address to the University of Washington Information School graduates.
The work you will be doing cuts across many fields and professions. Collectively, you will make a positive difference in how people will digest, interpret and act on “information.”
Your work is incredibly important to our future, to our democracy and to the American dream.
We share the same mission. The business is news and information. The mission, to use one of your iSchool taglines, is to “make information work.”
We make it work by equipping the American public with an understanding of real news and fact-based information. And the ability to select credible information and identify credible sources.
We are the essential workers critical to whether America’s 200 year-plus experiment in an egalitarian democracy will survive.
The control, distribution, accuracy and manipulation of information will determine our destiny.
Our nation is at a dangerous moment in time, with our once vaunted Local Free Press System fast failing and our once promising internet turned into a nondemocratic tool by a new breed of unregulated monopolists.
Make no mistake, the fight is threefold: To save our local free press system, bring public service mandates to the internet monopolies and to create information literacy.
Our success in these areas will determine if and how long our self-government and the American dream of inclusion and equal opportunity will prevail.
Three truths of all societies and forms of government are that power and wealth will relentlessly seek three things: more power, more wealth and information control.
When the majority of citizens are excluded from meaningful, credible and nonmanipulated information, and excluded from decent opportunities to participate economically, their disenfranchisement will inevitably destabilize our democracy.
Societal fault lines and inequities in America today are intolerably deep and wide. They include: wealth, education, opportunity, justice and information.
What we do in the near-term will determine if our self-government experiment will last.
The foundation of America’s democracy is our local free press system, a foundation that has the dual purpose of nurturing vibrant and civically engaged local communities while, collectively, creating a national consciousness.
Before 2000, we still had, for the most part, a collection of local newspapers — large and small — producing robust, relevant content to feed their print and digital news platforms. That system today is a shadow of its former self.
Seattle is one of the few major exceptions thanks to local mission-based public service stewardship and an incredibly supportive community.
Through the last 40 years, absentee financial money managers have taken control of most newspapers. In the process, they have destroyed the papers’ ability to serve their communities and created a vast collection of ‘‘news deserts” and “ghost papers.’’
Local civic engagement has been undermined, as people turned to the two main news cable networks and Facebook — a prescription for reduced civic engagement, fake news and fault-line tribalism.
The rise of the internet held much promise — and in many areas delivered — but not in the news and information realm.
Our failure to place public service mandates on the internet has been disastrous. It has undermined the free press by monopolizing the ability to adapt to a profitable content and advertising model.
It has become dominated by monopolistic platforms that have undermined the credibility of all information and often allow civil civic discussions to turn into baseless, inaccurate and tasteless diatribes.
There is hope, if we can find the will. Winston Churchill famously said: “Never waste a crisis.”
In addition to the free press crisis, our nation is facing three other major crises: The pandemic, the calamitous economic downturn and the fall election.
It is hard to imagine that, if we don’t address the free press crisis, we can face and prevail over the other three.
Local newsroom employment is imploding, and ghost newspapers are becoming the norm. Misinformation is in full bloom.
Yet, Congress can literally use this season of crisis to save our free press system and recreate the local mission-based community stewardship which underpins our democracy.
What has been created with the UW Information School and all the disciplines and collaborations under the umbrella is extraordinary.
The social benefit of your work now and into the future will be immense. You are soldiers for democracy, civility and truth.
Don’t squander any crises.