Center History

Since its founding in 2001 by Lewis Friedland, scholars at the Center for Communication and Democracy have conducted theoretical and policy research and practical experiments to advance the understanding and practice of democratic communication.


Center research focuses on four areas: 1) the normative dimensions of democratic communication; 2) the changing structure of the U.S. public sphere and civil society; and 3) the emerging structure of new communication ecologies, particularly at the community level; 4) cross-national research on democratic communication.

  • Center scholars have a longstanding concern with normative issues of democratic communication: what forms of communication are necessary to allow the participation of all citizens in civic and democratic life at all levels. Normative research includes both theoretical work on the public sphere and civil society, and structures of communication at all levels that further democratic life: infrastructure, institutions, organizations and routines, urban and community life, and individual and small group communication patterns and behavior.
  • The increasing penetration of new communication technologies and social forms into every part of political, economic, social, and cultural life is transforming the very structure and concepts of the public sphere and civil society as well. Strong civil societies are necessary to generate the ability, skills, and will to participate at least at minimal levels necessary to sustain democracy. A central question running through our research is whether the public sphere and civil society can be sustained under growing conditions of political fragmentation and polarization, on the one hand, and individualization, consumerism, and privatization on the other. Further, center scholars have investigated the effects of these conditions on growing inequality.
  • Despite increasing global interpenetration of economics and culture, much (if not all) politics remains locally rooted. Center scholars are closely engaged with the changing communication ecology at all levels, but particularly as it is articulated in local, regional, and state or provincial levels of life and governance. Center scholars model new communication ecologies, as well as explore their effects on new forms of journalistic production, local public and civic life, and critical social institutions such as education.
  • Center scholars have produced research on the changing impacts of communication in the global system, at the level of nations, and comparatively between nations. Beginning with early research on globalizing satellite television, center researchers have focused on the U.S. as a distinct national system, on national research on China, Korea, and Latin America, particular Colombia.

Read about the latest research from Center scholars here.

Civic Communication Experiments

Civic Practices Network Screenshot, 1997
Civic Practices Network Screenshot, 1997

The Center grew out of a series of online and community-based communication research projects in the 1990s. In 1994, Friedland began Online Wisconsin, one of the first online newspapers (the Raleigh News and Observer’s went online the same year). The same year the Civic Practices Network (CPN) was formed, the first online portal for civic engagement with Carmen Sirianni and Friedland co-editors. CPN (funded by the Surdna Foundation) gathered best civic practices in the areas of community, environment, youth, health, religion, and civic communication. Much of the material for CPN became part of Civic Innovation in America, Sirianni and Friedland, University of California Press, 2001.

Online@UW Publishing was formed to support the project with Prof. Sheila Webb (Western Washington University) as project co-lead. Online was an early developer of nonprofit web portals, including for the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, the Kettering Foundation, Pew Center X, and the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread.

At the formation of the Center in 2001, it was clear that new communication technologies could be used to advance democratic and civic practice in a number of ways, but a founding premise was that cities, communities, and neighborhoods were at least as important in shaping that future as technology. A 2001 experiment in St. Paul with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota was one of the first to apply emerging GIS techniques to civic assets mapping. The Center also conducted research in civic and network mapping starting in 2001, leading to the development of Community Knowledgebase, an early version of community network software. This led to an SBIR grant in 2006 from the U.S. Department of Education to develop a youth civic engagement software game, Legislative Aide, in conjunction with Prof. David Williamson Shaffer of UW Dept. of Educational Psychology and Peter Levine of CIRCLE at Tufts University.

In 2006, the Center was a member of the first class of recipients of the J-Lab/Knight Foundation awards for the emerging area of citizen and hyperlocal journalism. Friedland, with graduate student Chris Long, founded the Madison Commons, among the first journalism school-rooted community-based news websites and today, the longest continuously running.

The Commons is now sustained through a combination of university and community support. In 2011 it partnered with Community Shares of Wisconsin (CSW) to train more than 60 (now 70) organizations working on the environment, sustainability, women’s and minority issues, civil rights, and social justice in the use of social media, leading up to the “Big Share,” CSW’s first online giving campaign in 2015.


Center research seeks to contribute to ongoing policy debates in the area of civic and democratic communication, particularly those related to the effects of communication on civic participation, community and information needs, and equality. The Center is the home for the Communications Policy Research Network (co-managed with the University of Southern California) a national network of communication scholars working on issues of communications equity.   Center director Friedland was a lead author of the 2012 review of the literature on the “Critical Information Needs of American Communities” for the Federal Communication Commission (see here) and is co-editing a forthcoming volume with Mark Lloyd of USC on that topic.

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