You hear the relentless, unavoidable din of the media every day. Technology is changing everything in life, and journalism, especially, has changed dramatically with the advent of new ways to access news.

Maybe you don't subscribe to a daily newspaper and instead get news on your computer -- or on a handheld device or tablet where you also store music, shop for clothes and play solitaire. Maybe you follow Twitter feeds from journalists who write about matters that interest you, or you use hashtags to search for news by subject matter.

But what hasn't changed in journalism is far more important than what has. The media is the only business given a specific constitutional freedom for a reason. The founders knew that a media free from government restrictions was the only way to ensure that the nation they created through bloody conflict could ever hope to be free of tyranny and despotism.

I believe that journalists bear a constitutional responsibility to serve the public, regardless of how news is delivered and consumed. The technological changes that have created the din you hear every day also offer us unprecedented ways to communicate and interact with you directly.

It also allows you to help journalists do their jobs better.


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That's my purpose here: to ask you to help me do what I do on a daily basis -- journalism in the public interest -- in new and superior ways. As you may know, this newspaper is now owned by a company called Digital First Media. Its name implies new ways of fulfilling those old constitutional responsibilities.

I am a member of what Digital First calls its IdeaLab, which is made up of select employees of its newspapers across the country. Our charge is to push across the digital frontier in search of new ways to do our jobs.

My IdeaLab project involves asking you for your help conducting investigative journalism in digital formats. Maybe you blog, or are civically involved in your community. Maybe you are skilled in data mining, or aren't bashful about taking photos with your smartphone. Perhaps you have specific knowledge in government administration, or health, or engineering. Maybe you have a family member in a health care facility.

If so, I need your help. I've created a short, online survey at ContraCostaTimes.com to gauge your interest, skills and willingness to join a team of community investigative journalists. Perhaps this will involve asking your local taqueria for a copy of its health report, or photographing conditions in a nursing or care home, or gathering and analyzing public records. Please take a look at the survey and fill it out; I'll get in touch with interested readers.

I am not going to kid you. There are fewer of us working for traditional news outlets than there have been for decades. Your newspaper is thinner than it used to be. We all consume news in other ways, and many have given up newspapers for dead. There is, however, the nagging question of who fulfills the responsibility of a free media if trained journalists go away.

Yet this experiment is driven much more by what is possible in a new age than by the changes in a shifting industry. It's driven by that tablet in your hand, or that app on your phone, or by a website with a funny name that allows you direct message me at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.

One of the major goals of our company is to have more direct engagement with the communities we serve, to re-establish the ties that bind news gatherers to people we serve in the public interest. Helping us do that is easier than you think.

Please take the survey and considering joining me. Thanks.

Thomas Peele is a digital investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group and teaches a class on public records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Contact him at tpeele@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.