Will Public Media Survive Where Mainstream Media Failed?

Print is dying, broadcast is evolving, and social networks are all the rage. What new vision will guide the way we fund and create public media?

Related: Media experts talk about the challenges to constructing a viable network. Over at TAPPED, Josh Silver suggests three reforms that would reinvigorate public media; Yochai Benkler discusses content creation and curation; and Ellen Goodman considers the move from broadcast to broadband.

Public broadcasting, newspapers, magazines, and network newscasts have played a central role in our democracy, informing citizens and guiding public conversation. But the top-down dissemination technologies that supported them are being supplanted by an open, many-to-many networked media environment. What platforms, standards, and practices will replace or transform legacy public media?

Answers are already emerging out of a series of media experiments taking place across legacy and citizen media, which we examine in depth in Public Media 2.0: Dynamic Engaged Publics -- a Ford Foundation-funded white paper from which this article was adapted. After taking a hard look at this "first two minutes" of experimentation, we concluded that the first and crucial step is to embrace the participatory -- the feature that has been most disruptive of current media models.

Multiplatform, open, and digital public media will be an essential feature of truly democratic public life from here on in. It will be media both for and by the public. While such projects may look and function differently, they'll share the same goals as those that preceded them: educating, informing, and mobilizing users.

But this next version of public media, public media 2.0, won't happen by accident or for free. The same bottom-line logic that runs media today will run tomorrow's media as well. If we're going to have media for vibrant democratic culture, we have to plan for it, try it out, show people that it matters, and build new constituencies to invest in it.

Reframing public media for the participatory era

In the post-World War II boom, the shallowness and greediness of consumer culture appalled many people concerned with the future of democracy. Commercial media, with few exceptions, mostly catered to advertisers with lowest-common-denominator entertainment. How could people even find out about important issues, much less address them?

In the United States, this concern inspired such initiatives as the Carnegie Commission on Public Broadcasting, the Poynter Institute, and other journalistic standards and training bodies. Foundations also supported media production and infrastructure, including the Ford Foundation's commitment to public broadcasting and the Rockefeller Foundation's investment in independent filmmakers. Some corporations also created public media for a mass-media era: For instance, the burgeoning cable industry offered C-SPAN as a service particularly interesting to legislators. Guided by public-interest obligations, broadcasters supported current-affairs programming and investigative reporting. Taken together, these efforts placed the onus of enlightening the public on media makers and owners. They secured the public stake through regulation, tax exemptions, and chances for citizen review.

Public media 1.0, like parkland bordering a shopping mall, inhabited a separate zone: public broadcasting, cable access, and national and international beats of prestige journalism. These media played occasional major roles (showcasing political debates, airing major hearings, becoming the go-to source in a hurricane) while also steadily producing news and cultural enrichment in the background of Americans' daily lives.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, public media 1.0 was accepted as important but rarely loved -- politely underfunded by taxpayers, subsidized weakly by corporations, grudgingly exempted from being profit centers by shareholders. It was often hobbled by the inevitable clash between democratic debate and entrenched interest. In public broadcasting and in print journalism, partisan and corporate pressures distorted -- even sometimes defanged -- public discussion. Cultural battles sapped government funding for socially relevant arts and performance.

Public media 1.0 was also limited in generating vigorous public conversations by the one-to-many structure of mass media. Carefully culled op-ed pages aired carefully balanced views but created limited participation. The same was true of talk shows and town-hall forums. Print and broadcast inevitably functioned in a top-down fashion.

And then came the Internet, followed by social media. After a decade of quick-fire innovation -- first Web pages, then interactive Flash sites; first blogs, then Twitter; first podcasts, then iPhones; first DVDs, then BitTorrent -- the individual user has moved from being an anonymous part of a mass to being the center of the media picture.

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Commercial media still dominate the scene, but the people formerly known as the audience are spending less time with older media formats. Many "digital natives" born after 1980 (and a number of us born before) now inhabit a multimedia-saturated environment that spans highly interactive mobile and gaming devices, social networks, and chat. People are dumping land lines for cell phones and watching movies and TV shows on their computers. Open platforms for sharing, remixing, and commenting upon both amateur and professional media are now widely popular -- hastening the demise of print subscriptions and "appointment television."

There's more choice, more chances for conversation and curation, more collaboration with media-makers and much more creation by users.

Media producers' habits are evolving, too. Video is now ubiquitous; databases serve new roles for content management and visualization; social networks are increasingly common platforms for distribution; and more and more place-based media is available on local platforms. And trends suggest that connectivity, participation, and digital-media creation will only increase along with growing access to broadband and mobile devices. All of these shifts set the stage for the rise of public media 2.0 projects, which leverage participatory media technologies to allow people from a variety of perspectives to work together to tackle a topic -- to share stories and facts, ask hard questions, and then shape a judgment on which they can act. Here are a few recent examples:

  • The Mobile Report: The Media Focus on Africa Foundation worked with the Arid Lands Information network to equip citizen reporters in Kenya with mobile phones to report on violent election conditions, which were then aggregated on an online map that served as a reference point for reporters and election observers.
  • 10 Questions Presidential Forum: Independent bloggers worked with The New York Times editorial board and MSNBC to develop and promote the 10 Questions Presidential Forum. More than 120,000 visitors voted on 231 video questions submitted by users. Presidential candidates then answered the top 10 questions via online video. The top question was also aired during the MTV/ MySpace "Presidential Dialogue" featuring Barack Obama.
  • Facing the Mortgage Crisis: As foreclosures began to sweep through the U.S., St. Louis public broadcasting station KETC launched Facing the Mortgage Crisis, a multiplatform project designed to help publics grappling with mortgage foreclosures. Featuring invited audience questions and on-air and online elements that mapped pockets of foreclosures, the project directed callers to an information line managed by the United Way for further help. Calls to the line increased significantly as a result.

What unites such diverse, multiplatform projects? People come in as participants and leave recognizing themselves as members of a public -- a group of people commonly affected by an issue. They have found each other and exchanged information on an issue in which they all see themselves as having a stake. In some cases, they take action based on this transformative act of communication.

This is the core function of public media 2.0 for a very simple reason: Publics are the element that keeps democracies democratic. Publics provide essential accountability in a healthy society, checking the natural tendency of people to do what's easiest, cheapest, and in their own private interest. They are not rigid structures. Publics regularly form around issues, problems, and opportunities for improvement. This informality avoids the inevitable self-serving that happens in any institution. Publics are fed by the flow of communication.

This is the kind of media that political philosophers have longed for. When Thomas Jefferson said that he would rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers, he was talking about the need for a free people to talk to each other about what matters. When American philosopher John Dewey argued that conversation was the lifeblood of a democracy, he meant that people talking to each other about the things that really affect their lives is what keeps power accountable. When German philosopher J├╝rgen Habermas celebrated the "public sphere" created by the French merchant class in the 18th century, he was noting that when non-aristocrats started to talk to each other about what should happen, they found enough common cause to overturn an order.

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Now is the time to act to secure public media 2.0 for future generations. The initial period of individualistic experimentation in participatory media is passing, and large institutions -- including political campaigns, businesses, and universities -- are now adopting social media forms, such as blogs and user forums. With greater use comes consolidation in tools, applications, platforms, and ownership of them. Every step of consolidation forecloses options, creates powerful stakeholders, and also establishes new, much-needed business models.

Of course, as new business models emerge, the heady days of experiment will cede to the familiar terms of power and profit. Some media and legal scholars see big trouble in this consolidation. Jeff Chester thunders against corporate greed; Jonathan Zittrain fears that Apple will make our digital lives easy by taking away our creative choices; Siva Vaidhyanathan worries that Google's tentacles will reach into every aspect of our lives while making it ever easier for us to do our work with its tools; Cass Sunstein is sure we're losing our social souls.

Public media 2.0 can develop on the basis of the platforms that are the winners of the consolidation currently taking place and with the help of policy that supports it within that environment. But it won't happen by accident. Commercial platforms do not have the same incentives to preserve historically relevant content that public-media outlets do. Building dynamic, engaged publics will not be a top agenda item for any business. Nor will tomorrow's commercial media business models have any incentive to remedy social inequality. Participation that flows along today's lines of access and skill sets will replicate past inequalities. If public media 2.0 looks less highly stratified and culturally balkanized than the public media of today, it will be because of conscious investment and government policy choices.

Leadership for Public Media 2.0

Who will lead the charge to define and support public media 2.0? There are plenty of organizations that now perform at least experimental versions of public media 2.0. But who will turn those experiments into broadly accepted social habits? That question has already generated a wide range of proposals, from creating a Digital Future Endowment, to establishing a National Journalism Foundation, to funding a "public-media corps," to reviving the Carnegie Commission's call for a Public Media Trust.

There are two outstanding needs: content and coordination that builds capacity for engagement. We believe it is important to separate these functions in understanding the needs for leadership:

Content has been the glory of mass media, and there already is a deep pool of high-quality content via mass-media journalism, public broadcasting, and the many content entities -- including a welter of freelancers and independent producers -- that serve them. Many of these entities face a grave long-term challenge as old business models collapse. But there are still plenty of them today, from prestige newspapers and magazines to media-production houses to such institutions as National Public Radio.

What is needed for the future of high-quality content is at least partial taxpayer support for the many existing operations and for innovative new projects. A federal body committed to promoting media production would fund both institutions and individuals who make, curate, and archive public media, functioning much as the National Endowment for the Arts does today. Such a federal body would address the maintenance of high-quality news and information, documentary resources, and historical record. It would invest in the maintenance and accessibility of the content pools that have already been created and that will grow with public participation. It would be structured to fund either commercial or noncommercial entities, so long as they made or enabled the making of public media. Alternatively, one might assign existing cultural and research support agencies responsibility for public-media support.

Coordination that builds capacity for participation in public media 2.0 will pose a new challenge -- distinct from the work of legacy media organizations and untested as yet in the digital era. Functions of a coordinating body would include:

  • providing an accessible and reliable platform for public interaction
  • providing a toolset for public participation
  • setting standards and metrics to assess public engagement
  • developing a recommendation engine to identify and point to high-quality media
  • committing staff at local and national levels primarily to building public engagement with media and to partnerships to make it happen
  • tracking emerging technologies and platforms to assess and secure their potential for public media 2.0

The resulting platform would not be the only way or place for public media 2.0 to happen, but it would be a default location for engagement. It would not be the source of public-media content, though its recommendations might legitimize such content. Rather, its staff would be charged first and foremost with promoting public life through media.

Who would do that? One might create such a coordinating body from whole cloth. It is also possible to imagine the linked organizations that make up the public broadcasting system -- with their federal public-service mandate, local stations, and national programming outlets -- playing such a role.

But public broadcasters face significant challenges to joint action. Well-known and profound structural problems, rooted in public broadcasting's decentralized structure, the mixture of content production with distribution functions, and its multiple-source funding, impede collective efforts.

Public broadcasters might well identify roles for themselves both in content provision and in coordination. Such an approach would require restructuring and separating out content provision from coordination functions. It would need incentives from the federal government and a clear mandate to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to execute the change. But it would also reclaim a multibillion-dollar public investment in public media and avoid the challenge of creating a new structure that would have some overlapping functions.

If the public gets a chance to build public media 2.0, it will not be merely because of structures such as a coordinating body and content funding. Government policies vital to building participatory capacity must be enacted at the infrastructure level. For instance, broadband needs to be accessible across economic divides and available to public media on equal terms with more commercial media for a vigorous, expandable digital network of communication to thrive. Policy-makers should mandate that network developers use universal design principles, so that people of all levels of enablement can access communication and media for public life. Users need privacy policies that safeguard their identities as they move across the digital landscape.

In short, there are big questions about how to develop public policies to support public media 2.0, and they are important to engage, because public policy will be crucial in turning isolated experimentation into pervasive public habit.

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