Last week I attended a very stimulating conference on the future of public media put on by the Center for Social Media. At the end of it, David Liroff, VP & Chief Technology Officer of WGBH, gave a public talk: "In a global village, where is the 'public square'?"
Public broadcasters in the United States are struggling to remain relevant at a time when public discourse is increasingly taking place in the blogosphere: online grassroots citizens media that has little to do with the NPR/PBS model. “In recent months weve hit tipping point at which rate of change in media environment is accelerating exponentially.” Liroff said that the key problem for public media, to quote the Harvard Biz School guru Clayton Christiensen, “what's the job they're hiring us to do?” And who is the “they” that public media is trying to serve?
Liroff talked about generational differences in media consumption and the challenge this poses. Many young people are engaging in some sort of “public discourse” online all the time. So, “if young people are connected 24/7 to global consciousness what is the role for public media?” He also pointed out that as the influence of the internet grows, if the public discourse is to be truly representative of the public at large, there is also the problem of access: the gulf in this country between those with high-speed internet access and those without.
I spent all of Thursday and half of Friday in a room with about 20 people – some public broadcasting people, some people doing online citizens media (I was there because of Global Voices, which as a nonprofit project meant to help improve the global public discourse, is a kind of public media), media scholars, and some people from foundations that fund public media. How can public media remain relevant in the age of Web2.0?
The conversation was grounded in a belief that media – in all forms – has a critical role to play in enabling the informed public dicourse necessary for a healthy democratic society. But left to its own devices, there will be certain audiences commercial media may not be particularly bothered with because they are unlikely to translate into advertising revenue, as well as certain types of journalism or conversations that are difficult and unprofitable to pursue. Grassroots media is no panacea either. When left to take its natural course it looks likely to be dominated by the early adopters, the loudest voices, and the ones who can afford access to the technology that is increasingly necessary in order to speak and be heard on the internet.
By the end of our conference I came away convinced that the best role for public media is to find ways to fill the gaps left empty by commercial and grassroots media. What kinds of journalism simply isn’t profitable for the likes of CNN and even the New York Times to pursue well? What kinds of investigations are not possible for bloggers with other day jobs to pursue effectively? Whose voices aren’t being heard in the media (public, private, or grassroots) right now and why? How can we find them and help them be heard? Who isn’t talking online, why not, and how can we help them do so when it makes sense? And when it doesn’t make sense or isn’t feasible, how do you bridge offline conversations with online conversations?
To be relevant in this new media age, public media need to think beyond the immediate management priorities of their stations to the larger purpose of civic discourse. How do we best serve that discourse? How do we help public media organizations around the country engage with the rich and multifaceted public discourse happening across the internet, rather than try to compete with it for eyeballs, ears, clicks and downloads? How can public media better interact with commercial media when doing so will further the interest of the public discourse?
It also became clear to me that in order to serve the public discourse properly, American public media must engage directly with both public education and the national communictions infrastructure. By education I don’t mean journalism schools. I mean integrating media literacy and low-cost media production skills into the public school curriculum – perhaps even as early as grade school but certainly junior high and high school – not to mention college and adult education programs. We have entered the new age of We Media: we are all potentially media now. All citizens must learn how to think more critically about the various kinds of media we are interacting with, and be able to distinguish between various types of media and the different motivating forces behind them. All citizens need to better understand how and why these various forms of media are created, and be better empowered to create their own. Media participation comes naturally to some but not to many others who have spent a lifetime passively absorbing it.
By engaging in the “communications infrastructure” I mean advancing the freedom to connect for all Americans. As my colleague David Isenberg points out: “It is written that Freedom of the Press is only for those with presses. But Freedom to Connect is potentially available to everybody.” Potentially, that is, if we commit to making connectivity truly affordable and accessible to all Americans. How can one claim to represent “public media” in this day and age without becoming actively involved in policy debates over public internet access? Public media organizations must help to shape a legal and regulatory environment that enables all citizens to innovate, create and speak freely – and stand a chance of reaching larger audeinces if their work merits, whether or not their work has commercial backing or value. Otherwise, how can we have a truly democratic public discourse?