Exploding public media

Publicly supported media — the BBC, NPR, and the CBC — are all going through efforts to reexamine and reorganize how they work and what they are. Here‘s the BBC’s DG Mark Thompson shaking things up; here is an outline a process of change in National Public Radio (with interesting blogging by the consultant helping them through it); and here‘s a discussion about the proper role of the Canadian Broadcasting Company in a new media world.

Of course, the upheaval overtaking for-profit media is not going to exempt other media just because they get money from taxes or contributions, though such sure and steady sources of income can blind the bosses or delay the inevitable. (I say that’s the same problem with the blind faith some in the newspaper industry are giving to private vs. public ownership; the business realities and inevitabilities are no different even if the money’s dumber.)

So give credit to these publicly supported institutions for recognizing the necessity of change. And as we watch them, keep in mind that we may see the birth of more publicly supported media in this new world. Later this week, I’ll tell you about an exciting project a friend is working on to support journalism with the money and effort of the public. I think we’ll see many such efforts. As we grapple with new business models for news, I think that public support will not be a panacea (any more than private ownership) but will be one of many solutions to the puzzle of media in an open world. Now that we, the people, have more voice and control, I think we will be willing to take more responsibility to support media that matter.

National Public Radio faces both vexing challenges and great opportunities. NPR and its affiliated stations can now broadcast their good work to many more people, with NPR going international and stations going national. They can find new talent online (if it works for NBC…); when I spoke to the Public Broadcasting Program Directors’ confab last year, one visionary station exec said that she used to be able to try out new talent only at 11p on Sundays but now she can try them out on the web. This means they can discover and promote more talent and work with it in new ways — collaboratively, that is. And when you have a surplus of good stuff, the web means that you are not trapped in a 24-hour clock. They also don’t see their work die after it is broadcast; now I can listen to On the Media or Brian Lehrer anytime I want, which means I listen more often.

The greatest challenge, I think, is what to do with local affiliates. The large ones that make good programming, like WNYC, will be fine for all the reasons above. But the small ones that are really just channels for distribution out and contributions in are in trouble. I don’t know what the fate of a local affiliate — for commercial or public broadcast — will be when the internet is a better means of distribution. I’m tempted to give them the same advice I give newspapers: Go local. But some of these stations are tiny and don’t have the resources. It’s a hard problem.

Current, the paper about public broadcast in the U.S., reports on the changes coming to NPR. Amid the organizationspeak, I see these priorities:

* First, they want to work hard to strengthen local news. That is a smart solution — not the only one needed — to the local affiliate problem: Make them more valuable. As other radio news dies, fill the vacuum. They’re spending $600,000 on this.

* Next, they are working on the Newsroom of the Future. Well, who isn’t? The goal is the same: getting news online, involving online in planning, and better integrating local through international efforts. Bill Marimow, NPR’s VP for news, talks about that here. He says:

We still have a huge way to go, but there’s now a real collaboration between every nook and cranny of the digital division and of the news division. The goal in the long term is to make sure that everything we produce for broadcast has an online, podcast, cellular phone component to it.

Note that the BBC’s Thompson is combining broadcast and digital production. That’s the next step.

Asked whether NPR will end up competing with newspapers, Marimow said they’ll more likely be complementary, for NPR will have the foreign correspondents they don’t have. And, I’d argue, newspapers will have the local depth radio doesn’t have. They need to link to each other. As I said below, they don’t own networks; they’re in networks.

* They are working on a new digital distribution infrastructure. I’m not sure exactly what that means but it acknowledges that the internet will be the means of distribution for public radio. It already is.

* They want to create a ” ‘trusted space’ for listeners to visit and have a hand in creating.” Emphasis mine. I think that’s important and if they mean it, a powerful key to the future of public media.

They admit they’re not sure what it is. Their blueprint document says: “We have an opportunity to embrace, promote and encourage connections among the audience around shared civic goals based on our mission. To accomplish this, we will need to curate content and provide tools that enable individuals to engage in making the world a better place.” NPR exec Dana Davis Rehm confesses: “We don’t know all the characteristics of a trusted space. It’s more of an ideal we’re trying to achieve.”

I’d think of it this way: Dave Winer has complained that when he gives money to NPR, he loses any control over it, any voice in at least suggesting how it is used. I think that people willl not only want that voice and some measure of control but also will be willing to contribute their own creation to a “trusted space” network. If NPR can enable that to happen, it’s big.

And that is the real question at hand: What is the role of public media in an era of public control of media? How can the public be more involved in the network (and thus support it more)? And how can the network point to and support the good work of the public?

: Here, via PaidContent, is the NPR blueprint (PDF). And here is blogging consultant Robert Paterson on the process that led to this in NPR and here is his very good explanation of what NPR is, really, and the challenges it faces. Here is John Bracken of the MacArthur Foundation (a big supporter of NPR) talking about the needs of this network of the future. And here is a wiki for the Digital Distribution Consortium that is working on that new digital platform for NPR>

: Now see this story in the Toronto Star talking about the debate on what the CBC should become. Historically, part of the raison d’etre for the CBC was to give Canadians a voice when their voice was in danger of being drowned out by ours, down here. Content regulation in all Canadian media also addressed that. But now everyone’s voice can be heard. So what should Canada’s public media be? Michael Geist, a law professor specializing in the internet, writes (my emphases):

A plethora of proposals — including various recommendations that the CBC become a commercial-free zone, a pay-TV service, or that it leave sports programming to the private broadcasters — have emerged from the latest round of discussions. While most CBC debates tend to focus on the ideal broadcasting model, the future of the public broadcaster may actually lie in rethinking the meaning of “public”, rather than redefining the model of broadcaster. . . .

If the CBC can no longer claim to be a unique home to Canadian programming and perspectives, then perhaps its future lies in transforming itself from Canada’s public broadcaster to the broadcaster of the Canadian public, telling our stories and providing our news from the bottom up, rather than the top down. . . .

Indeed, public broadcasters in other countries are already reinventing themselves. The British Broadcasting Corp.’s Creative Archive allows users to download clips of BBC factual programming for non-commercial use, where they can be stored, manipulated and shared. Similarly, the BBC Backstage program provides data, resources, and support for users who want to build on BBC material.

The BBC also encourages civic journalism, inviting the public to contribute photos and first-person accounts of breaking stories. . . .

The Danish Broadcasting Corp., which already features hundreds of hours of archival material on its website, recently announced plans to provide content to the Wikipedia online project, thereby enabling users to build on its materials.

Later this month officials in the Netherlands intend to unveil plans to digitize 700,000 hours of feature films, documentaries, TV shows, and radio programs. This remarkable project will transfer an incredible array of historical materials to the public. . . .

[T]he CBC would do well to innovatively collaborate with Canadians to bring their creativity to a wider broadcast audience.

Yes, that’s a good definition: Public broadcasting is our broadcasting.