The case for New Public Media

It is a curious thing, in an era of revolutionary change in the media landscape, that journalists and editors have gained so little.

The Internet has been a boon for citizen media. It’s like Neal Postman’s pre-telegraph America, the original media convergence of spoken word and written text. The Lyceums and Chautauquas, the newspapers and pamphleteers — they’ve come full circle, virtually.

Corporations are also gaining ground. Rocked by layoffs, consolidation and cutbacks, they are nonetheless monetizing online media, and rather expediently.

Journalists and editors, however — the ones doing the actual work of producing and publishing news — have neither the editorial and topical freedom of the blogger, nor the economic opportunity of the corporations.

They are the ones getting laid off, consolidated and cut back, as journalism’s civic necessity is trumped by quarter-to-quarter financial expediency.

Speaking in September 2008 at the Knight Foundation’s Silicon Valley forum on community information needs, Mike McGuire, a research VP at Gartner, asked: If content really is king, why are content producers getting the short end of the stick? Why not start cutting sales staff at failing media outlets instead of reporters and editors?

In fact, cutting ad revenue altogether would have an additional, significant benefit directly related to journalism’s situation: It would relieve the newsroom of outside economic pressures that impede the practice of journalism in the public interest.

This was precisely what motivated earlier rounds of public-media investment in the United States, producing such institutions as All Things Considered and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

Yet for all their merits, these programs — highly centralized, capital intensive, grounded in Wall Street and Washington, D.C. — are not replicable, particularly not locally and regionally, where the need is so acute.

So what would constitute “New Public Media”?

In my own experience, for example, fiscal sponsorship is a great “platform service” to support community-focused media, arts and cultural ventures. The challenge we continually face is doing more than just providing sponsorship, which is a complex service involving multiple legal and financial considerations. To really be “new public media,” let’s set a few benchmarks:

  • Independently produced, using various sorts of network and nonprofit infrastructure (e.g. producer collaborations, crowdfunding, open-source and digital media, fiscal sponsorship).
  • Funded primarily or significantly by direct community and public donations, membership dues, or some other aggregated type of individual support.
  • Donor is investing a public service, not buying a private product, and in giving develops a higher level of engagement with with the content produced.
  • The media content is non-commercial, relevant to diverse, underserved communities, and unavailable in via legacy mass media.

New Public Media deepens the resources and independence of the journalist and media producer, giving them new autonomy to cover underserved communities and important but overlooked news.

However, investment in its infrastructure — “platform” services such as fiscal sponsorship (the subject of my own efforts with Independent Arts & Media) — is hard to come by.

Funders need to look at new ways to support productive capacity in underserved communities, by supporting platform services such as fiscal sponsorship. Individual producers need to explore ways to collaborate around “overlap” activities such as marketing, fundraising, and administration.

These are conditions, really, that can help new types of public media emerge.

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