Next step if we dare: beta test for public media
“America’s communities require a media ecosystem that provides the educational, news and other content necessary to inform the citizenry and to sustain our democracy.” —The National Broadband Plan,
Section 15.2, page 302
The National Broadband Plan is a wake-up call for public media. The FCC worked hard to produce a vision for advancing broadband in our nation at a time when the zeitgeist is saturated as never before with questions about the future of media.
The public media community now must confront that future and the National Broadband Plan with courage and energy. The challenge is to recapture our leadership role by providing solutions to strengthen journalism and drive innovation in education.
These purposes were laid into the foundation of the nation’s public media system, they are prominent in the National Broadband Plan, and they factor heavily in the future of the Internet in the United States.
Discussions about the future often reflect anxieties about the present as well. People in public media often look toward a future when all Americans have a full plate of high-quality content that meets their evolving and diverse needs. Why don’t they have this today? The reason is the vicious cycle of the system’s underdevelopment and underfunding that continues to undermine its ability to capitalize on the changes happening in our country.
This has left many elements of the field optimized for an analog age while the Network Age emerges around us. Without strong, entrepreneurial public media organizations, led by creative and bold teams and guided by board members who are eminent and actively engaged in their communities, there is no chance we will move the system into this broadband age. Without this institutional foundation, there is nothing to build on.
The gaps in our current business model will widen quickly as broadband develops nationally. We can address them only by radically shifting what we and the public expect from the system and from our individual organizations. Incremental steps will not concentrate enough resources to leapfrog the compounding limitations in resources, ambition and effectiveness. Moving from broadcast to broadband is not a Hobson’s choice — it is a step along a continuum, yet we have no guarantee of success. It cannot be accomplished by more pledge drives.
It must come from a new commitment to take the field’s most promising media platforms and invest adequate resources in a set of key selected regions — demonstrating that we can meet the challenges of the Network Age.
We have to embark on a new course that gives us a fighting chance to show what public media can do in journalism and education.
The National Broadband Plan makes an important statement about its own future: “The plan is in beta, and always will be. Like the Internet itself, the plan will always be changing—adjusting to new developments in technologies and markets, reflecting new realities, and evolving to realize the unforeseen opportunities of a particular time” (National Broadband Plan, Executive Summary XV).
Do we have the will to put public media into a new beta phase?
Foundations go back to the future
Before the Public Broadcasting Act codified the current system, national foundations put forth a vision of what public media could be in this country. They supported many of the field’s historical achievements. The legacy of Ford and Carnegie is clearly inscribed in the field’s history. MacArthur has stalwartly supported independent and emerging voices. Knight has made a singular contribution, stimulating innovation in public interest journalism. Targeted investments and a strategic series of convenings have helped to focus the thinking of the field’s leadership over the last two years.
Foundations have also provided an important force for bringing new partners into the conversation. Bridging the established players in public media and new entrants in the nonprofit media arts community remains elusive, but national funders have sowed the seeds through their efforts and dollars. Now the effort must go further. National foundations have to work with regional foundations and major donors to successfully underwrite solutions in local communities. The Network Age has flattened the innovation space at a time when local communities are confronting problems that reflect the global economy they compete in. Coordinated efforts by funders can set the conditions for broadband public media by providing the incentives for risk and collaboration.
Enough has been said about the collapse of commercial journalism. It is time for public media to step up. What viable alternative is there? Early signs point to positive movement. CPB, under Pat Harrison’s leadership, has made enormous investments in journalism this year to move the system in positive directions, with more announcements expected soon. This is heartening. A handful of stations have developed exceptionally strong regional newsrooms and are expanding their capacity to do more. NPR is excelling under Vivian Schiller’s leadership. But the system has much further to go before it can link these successes together, use National Broadband Plan’s momentum and pivot our business model toward growth.
The great infusion of innovative hyperlocal journalism startups and blogs has not yet been weighed down by the challenges of sustainability, though they will experience those struggles. Startups in the commercial and nonprofit sectors face remarkably similar cycles and high failure rates. How well they do will be crucial in raising the sense of urgency across the field. Important new entrants such as The Voice of San Diego and Oakland Local are providing great examples of what success should look like. They are also raising the game of established public media players.
A new network of noncommercial journalism enterprises, enabled by broadband, can fill the market gap in commercial news. Greater experimentation and successful linkages between the major foundation of the public radio community and the contributions of these important startups will be a key indicator of success. Public media companies that understand this are not waiting. They are aggressively moving online, trying many mobile platforms. At American Public Media (the company I work for), we’re looking to deliver news in partnership with the most credible and innovative partners in the field. If public media doesn’t step forward in a big way, this will be its failure for an entire generation.
The challenges of public media are modest, compared with those of the public schools. In the Network Age, children have been the early adopters. Research in literacy and interal learning has shown that digital technologies such as mobile platforms and gaming can yield astounding results in student achievement and family engagement.
Schools also struggle with their own legacy — they have habitually treated students as if each new generation is the same as the last. Public media efforts have been impressively nimble in meeting the changing student. The innovations of Sesame Street benefit children all over the world. PBS Kids dominates the web with high-quality content and games. WGBH’s Teacher’s Domain, Maryland Public Television’s Thinkport and KQED’s Quest are all education services optimized for broadband. Teachers use these resources all the time.
The challenge in education is relatively simple: Widen the bandwidth to schools and public media and support content for this critical public service. Driving demand for broadband requires families to see the value beyond bits. They must see impact. Students must do better.
We can point to great examples of success in places as different as the Bay Area and Lafayette, La. In a broadband project linking these communities, students from widely separated classrooms collaborate online to develop scientific visualizations, video games and digital media productions. Their teachers can guide this next-generation curriculum because they have the bandwidth to connect in real time. They can treat the Internet like a platform for effective teaching and not a rare, exotic distraction. This work is made possible by the collaboration of two partners from different sides of the public media system — the Bay Area Video Coalition and Louisiana Public Broadcasting. For this next-generation program, broadband is the connective tissue. We need more examples like that.
UCAN: community anchor
National Broadband Plan Recommendation 8.22: “. . . the federal government and state governments should develop an institutional framework that will help America’s anchor institutions obtain broadband connectivity, training, applications and services.”
Here the FCC plan calls for creation of the Unified Community Anchor Network. The UCAN would serve as a network of networks to bring next-generation Internet broadband to the nation’s public sector and nonprofit organizations that connect citizens to our democracy. These are the same stakeholders who could be great local partners in integrated delivery of content and services.
The great potential of UCAN framework can be seen in the Public Media Map under development by the National Center for Media Engagement in collaboration with CPB’s Public Affairs Initiative. This online map, with layers of local public-media experiments, broadband initiatives and related activities, at www. publicmediamaps.org tells the story of a developing Public Media Ecosystem.
Like the Broadband Plan, it will always be in beta, as the layers become more robust and new contributors, organizations and communities contribute their activities to it. We can use these media technologies to see and pursue their possibilities around regional nodes where experimentation can be fruitful and resources are available to be networked. We can also see in the map where there are gaps to be addressed. By supporting the creation of the UCAN, public media will advance the next critical infrastructure for meeting its mission — broadband.
The National Broadband Plan makes two distinct observations for Broadband and Public Media: “First, broadband technology can only make a valuable contribution to our civic dialogue if everyone has access to it. Second, public media will play a critical role in the development of a healthy and thriving media ecosystem” (National Broadband Plan, page 303).
The plan makes a wide range of recommendations on how to create, fund and manage the process of moving the system toward broadband. We don’t need to judge the merits of each of those right now. This will all take time to work out at a federal level. On a local level, we can develop community laboratories that prove the public media proposition. The new ecosystem described in the National Broadband Plan is comprised of layers.
The graphic above, developed by American Public Media, conveys a logic for developing the ecosystem. Digital technologists like to describe systems in terms of a stack of layers such as the user interface, the application and the network.
In the case of the public media system, this is how we have described these layers:
Connectivity: It all begins with the infrastructure that allows communities to reliably and efficiently connect to the knowledge economy. This means widely accessible, high-speed broadband connections to the Internet.
Community Anchors: Schools, hospitals, libraries, colleges, public safety agencies, local governments and other community anchor institutions play critical roles in economic development, job training, education, health care and access to services. High-capacity broadband is the key infrastructure they need to provide 21st-century services to their communities.
Universal Access: Like water, electricity and roads, high-speed broadband must be within reach of all Americans. You should be able to participate in the knowledge economy regardless of who you are, where you live or how much money you make.
Public Media: In an age of increasingly segmented commercial media, access to relevant information and civil dialogue becomes more important than ever. Through high-speed broadband connections, audiences all over the United States—not just those in or near the major urban centers—can access the range of comprehensive, objective content about the issues that truly shape their communities and their world.
Community: The nation’s social fabric has gone online. That has driven incredible innovation and economic development for the global economy. America can be the laboratory for both democracy and innovation. Broadband is the infrastructure to make it happen.
This way of thinking helps tremendously with comprehension of complex systems. We can borrow from it to see how we can pursue emerging opportunities of the Network Age.
With effective leadership and a renewed commitment to building the right infrastructure and services for the American people today, the funding and community investment will follow. The challenges are many, the dynamics are complex, and resources are in short supply.
The benefits have also never been more important for our nation. In a world that has outgrown the town meeting, public media are nothing less than the content for our democracy.
Web page posted March 23, 2010
Copyright 2010 by Current LLC