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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,21 to establishing a National Journalism Foundation,22 to funding a “public-media corps,”23 to reviving the Carnegie Commission’s call for a Public Media Trust.24

There are two outstanding needs: (1) content and (2) 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 the 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 offer 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? A coordinating body of this sort might be created 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, the public broadcasting stations reach almost every community in the nation—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, its mixture of content production with distribution functions, and its multiple-source funding, impede collective efforts.25

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. This would require incentives from the federal government and a clear mandate to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to execute the change. But such an approach 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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