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May 03 2012

16:40

On World Press Freedom Day, the spread of mobile and publishing technology shifts the playing field

It’s World Press Freedom Day, when we set aside time to think about journalists around the world who struggle under repressive conditions to report and tell the truth.

With 44 journalists killed so far this year, 2012 is on track to be the deadliest year for journalists since the International Press Institute began tracking such deaths in 1997. (The exact toll depends on how you count. Reporters Without Borders, for example,puts the count at 22. It only includes deaths that are “clearly established” to have been caused because of someone’s activities as a journalist.) Both counts increased by one overnight with the murder of Somali radio reporter Farhan James Abdulle. He’s the fifth journalist to be killed in Somalia this year, which Reporters Without Borders ranks 164th in the world in press freedom.

But while we honor those working journalists who continue to battle their governments, it’s also worth noting how technology is shifting the playing field of press freedom. The boundaries of the press are expanding — and yet working to guarantee press freedom requires the notoriously slippery undertaking of defining what it is that makes someone a journalist. NPR’s Andy Carvin, who famously tweeted (and retweeted) the Arab Spring, is a professional journalist. But what about all of the citizens on the ground — some professional journalists, many not — who helped populate his Twitter feed with information about what was going on?

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, has given these kinds of questions a lot of thought over the years. In 2005, he founded Global Voices, a network of hundreds of bloggers around the world who work to redress “inequities in media attention by leveraging the power of citizens’ media.”

“It’s really hard to organize a campaign for every blogger who gets in trouble with the law,” Zuckerman told me this week. “In part because often you don’t get arrested for blogging, you get arrested for something else.”

Working on a global scale, and without the formal backing of a news institution, it can become very difficult to determine whether such an arrest was motivated by the person’s journalistic behavior or by some other alleged activity.

Increasingly, there are groups willing to fight for the person being silenced — regardless of whether she’s a professional journalist, and regardless of whether she’s communicating “on paper, by broadcasting, or writing in bytes,” Zuckerman said.

As the power to publish spreads, World Press Freedom Day becomes about more than just “the press” as we’ve traditionally defined it. Zuckerman suggests it’s time to update the way we characterize what we’re trying to protect. Okay, so his alternative might need a bit of marketing polish, but he’s thinking something like “World Digital Public Sphere Freedom Day” or “World Network Public Sphere Freedom Day.”

“This notion of ‘the press’ holds onto this notion that there’s this specialized professional class to inform us about things,” Zuckerman said. “That institution is expanding to the point where the press is really the network public sphere or the digital public sphere. It’s incredibly important that we talk about the ability of journalists to do their jobs safely and without government harassment…But when we think about whether a country has a free press, under my definition, it’s what are the constraints on journalists? What are the constraints on nonofficial journalists [like] bloggers and activists? What are the constraints on the tools people use to discuss the issues of the day?”

Issues of Internet freedom are often framed around information consumption — whether someone in a country can get access to a given website, say. But it’s also about freedom to publish, a capacity that technology continues to spread. “There’s an enormous amount of common ground between the Internet freedom folks and the press freedom folks — and in many cases we’re looking at the same people,” Zuckerman said.

And then there’s mobile. As phones get smarter, the line between Internet users and mobile users blurs. According to the International Telecommunications Union, there were 2 billion people using the Internet at the start of last year. At the same time, there were 5.3 billion mobile phone subscriptions.

“It is absolutely unbelievable how rural a village you can be in, and the only things for sale will be yams, ground nuts, and phone cards,” Zuckerman said. “This is bringing in hundreds of millions of people who were not online previously. It’s a really crazy change, and what I think all of us are sort of predicting is, in the next five years, the distinction between those numbers — are you online or are you on the phone? — it’s just going to disappear. It’s going to be an irrelevant number.”

What’s good from a connectivity standpoint is not always good from a digital freedom standpoint, and this discrepancy goes to how the very structure of the Internet differs from how mobile networks are built.

“The Internet has this incredibly radically decentralized architecture where there are points of potential control, but there are a lot more of them, and it’s often possible to evade that control,” Zuckerman said. “On the mobile phone network, that’s a very different story. They tended to be built with the ability to wiretap and eavesdrop.”

When two Western journalists were killed with rockets in Syria earlier this year, The Telegraph reported that the Syrian military had tracked them down using their cell phone signals. In countries with weak legal systems and strong governments, mobile networks very quickly become a tool for government intelligence, so being an independent reporter “becomes a very difficult thing to do,” Zuckerman said.

It’s part of why groups like Mobile Active set out to educate people about the inherent security risks that mobile networks entail. Its Safer Mobile initiative includes guides and training on text-messaging risks, apps to block wiretappers, secure chat mechanisms, information on satellite phones, tips on how to safely file stories from the field, and more. The bottom line: True anonymity on a mobile network is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

“The approach that people are taking right now is just trying to get people to understand these networks much more thoroughly: ‘Here are ways you might be safe or might be unsafe,’” Zuckerman said. “The problem is, we often end up saying, ‘You shouldn’t use that.’ But that’s crazy thing to say because for most people, that’s their main information device.”

Photo by Superstrikertwo used under a Creative Commons license.

March 11 2011

19:00

Funding public media: How the US compares to the rest of the world

With this week’s NPR news has renewing the debate about de-funding public broadcasting, it’s worth highlighting a recent report (pdf) that puts our public broadcasting system into perspective when compared with 14 countries around the world.

Though cutting public broadcasting appropriations to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would essentially limit the “public” nature of our system by cutting out the government, it’s important to remember that most public radio stations receive only about 10 percent of their money from CPB. For many public radio stations, though, if it comes to it, the loss of this federal money may make it all the harder to sustain local programming — and local newsgathering — if it cannot be found elsewhere.

Taking a look at the report, compiled by Rodney Benson and Matthew Powers of NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication, which includes a close breakdown of the public service models of Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the UK.

Some key findings:

• US per capita spending on public broadcasting is $4.
• Research fairly consistently shows that public television, simply put, makes for better quality news.
• As a corollary, public service television, at least in Denmark, Finland, the UK, and the US, makes people better informed and encourages higher levels of news consumption.
• The most trusted public broadcasters are those that are perceived as closest to the public, and most distant from the government and advertisers.
• While some countries play around with appropriations, many of these are for multi-year periods, creating some insulation from political pressure. And other countries, like the UK, Japan, and the Netherlands, rely primarily on license fees.
• Independent buffers between governments and the broadcasters help keep the government out of the content.
• Public broadcasters are all over the board when it comes to Internet transitions. Some are trying to figure out how to raise the money to make things more innovative, while others, like the BBC, are pioneers.
• Government newspaper subsidies are alive and well, and have been for a long time — many since the 1970s. They help keep afloat struggling newspapers and create a diversity of opinion. In some cases, they are even sponsoring innovation online. They exist in Belgium, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.
• Public broadcasters, even in Europe, are facing pressure from commercial broadcasting — and hedge between trying to fulfill public service missions and compete by appealing to large audiences.
• It could be a lot worse.

In New Zealand, in 1989, the public broadcaster TVNZ lost all its funding and was actually required to produce dividends to pay back to the national treasury. Though some public funding has been restored, pretty much all New Zealand has is New Zealand on Air, a public media agency that gives out public funding to commercial and non-commercial channels. New Zealand has managed to keep Radio New Zealand publicly funded.

Some recommendations the report includes:

• Just because we aren’t Europe doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to have strong public broadcasting.
• Make appropriations for multi-year arrangements, or better yet, establish a trust for public broadcasting.
• As the authors note: “The question is not if government should be involved, but how, and that is a question that demands an in-depth conversation, not a shouting match.”

The report makes a claim worth interrogating, though: the idea that few outlets providing public interest programming, commercial or non-commercial, reach a broad public audience. Just to take issue with that, the evening news figures — in total viewership — for February 21, 2011 look something like this:

NBC: 9,830,000
ABC: 8,400,000
CBS: 6,450,000

But NPR’s weekly reach on Morning Edition is 14 million and 13 million for All Things Considered. So it may be that more public interest news, and public service news, is reaching more people than we think. And the audience has continued to grow.

Benson and Powers are not alone in suggesting a public trust for news; they were joined by a chorus of reports last year looking for sustainability for news. But the question is: Could such a trust be established at a time of political discord when the very viability of the concept of publicly funded media is on the table?

October 04 2010

19:21

Spot.Us Users: Public Media Higher Quality Than Commercial

This post was written by Jonathan Peters. The data comes from the Free Press sponsorship on Spot.Us, part of our experiment with the Reynolds Journalism Institute in Community-Focused sponsorship.

Profits are killing journalism.

Publishers and editors care more about the bottom line than the quality of their reporting. Newsrooms are shrinking, as a result, and good stories have gone untold. The public is worse off because of it.

So goes one argument, at least, in the debate about public funding of journalism. It's a hot topic that appears immune to any clear-cut solution, and it's shaking the foundation of what it means to do journalism and the best way to do it. Among the big questions are:

Should public funding expand to cover the gaps left by the shrinking private news business?

Could it expand without government support, and would this create conflicts?

Would a heavily subsidized public media serve us better than the private media?

If so, how?

With a sponsorship from Free Press, we asked the Spot.Us community to tell us what they thought. We then invited the 407 users who took the survey to decide where the sponsorship dollars would go, which is to say we handed over a part of our budget to them in return for their two cents.

Survey Results

Keep in mind, the survey was not scientific, and there was a degree of audience self-selection, i.e., the Spot.Us community. Nonetheless, with several hundred respondents, we did get a diverse set of answers. One interesting thing to note is that, while a previous survey showed a split (almost 50/50) in the "objectivity" debate, this survey on public/private media showed a much more one-sided response. This might be because, as previously suspected, Spot.Us' community overlaps with the "public media" demographic.

To begin, the majority of respondents reported that they listened to NPR (71 percent), read the news online (79 percent), or used non-profit news sources (58 percent), while the minority reported that they received a newspaper at home (37 percent) or donated to non-profit news media (41 percent). From these numbers, we can see among other things that, although the majority listen to NPR or use non-profit news sources, there is a sizeable gap between using non-profit media and donating to them.

In response to a question about programming --"In general, how would you rate the quality of
news, arts and education programming on public media versus commercial media? -- the vast majority (74 percent) said the programming on public media is of higher quality. A mere 19 percent said the programming on public and private media is of equal quality, and only 5 percent said public programming is of lower quality.

Half way through the survey we even switched the ordering of these potential answers to ensure no undue influence. The first half of the respondents saw the answer "public media is of higher quality" first and the second half saw that answer last. In either case the majority viewed the programming as higher quality.

When asked if they would support the creation of a public media endowment to increase funding for educational programs, arts, and investigative journalism, respondents overwhelmingly said yes (84 percent), with only 3 percent saying no and the rest undecided. Likewise, they would overwhelmingly support (93 percent) the creation of a matching grant program that would combine foundation grants with public funding to support innovation and investment in local news and journalism.

So far, all of this suggests that respondents like to use non-profit media; they believe public programming is of higher quality than private programming; they would support public endowment and matching grant programs to increase funding; however, they do not necessarily make personal donations to those ends.

The respondents, with their generally favorable view of public media, also said more conflicts arise in journalism that relies on commercial advertising than in journalism that relies on taxpayer funding.  Fifty-seven percent believed that to be true, while 12 percent said taxpayer funding creates more conflicts, and 31 percent said neither creates more conflicts and that strong firewalls between funding and journalists can prevent bias.


Other Questions

We also asked a few open-ended questions.

The first one was, "What should be the role of public and noncommercial media in the future of journalism?" Below are a few anecdotal responses from Spot.Us members who gave us permission to publish their views.

"Journalism should be supported by the public, but traditionally the expectation by newspaper executives has been to not ask for the public to support their product. Journalists and news executives have an obligation to build better arguments for the public to support the news. In order for that to happen, though, journalism needs to demonstrate value to readers." -- Denise Lockwood

"Non-profit and other alternative funding models will increasingly have to make up for the loss of advertising funded journalism. NPR has done this already but more needs to happen. There will need to be a broader range of non-profit media orgs than we have right now, and non-profits focused on substantive issues (environment, human rights, etc.) will increasingly become news providers themselves. Hopefully, some of these new iterations will be exemplars in terms of how to establish and benefit from partnerships and collaborative models. We may see more "temporary" journalism outlets as non-profit news outlets spring up and die out in this transitional period." -- Melissa Wall

"Journalist(s) need to figure out how to make their product of value to the community. While I love NPR and that model, nothing is wrong with a profit. Good journalism should be able to support itself, but for decades now people have ranked journalist right up there with lawyer, car salesman and politician. That has to change and we need to be honest why people feel that way." -- Eddie North-Hager

"Ideally, publicly funded media should focus solely on communications that are not commercially viable. However there has to be focus on what the public is interested in, not just what is in the public interest. Without remaining relevant and interesting, public media becomes irrelevant." -- Spot.Us Community Member

"Another question should be what is the public's role in public media. I think public media should be a place where people can go to tell their stories (think storycorps) where discussions can happen where people of all sides can hear each others voices (think bbc's have your say); Chicago's vocalo is interesting in this way. Recent "pubcamps" are interesting in this way. NPR opening up its API is interesting in this way, in that they invite programmers and technologists to participate. I think the quality of public broadcasting is high, but airtime is at a premium, they should find ways to put MORE programs on the web and open up the airwaves for new talent. I think funding is an issue too. I live in Paris and stream programs live from any number of stations; I also podcast my favorites. I don't know which station I should support, I know I want to support specific programs. I know I want to support NPR; but I don't have a local station and I don't know that I want one." -- John Tynan

The second open-ended question was, "In the past, government has provided tax breaks to media companies, given broadcasters free licenses for public airwaves, funded PBS and NPR, and subsidized newspapers through legal ads and postal rates. What should be the government's role in the future?"  Below, again, are a few anecdotal responses:

"Regulation is necessary (else, the commercial media could say anything they wanted, regardless of effect or truth), but I don't like the government's involvement in the money behind broadcasting.  Things start to sound like China with its enmasse censorship of media incoming and outgoing. Free speech should remain free - free of censorship and influence. If you think publishing or reporting a story will keep the government from sending you extra funds, you aren't likely to print it. Thus, the free press becomes the mouthpiece for a government and nothing more.

This said, I think government subsidizing of NPR and PBS is important because these are services funded by donations from watchers/listeners, and that is who they (should) have loyalty to first because that is where the money is coming from, rather than political parties or politicians." -- Kaylene Narusuke

"The old models don't work because in the 1980s, newspapers made a lot of money from ads and became very profitable, changing the expectations from the owners. Those expectations haven't changed while the competition for ads has. Newspapers adopted the USA-Today model, dumbing down stories, writing shorter and more shallow stories. People want deep, well written stories in any format. Government agencies could support investigative reporting, specialty reporting, and reporting on the arts, but the public has to be willing to pay for responsible journalism." -- Yvonne

"Government should recognize that high-quality journalism is an important part of a healthy democracy, and that well-informed citizens are more engaged and more likely to vote. Government should expand direct funding for public media beyond PBS and NPR by creating a grant program for organizations developing new kinds of public-media models." -- Lila LaHood

"I don't see a problem with calculated tax breaks for the media industry whether it's limiting taxes on the purchases of paper products or electronic devices. To me that's no different than oil companies, banks, light manufacturing getting financial breaks or incentives to conduct business. Those who represent converged or multimedia take issue with this, citing these as out-dated mediums with failed business models. Therefore, they should not be buoyed with tax dollars and in a true capitalism, failed businesses disappear and make way for newer, better models." -- Kevin Smith

"All of these things are helpful, but American journalism really needs something more revolutionary right now. Stop thinking about tax breaks and advertising and start thinking about something equal to the National Endowment for the Arts, but replace 'Arts' with 'Journalism'. I hope our leaders act now before we lose the 4th Estate, and a generation of enthusiastic young journalists." -- Daysha Eaton


So there you have it, the views of the Spot.Us community on public vs. private journalism.  Any of it surprise you?  Confuse you?  Bore you?  Tell us your thoughts in the comments section!

May 06 2010

19:05

China Tightens Media Control at Shanghai Expo

In honour of the Expo Shanghai China, the biggest display of Chinese might since the 2008 Olympic Games, Reporters Without Borders is inviting Internet users to visit a page on its website, the "Garden of Freedoms," that's dedicated to the freedoms that are often oppressed in China.

Hundreds of countries, regions and corporations are participating in this exhibition, but none of them have dared to make free expression part of their pavilions for fear of upsetting the Chinese authorities. Those authorities issued a directive on the eve of the opening of the Expo that said:

As regards the activities of the central authorities during the Shanghai Expo, all the media must use the reports of the Xinhua central news agency or other central media outlets. The other media must not publish their own reports and must not ask national leaders questions during their visits to Shanghai.

It added: "As regards the inaugural ceremony, you must respect the already established rules. It is forbidden to express reservations and if any incident suddenly takes place, it is forbidden to report it without permission or to publish any comment."

106 Netizens and Journalists in Jail

img-expo.jpgThat kind of control and repression is commonplace in China. As of today, 106 netizens and reporters are in jail there because they tried to challenge the kind of rules expressed in the directive. China has more people in prison for exercising freedom of expression than any other country in the world.

In light of that fact, Reporters Without Borders is asking Americans to sponsor at least one of these prisoners. By adding your name to a list of a prisoner's supporters, you receive updates on their situation and help create awareness about the importance of their release.

'State Secret' Gets Wide Definition

Chinese authorities often use the "state secret" excuse to justify jailing dissidents and journalists. Of course, the definition of "state secret" is very broad and leaves the door open to all sorts of abuses.

In the latest expansion of this tool for repression, on April 29 China adopted an amendment to the State Secrets Law that forces Internet and telecommunications companies to cooperate closely with the authorities on matters relating to national security.

Under the amendment, which will take effect on October 1, these companies are required to block transmission of state secrets over their networks, to keep records of the activity, and alert authorities to possible violations. They could also be forced to suppress certain kinds of content.

In reality, these companies already cooperate with the authorities on national security matters. Will this new amendment require them to be more pro-active, and therefore engage in tighter censorship? The law also doesn't say if foreign companies in these sectors are impacted.

The Propaganda Department, which is loyal to President Hu Jintao, whom Reporters Without Borders deemed a Predator of Press Freedom, has also launched a new offensive against the "hostile forces" that are allegedly using the Internet to destabilize China.

Wang Chen, the number two leader in the department, has urged parliamentarians to adopt an Internet Administration Law in order to block "dangerous reports" and prevent "infiltration of the Internet by hostile forces."

These issues are the backdrop for Expo Shanghai China, which has the slogan "Better city, better life." A more apt motto would be "Censored city, censored life."

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

December 04 2009

20:14

Iran Cracks Down on Internet Expression, Bloggers, Journalists

45298227.jpgLast week, the Iranian blogger Sasan Aghaei, who runs the site Azad Tribun, was arrested by intelligence ministry officials after they carried out a search of his Tehran home. It is not known where he was taken. Aghaei is also a reporter for the daily newspaper Farhikhteghan, and he's the third employee of the paper to be arrested since the election. His two other colleagues, Reza Norbakhsh and Masoud Bastani, were both given six-year jail sentences.

The Iranian police recently stepped up their efforts at Internet censorship by creating a special 12-member unit. The unit is under the supervision of the prosecutor general and is charged with acting "against fraud attempts, commercial advertising and false information" and hunting down "insults and lies."

This is just the latest troubling development in a country that is now the biggest imprisoner of cyber-dissidents in the Middle East. Currently, eight Iranian cyber-dissidents are in jail for expressing their opinions online. Among them, four were jailed after the disputed June 12 presidential election. At least 100 journalists and bloggers have been arrested since the election, and 32 are still being held. At the same time, roughly 50 other journalists have been forced to flee the country to escape the relentless repression.

Back in August, Iran adopted a new cyber-crime law that gave the police free reign to crack down on the Internet, and they are taking full advantage of it in order to prevent government opponents from sharing information. So far, the police are blocking thousands of news websites, and putting people in jail.

As the world saw in the aftermath of the election, Twitter and Facebook were used by Iranians to fill a void left by the regime's censorship of journalists. More than a million Iranians took to the streets to demonstrate during Friday prayers on July 17, and they relied on the Internet and mobile phones to help organize and communicate. Local and international journalists were not allowed to cover the event. On top of that censorship, people who used the Internet and social networks to spread news and information are now being accused of spying or "conspiring against the Islamic Republic."

At one point, the regime described the news media as a "means used in an attempt to overthrow the state." It's therefore no surprise to see it ridding itself of these undesired witnesses by jailing them or forcing them to flee the country.

Revolutionary Guard Goes After Bloggers, Others

The Revolutionary Guard, a branch of the Iranian military that's closely linked to the Supreme Leader, is directly involved in online censorship. On June 17, it ordered all website editors to remove "any content which encourages the population to riot or which spreads threats or rumors."

cartoons.jpgSince June 12, at least 10 bloggers have been detained by the authorities. Hadi Heidari, a well-known cartoonist who edits a Persian cartoon website, was arrested in Tehran on October 22. He was attending a religious tribute to political prisoners at the home of Shehaboldin Tabatabai, a leading supporter of the reformist party Participation. Tabatabai was also arrested. Heidari was eventually released in November.

Aside from him, Hassin Assadi Zidabadi, a blogger who also heads a student human rights committee, was arrested in October. Mohammad Davari, the editor of reformist website Etemad Melli, is also in prison. His colleague, Fariba Pajooh, a journalist who also runs a Persian blog, was arrested on August 24, and is still imprisoned at the Evin jail after being summoned to the Tehran Revolutionary Court.

Of course, the most famous journalist to have been arrested and held by the regime is Maziar Bahari. He recently gave an interview to Fareed Zakaria, which you can watch here:

Journalists Fleeing Iran in Droves

The list of people detained and arrested in Iran grows longer every day. Bloggers are being targeted just as much as traditional journalists. Newspapers are now controlled by the regime. As a result, Iran is currently experiencing its biggest exodus of reporters since the 1979 revolution.

Among the fleeing reporters and bloggers, many have been mistreated, tortured or jailed. They leave the country in order to avoid physical violence or another arrest. Most of them escape with the help of smugglers, a process that exposes them to great danger. In the countries where they initially seek refuge, such as Turkey, Iraq or even Afghanistan, they are exposed to more harassment and police surveillance.

The current campaign of brutality, intimidation and censorship in Iran is slowly but surely thinning the ranks of the country's independent journalists and bloggers. They are being forced to choose between saying nothing, speaking out and being jailed, or fleeing the country. In truth, that's no choice at all.

*****

In light of the reporters' exodus, Reporters Without Borders is launching an appeal for financial support for these journalists and bloggers. You can learn more and do your part here.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

December 01 2009

18:45

FTC Should Consider Policy Reform to Support Public Media 2.0

It's been a busy season for prognosticators who examine the intersection of public policy and media. Today will be particularly hectic for them, as journalists, bloggers, public broadcasters and policy wonks pack into a session at the Federal Trade Commission to ponder, yet again, "How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?" (Submit your own thoughts via Twitter here).

tfon.jpg

Two weeks ago, the Future of News Summit in Minneapolis considered the fate of regional journalism. And throughout 2009, there have been countless closed-door conversations mapping out different scenarios about how policy solutions might help salvage reporting capacity.

At these events, the public or non-profit model is often presented as an answer. The amount of serious reporting is diminishing, the argument goes, so public broadcasters should rush into the breach. In their much-discussed paper, The Reconstruction of American Journalism, Michael Schudson and Len Downie put it this way:

Public radio and television should be substantially reoriented to provide significant local news reporting in every community served by public stations and their Web sites. This requires urgent action by and reform of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, increased congressional funding and support for public media news reporting, and changes in mission and leadership for many public stations across the country.

Despite the scope of the challenge, foundations and public broadcasters are taking these calls to action to heart. The CPB and Knight Foundation are teaming up to fund the $3 million Argo Project, which supports local reporting focused on specific topics by journalist-bloggers based at stations. Under the leadership of president and CEO Vivian Schiller, NPR has been making bold plays to build a multi-platform news network that bridges local and national news production.

As someone who is watching this shift of focus, it seems as though the move to increase resources for journalism is less a result of a top-down policy change, and more a matter of internal policy decisions on the part of the many organizations that comprise the public broadcasting system. You could even say it's something of a grassroots movement, with scattered reporting experiments cropping up at stations around the country.

Of course, any increase in taxpayer dollars for public broadcasting might be earmarked to support even more reporters. But serious policy proposals need to go further. Simply producing additional news doesn't address the demand side of the issue.

Engaging the Public

As we've been arguing at the Center for Social Media, successful Public Media 2.0 projects must directly convene publics to learn about and tackle shared problems. This means more than just handing out yet another serving of information to a surfeited audience; it's about engaging users at every phase -- planning, funding, production, distribution, conversation, curation, and mobilization -- to make sure that all stakeholders' voices are included. This ensures different perspectives are aired, and that content is interesting, relevant and accurate. As the "Instant White Paper" that was issued after the Future of News Summit noted:

The needs of the audience can no longer be taken for granted, and new and creative efforts must be devised to listen authentically to the public (not in a check-the-box fashion, which CPB President and CEO Patricia Harrison said tends to be the case), and then provide them with quality information that is both enticing and informative. "Draw me in. Engage me. Challenge me," said longtime public radio consultant and online attendee Israel Smith, "make the radio (or whatever platform) experience as compelling as the journalism. If not, I'll go somewhere else." As MPR's Chris Worthington put it, we need to "listen more to the audience" to understand what the gaps in journalism are we need to fill, and what sort of journalism they will value.

Okay, that's a start. Listening to audiences is good; partnering with them to solve problems would be even better. But what other policy strategies might support a media system that makes this possible? Here are a few suggestions.

Amending the Public Broadcasting Act

A more responsive, dynamic public media system is already evolving hand-in-hand with the ever-increasing availability of high-speed broadband. The FCC has been calling for its own hearings and public comments to support the creation of a national broadband plan. In response, Center for Social Media fellow Ellen Goodman, who is also a professor at Rutgers University School of Law in Camden, submitted a set of comments that outline how public media could spur broadband adoption.

To allow it to do so effectively, she suggests, Congress will need to take another look at the Public Broadcasting Act. Titled, "Digital Public Media Networks to Advance Broadband And Enrich Connected Communities," Goodman's comments offer up a set of new parameters for public media: she argues that it should be accessible, modular, engaging, networked, diverse, innovative, and transparent. Taken together, these new characteristics form the acronym "AMEND-IT" -- a provocative suggestion that will raise eyebrows at some traditional public broadcasting institutions.

A Presidential Commission

Media reformers from the Free Press have also been calling for a reboot of public broadcasting legislation. Earlier this month, executive director Josh Silver told Current, the newspaper that serves the public broadcasting sector, that the organization is lobbying the Obama administration to appoint a bi-partisan "high-level, White House-sanctioned commission" to consider "the information needs of citizens in a digitally networked democracy." This language mirrors that of the recent Knight Commission report, which makes its own pitch for boosting funding to public media.


newpublicmedia.jpg

Candace Clement of Free Press coordinates the organization's New Public Media campaign. She said that the first step in reinvigorating public media is broadening the definition of the sector.

"For us, public media means non-commercial media that is created by a wide variety of organizations and individuals," she said. "The traditional conception includes NPR and PBS, but we also include community media, and local or national providers who are providing the media that commercial media won't."

She stressed that recent legislative campaigns are focused not only on supporting new forms of media production, but on preserving the capacity of citizens to report via older platforms, such as low-power radio and cable access stations. Such platforms are still quite valuable at the local level, especially for users who haven't yet made it online, and don't often see their concerns reflected in large, for-profit media.

Clement ticked off other planks in the New Public Media campaign platform, including changing how public media is funded, taking a more critical look at governance structures, increasing diversity within the sector and the content it produces, and supporting infrastructure and technology improvements that will allow public media makers to stay accessible and relevant.

"We have a system," she said, "but it needs a lot of changes before it can do the kind of work we need it to do."


Policy solutions to support journalism are not called out explicitly in the New Public Media campaign, but are a central focus of a related Free Press campaign, Save the News. The organization marshaled more than 2,000 citizens to respond to the FTC's call for comment for today's event.

Turbulence Ahead

For many, be they reporters, citizens or news media moguls, the idea of government-supported media sets off warning bells. Some worry that federal funding could stifle criticism, generate political conflicts of interest, or at the very least result in what Jeff Jarvis described as boring "broccoli journalism."

Conservatives like Glenn Beck of Fox News see public media policy reform as a land grab by liberals that -- somewhat paradoxically given the increasingly open media ecosystem -- could muzzle free speech. Libertarians argue that government should stay out of the news business (along with everything else, thank you very much), likening it to "a welfare system for journalists." Local communities are wrestling with questions about whether their stations' top priorities should be news production or civic engagement.

All of this means that, as Richard Gingras, CEO of Salon Media quipped at the Minneapolis summit, for now at least, "The future of news is a future of conferences about the future of news."

Prognosticators, keep those bags packed.

Jessica Clark directs the Future of Public Media project at American University's Center for Social Media. There, she conducts and commissions research on media for public knowledge and action, and organizes related events like the Beyond Broadcast conference. She is also the co-author of a forthcoming book, "Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media," due out from the New Press in December 2009.

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