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January 10 2011


Spot.Us Survey Shows Support for More Diverse Public Media

The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy made 15 recommendations on how America can have a bright info-future. One of those recommendations was for increased support for public media predicated on public media efforts to "step up," for lack of a better term.

Public media has been on the minds and lips of a lot of Americans. Certainly the last few years have seen a growth in public media across the board from Corporation for Public Broadcasting entities (PBS, NPR) to less formal public media entities like PRX and PRI. Recently, as a follow-up to the work of the Knight Commission Barbara Cochran wrote a policy paper "Rethinking Public Media: Mort Local, More Inclusive, More Interactive." From the Knight Commission blog post:

At a time when government funding for public broadcasting is hotly debated, "Rethinking Public Media: More Local, More Inclusive, More Interactive," a new policy paper by Barbara Cochran, offers five broad strategies and 21 specific recommendations to reform public media.

It's an excellent piece of reading that breaks down some of the roadblocks and opportunities that lay ahead for public media.

Beyond white papers, however, it's important that the public be able to speak their mind about public media. That's why, thanks to the support of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, the institutional home of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, Spot.Us surveyed 500 members about the state of public media in their community.

The goal was to find out where public media is strong, weak and what suggestions the public might have for public media. Not only did this survey raise awareness about the growing role of public media, it supported media as well. Every member of our community that took the survey was given $5 in credits to fund the story of their choice on our site.

And The Survey Says....

How Big Is Your Community?
Before we can examine the survey in-depth I should remind folks that this is a sponsored survey of a somewhat self-selecting community (and our community is perhaps more media-savvy than other websites). That said, our first question was aimed at getting a sense of where people lived. One of the trends we often hear is that major metropolitan areas are better served by public media than smaller locations. Our survey affirmed this.

Just over 60 percent of respondents were from major metropolitan areas. Another 17 percent were from large cities. Only a handful (12 percent) came from towns with a population of 50,000 or less. Our survey skewed toward major metropolitan areas and in total they were happier with public media than folks in more rural areas. This should be kept in the back of our minds when we dive into the remaining questions and answers.
Spot.Us community member Mike Labonte summed up the frustration with public media in small towns when he wrote his suggestion to improve public media in his town: "Presence. The only public media in my city of 70,000 is the local public access cable TV station."

The next question in our survey allowed for multiple answers: "Who has an influential role in shaping media in your area?" It's an important question to ask because while the ecosystem continues to change many charge public media with the role to unite various media forces together. The results of this question were proven interesting again; as much as things have changed -- they also stay the same.

Newspapers and national broadcast television were considered influential by the most respondents. Just over 75 percent of people who took the survey selected papers as being influential. Local bloggers garnered 188 votes or just 37 percent of those that took the survey. While that's still a hefty number, it was the lowest concrete choice (it performed better than "other") and came in just below "elected officials."
Community member Laurie Pumper noted: "One small but telling example: Public radio went out of its way to keep a citizen journalism organization from providing live-streaming of a gubernatorial debate in Minnesota. If an organization accepts public funding, I expect better cooperation with other sources of media."

Next we asked how people got involved in public media. The respondents had three overwhelming answers: Social media, the general website and donating. The overlap between these three was also very strong. Almost everyone who said they donated engaged through the website and social media. Although the reverse trend was not as strong (i.e. somebody who engaged through social media might not donate), there was still a correlation.

In light of the number of respondents who said they volunteer or worked for public media, the number of people who attended events at their local public media station seemed a little low. Getting out the word can be very important as community member Ben Melançon said: "Dedicating the resources to come and ask what's up, once a month. Taking matters of interest common to multiple local areas they cover and doing very in-depth reports on them."
Next we got to the heart of the survey: How effective is public media at serving the needs and interests of diverse members of the community? While the responses to this aren't an abysmal failure, it does show large room for improvement. A total of 11 percent thought public media in their community was doing a poor job of reflecting diversity. The vast majority of responders selected either "good" (33 percent) or "fair" (32 percent). Because these two combine for 65 percent of all responders it's worth examining the exact language of these answers:
  • Fair -- There are occasional examples of diverse programming, but it's not the norm.
  • Good -- While not perfect, there are obvious efforts to make programming more inclusive.

While these lukewarm answers were the majority only a handful of responders thought public media was doing an "excellent" or "very good" job of reflecting a community's diversity.
And then came the meatiest question: "How well do public media do of informing you about local issues?"

Again we find mixed results, but the overall trend was positive. A majority 69 percent said public media was doing either "average" or "above average" at covering local issues. While it's great to see so few select "poor" (six percent) or "below average" (17 percent), there is still lots of room for improvement when we note that only 8 percent of responders thought public media was doing "fantastic."

In an interesting contrast with an earlier comment, community member Alexis Gonzales said this about the size of a town:

Because I live in a large city, news media -- including public media -- just don't cover 'neighborhood' issues. Frankly, I stopped expecting them to do otherwise until I spent time in smaller-but-not-that-much-smaller city (Portland for example) and noticed how public media seemed so much closer to and integrated into the local community. I think public media could do a better job of covering local issues by reconsidering what is newsworthy ... i.e., neighborhood issues can be of broader interest to the greater community.


The survey also threw in a playful question regarding taxes. Since public media's funding has been a topic of discussion, why not ask the public what they think? The question was arguably loaded, but still worth asking.

The exact language was: "British citizens are taxed $80.36 a year to support the BBC. United States citizens are taxed only $1.36. Knowing it would mean more taxes you believe the following." Then respondents could decide if they wanted to lower taxes to $0 or raise them to "beat the British."

This question was asked in part to educate, since many people don't realize how little our media is subsidized by taxes compared to other countries and in part to provoke responses around a hotly debated topic.

About 20 percent of responders thought the taxes should stay the same or even be lowered to $0. Nearly half thought of expanding the taxes a little either doubling it to $2.70 or expanding it to $30. And perhaps because of how the answer was worded  ("Let's beat the British") a whopping 34 percent wanted to raise taxes to $80.37 to fund public media. Either the Spot.Us community has lots of public media fans or a reminder that the British public media is out-funding ours 80-to-1 was too much to bear. (Also note 49 individuals who took the survey work for public media according to their answers to question #3).

From the public's mouth

Finally, our last open-ended question sought advice and input about how public media could improve at the local level. We received 500 responses and below I have republished some of the best with the survey respondents' permission.

Wendy Carrillo

I live in East LA / Boyle Heights. It's very rare that good positive stories are told about my community via TV news. LA Times covers some good stories, but it's not the norm. I would like to see my community being covered w/ national issues other than immigration. Like Latinos who serve in armed forces, or those who are making a difference in the classroom.

Tom Davidson

Engage the emerging local blogosphere -- providing them promotion/audience and, potentially, revenue via bundled sales using the bully pulpit of public media. In other words, why can't a local PBS or NPR station serve the same role as a TBD.com in Washington?

Tim Gihring

They could spice up the reporting. The no rant/no slant approach is appropriate, but the reporting is often simple, dry, and probably not engaging as broad an audience as possible as a result.

Henry Jenkins

Right now, Los Angeles seems poised to lose its PBS station, which is going independent. This is a good news, bad news situation. Some of its best current projects are local and these will continue and grow. But we will also lose some of the programs from PBS which we have come to expect and they will be missed.

Ruth Ann Harnisch

Deploy the resources of journalism majors and graduate students in the many universities and colleges located in and around the major metro areas. Collaborate with universities and colleges to cover more beats, produce more stories, create more outlets, uncover more potential advertisers and train better journalists.

Tom Stites

My community, Newburyport, Mass., is an hour north of Boston, a half hour south of Portsmouth, N.H., and an hour and 10 minutes south of Portland, Maine. I listen to public radio from all three, and no one covers Newburyport or its surrounding area. In fact, we're in a fringe reception area for all the stations. What would be really cool would be to have a low-power, listener-supported station right here in Newburyport. There's a local AM station that plays old music but has no local news presence.
Perhaps where I live makes me an outlier, but I suspect that my situation is quite common -- most public radio stations are in big cities or on university campuses in smaller places. That said, most smaller communities, including mine, don't have colleges.

Jake Bayless

Public media is largely the only not-for-profit trusted local and regional source of info, and source of curated content. I'd like to see that trust "capital" realized -- my local station is in the process of retooling for the new media revolution -- it's not easy to change the battleship's direction. More and amplified info like that from the Knight Commission needs to be put out there. The public at large doesn't yet understand how vital public media SHOULD be in their lives as info consumers. Public media orgs all should adopt "Community Media Projects" in order to learn, listen and meet the information and democratic needs of the communities they serve... everything else is broken, untrustworthy or unsuitable.

Arthur Coddington

Awareness that public media is frequently a partnership between national providers (NPR) and local stations. Those that don't understand this partnership can dismiss the programming as not locally relevant. Visibility. Police who are present and interacting with local residents can generate greater trust and participation in public safety. Similar thing could be true of public media. If they are visible -- if they are not "they" -- then we feel more connected to the stories, more possibility to reach out to them when new issues arrive, etc. Engagement. Partner with schools, libraries and service orgs to unearth essential local stories, create broadcasts about them, and follow up to track impact.

Andria Krewson

Be more aggressive about giving up old ways (and sometimes long-time staffers) to free up resources and time to explore new ways of sharing information. Note on the tax question: I'd support more taxation for public media, but I'm discouraged about the track record used to spend tax money recently and would need total transparency (and some influence) on how money is spent in order to support more taxation.

Chris Mecham

We have a very active NPR-supporting community here but the simple fact is that they are charged with providing service to a huge, mountainous geographic area and while we may, as a community, have an above average rate of contribution, we also have greater infrastructure expenses than many other areas. Considering what Boise State Public Radio does with their resources I think they are doing okay. One of the features of public broadcasting funding in Idaho is that up to a fairly generous limit our contributions are counted as a tax credit. Not a deduction. A credit. "Do I want to give Butch Otter my money or do I want to give Terry Gross my money? Hmmmm."

Lisa Morehouse

Experiment. Be willing to try and fail at new shows, new ways of delivering the news. Invest in reporting. Pay freelancers a fair wage so that journalists without financial support can enter and stay in the profession (not possible now).

Bill Day

Public media should pioneer efforts to build real-time citizen journalist networks. Using low cost distribution and collation tools, public media could become hubs for high-quality, low cost information sharing -- school test scores, water quality, traffic needs, etc.

Sabine Schmidt

Through reaching out to organizations and individuals representing under-served parts of the community, especially economic and ethnic minorities. The demographic makeup of my metro area is changing rapidly due to growing Hispanic, Marshallese, and Hmong populations; except for some Spanish-language newspapers and radio stations, few media outlets report on issues such as immigration, wage theft, bilingual education, etc. Public media could a) report more extensively on those topics -- not as "minority" issues but as issues affecting members of our community; this would require b) establishing a broader definition of what our community is; and c), public media could offer internships and fellowships to young and/or freelance journalists, especially because the local NPR station is run by the university's journalism department.

Antonio Roman-Alcala

I like the Bay Citizen model, and the Public Press ... one for exposing local issues to a broader audience, the other for in-depth local news for locals. I don't know if that counts as public media? Overall, I don't pay much attention to TV news, even public channels...so I'm not sure about that. Public media seems generally underfunded; I'd like to see more funding for it, as well as movement towards a more public-serving private news media (though we know, of course, that's easier said than done).

Alexis Gonzales

Because I live in a large city, news media -- including public media -- just don't cover "neighborhood" issues. Frankly, I stopped expecting them to do otherwise until I spent time in smaller-but-not-that-much-smaller cities (Portland for example) and noticed how public media seemed so much closer to and integrated into the local community. I think Public Media could do a better job of covering local issues by reconsidering what is newsworthy ... i.e. neighborhood issues can be of broader interest to the greater community.

Kaitlin Parker

Find positive happenings to report in communities that are typically only covered when something negative happens there.

Anthony Wojtkowiak

For lack of a better phrase, they need to grow some balls. My town in New Jersey is influenced by political boss George Norcross, the unions, and the mafia. And that's not even the corruption and hubris that goes on in the city itself. What our reporters really need is assertiveness training, media law training, and self-defense courses. But most of all, they need the courage to use all of that stuff.

Todd O'Neill

Our public radio and public television are separate entities that don't work together. Although our public radio is beefing up it's news reporting it seems simple to bring that reporting over to television. But public media is NOT JUST NPR and PBS. We have struggling cable public access community (no funding or support from the city) here and a number of online only community journalism operations (including a Knight grantee) that are all doing their own thing without coordination. Big Public Media (NPR/PBS) should be a leader to bring all of these "under the tent" and provide a real media public service to the community.

Charles Sanders

Actually, local issues aren't my concern. I wish public media reinforced its international coverage and improved its drama, comedy ... content. I envy the BBC.

Martin Wolff

As someone who listens to public media daily, it is sad that I have to try hard to think about a local issue being covered. In that respect, almost anything would improve the coverage as it feels almost, but not quite, non-existent. When local issues are covered they seemingly come in only two forms: 1. A feel good issue that is barely an issue and will create nearly zero discourse in the community. For example, holiday-lights festivals. 2. Wimpy. The interviewer/broadcaster will do nothing while two sides of an issue actively lie to the community and directly contradict each other. Fixing #1 is easy -- nobody really terribly cares, so we don't need 10 minutes of coverage about a mayor flipping the switch and lighting a tree up. Fixing #2 is harder. The public media must stand up for itself better and call out the guilty parties. The public media must step up its role as a sort of police officer of society and arrest those who break the rules.

Yvette Maranowski

ALWAYS retain vigorous capacity for citizen reporters. Fund them with equipment and training. People are busy now and have to work independently, but with lifelines keeping them connected to their media outlets. Use McChesney and Nichol's idea of $200 in tax credit going to every citizen, so that the citizen can donate their credit to whatever organization they choose -- such as journalistic ones. Constantly produce and air/publish material about the importance of journalism -- keep hitting the public with that message!

Andy Edgar

Survey people in the neighborhood for their backgrounds, locations and topics of interest, get them interested in issues that affect everyone. Focus on things like air and water quality, advice on picking up litter and why it's important not to litter, community events, getting to know neighbors' talents/skills, healthy alternatives to fast food and big box grocery stores. Community based ways to prevent crime/hate acts should be talked about explored and tried.

William Forbes

In my community (Minneapolis/St Paul, MN), "public" radio and television are HUGE cash cows. They do a good job and are influential but the real inclusive and diverse media that truly serve the under-represented populations of our area are Community Radio Stations, in particular KFAI. MN Public Television/NPR/MPR/PBS could do a much better job but they are more concerned with maintaining (and increasing) corporate and government funding than with covering issues that don't always have universal appeal.

Michael Hopkins

In its current state, public media is dangerous because it offers the illusion of complete objectivity and truth. Too many people listen to it uncritically because of this. I would like to see public media representatives ask much tougher questions of everybody and hire a much more diverse staff of journalists. The illusion will still be there, but it will match reality more closely.

Jeffrey Aberbach

My community now has a Patch website. It's too early to judge how successful it will be in reaching out to our diverse community, but so far it appears to be more successful than the established, corporate-owned media outlet in town (a poorly staffed small daily newspaper that generates little local content).

Jeddy Lin

In my area, despite being close to a large university, not much of a public media movement exists. A more visible public media would go a long way towards creating a more progressive, diverse community.

Kitty Norton

They could provide better coverage for schools. They seem to report statistics and not real life goings-on in our schools to the community.

Luke Gies

I don't have any television or newspaper service, so I am somewhat "self isolating" from our local media. I get most of my news from the Internet, so I think one area of improvement for local media would be to increase the content and improve the usability of their websites. That is more of an improvement in distribution than in "covering the issues," but distribution is a key component to the reporting of news.

March 29 2010


Better Coordination Needed to Map Local Media Ecologies

Back in 2008, I co-organized a conference called Beyond Broadcast. That year's theme was "mapping public media," and was designed to both call out the rising importance of maps as a platform for sharing digital media, and to "map" the fragmented universe of public service media projects.

The maps I found at the time underscored the siloed nature of news production. There were maps of public TV stations, community media projects, and citizen bloggers, all maintained separately by different entities and aimed at very different users. Such isolation made it difficult to trace the relationships between these different kinds of outlets in any one place.

However, as concerns about local media ecologies have sharpened -- spurred in part by the focus of the Knight Commission on the information needs of communities -- such mapping has taken on a new urgency. Knight provides interested locales with a starting point: A simple survey for assessing the health of their information environment. The Knight Media Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation (NAF), where I'm now a fellow, has begun to develop a set of analyses of local media/governance ecologies.

The goal is to "align policy recommendations with needs on the ground," said Tom Glaisyer, who is coordinating NAF's initiative, and plans to work with others seeking similar information. Various scans of the community media landscape have already been launched, including a survey by the Free Press, a field scan by NAMAC, and this crowdsourced directory of cable access stations. One-off accounts of local news ecologies have also become more common, like Pew Research Center's January study of Baltimore's "news ecosystem" -- the disarray of which was famously chronicled in the HBO series "The Wire." Pew's study suggests that, amidst a rapidly expanding universe of local news projects, newspapers are still leading the pack in providing original reporting, but also notes:

The array of local outlets within this snapshot is already substantial, and as times goes on, new media, specialized outlets and local bloggers are almost certain to grow in number and expand their capacity, particularly if the Sun and other legacy media continue to shrink. New outlets such as local news aggregators, who combine this increasingly mixed universe into one online destination, have cropped up in some other cities such as San Diego. There is a good deal of innovation going on around the country, much of it exciting and promising. But as of 2009, this is what the news looks like in one American city.

A Bird's-Eye View

In order to get a better sense of community news across the country, The National Center for Media Engagement (NCME) embarked on an ambitious project to combine several media maps into one using Google Earth.

Funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the NCME generally works with public radio and TV stations to help them develop outreach strategies for local communities. This map emphasizes those stations, but also includes a variety of other "layers" that represent possible community allies for media makers, such as historically black colleges and universities. Also noted are rising efforts to wire communities for broadband access, and news projects underwritten by funders, including Knight, the Ford Foundation, MacArthur, and CPB.

san francisco map.jpgLayer by layer, the map provides a fascinating look at the geographic distribution of different funding priorities, such as grants that provide media resources to communities facing waves of foreclosures. When all of the layers are clicked on, the map offers a snapshot of how particular locations -- such as San Francisco, pictured at left -- are thick with overlapping projects and outlets, while other parts of the country go begging for resources. Lone stations -- take KILI Radio in Porcupine Butte, South Dakota, for example -- dot the map among blank expanses of terrain, while a cluster of dots in a big, blue stretch remind us that Hawaii has its own public media presence.

This map is just a start: NCME promises its members that, "soon, we'll implement a similar mapping interface to help you discover funding partners, potential local partners, and stories about public media's profound local impact." But there are other layers to be added, too, that would tell a more complete story about all of the various outlets and independent projects providing vital news and information across the country.

Mapping From the Bottom Up

For Sandra Ball-Rokeach, a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication, a crucial missing layer is ethnic media. Ball-Rokeach heads up the Metamorphosis Project, which studies how the communications habits of urban communities are shifting as they become more diverse and globalized.


The project boasts its own map of neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles where researchers have been deployed to interview residents, organizations, and business and community leaders. Their goal is to develop a deep understanding of what they call "indigenous storytelling networks."

Their research reveals that stories about diverse communities are often reported by local ethnic media outlets, which might be speaking only to one portion of the community. These stories are then passed along through both personal networks and through community organizations, like local non-profits.

In this model, the health of the storytelling network is contingent upon other aspects of the community, what Metamorphosis researchers call "the communication action context." These factors include the availability of public spaces, neighborhood safety, and transportation resources, as well as more familiar infrastructure provisions like broadband access. If community residents are discouraged from talking to one another because their context is lacking, then simply establishing new news projects won't fix the problem.

"People put together these ecologies," said Ball-Rokeach. "They're not put together for them."

While NCME's map uses technology to aggregate information about existing and proposed media projects, Ball-Rokeach and her team use a variety of face-to-face investigation methods, including long-form interviews and focus groups, to determine how people are actually sharing and using news to "accomplish everyday goals."

She describes a current USC local media project, called "Alhambra Source," which builds upon Metamorphosis research in the city of Alhambra, bordering Los Angeles to the east. With a population of less than 100,000, Alhambra has large numbers of Latino and Chinese residents. Ball-Rokeach said much of the local reporting is conducted by outlets who communicate with their users in Mandarin. The "Alhambra Source" site will translate news summaries into Spanish, English and Mandarin, allowing stories to be shared more easily across different parts of the community, as well as providing opportunities for residents to share their own stories.

"It's kind of exciting," she said. "We understand that the likelihood of success is low, but we think it's worthwhile because creating sites for homogenous populations is probably not where the action is, given that even medium-sized communities are becoming more diverse."

Bridging the Gap

In order to make sophisticated funding and policy decisions, national efforts like the FCC's current Future of Media Project will need to find ways to bridge these disparate approaches. Right now, communications researchers are still asking very different questions, and attending to different priorities.

Developing common questions and data collection standards will require time, effort and focused collaboration. The challenge is not small, especially given the rapid changes in communications technology, and the pace of experimentation.

"It's a very dynamic process," said Ball-Rokeach. "People resist our efforts to make them static."

Jessica Clark is director of the Center for Social Media's Future of Public Media project, a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, and the co-author of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media.

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March 16 2010


Taking Citizen Journalism to New Levels with Training, Payment, Participation

We've been going through the recent Knight Commission report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, and finding a lot of insights useful to our Iindaba Ziyafika project here in South Africa. Although focused on the U.S., the ideas explored under the commission's three core topics: "Maximizing the Availability of Relevant and Credible Information," "Enhancing the Information Capacity of Individuals," and "Promoting Public Engagement" are helping refine some of our project's approaches.

As I outlined in my previous post, when you are small and local, and don't have much money to invest in investigative journalism, it's essential to have citizen journalists who can help out. But how do we provide them with enough skills and motivation to get information out of officialdom? How do we act on the Knight Commission's recommendations, in particular to "get government at all levels to operate transparently, facilitate easy and low-cost access to public records..." and to "develop systematic quality measures of community information ecologies, and study how they affect social outcomes"?

This is a particular challenge when a big reason for the lack of "easy and low cost access" is not deliberate obstreperousness, (at least, I like to think it is not!) but rather a lack of skills on government's part, and a lack of easy ways for the public to find and access information. While parts of government are digitizing, and the typewriters are (mostly) gone, it is still amazing how little information is available in digital format in South Africa.

To overcome this, we're discovering you have to roll up your sleeves and, at least at a local level, if you have the resources, actually offer to help. Among other projects, we're meeting with the local police and we are close to a deal where we'll help them capture their daily crime reports in digital format. It helps them do their work better, and it could be a hugely important resource for us as a newspaper website.

We're also working with the city council to create and publish clear visual organograms on our website of 'who does what', 'who reports to whom', and how to contact the right city official when you have a problem. We have plans to publish our city council's meeting agendas and, post meetings, the minutes of those meetings, or record of decisions.

But we've also been thinking hard about the possibly even bigger challenges of "enhancing the information capacity of individuals" and the recommendation the commissioners made to "support the activities of information providers to reach local audiences with quality content through all appropriate media, such as mobile." This recommendation goes to the heart of the Iindaba Ziyafika project. We've had a very busy few months, and there are many new projects and sub-projects that directly address these issues of information maximization -- getting more out -- and ease of access -- getting it out in way that is easy to understand and useful. Here's how some of our projects are being taken to the next level.

Intensifying Citizen Journalism Training

In terms of citizen journalism, it's becoming ever more clear that even a modest amount of training goes a long way. We seem to be settling in at around 20 hours of training. More might be too much from a cost point of view (you can never have too much journalism training!), but it appears that 20 hours of well designed, assignment-intensive teaching seems about right. This training must builds on a selection process that helps find the kind of people who have what we believe are core journalism aptitudes: curiosity, a desire to change things, and the ability to persevere where others would give up!

Our second group of 40 adult citizen journalists are now a month into their training. They attend a two-hour session each week. After six weeks -- 12 hours of face-to-face training and a bunch of assignments -- we're confident they'll be ready to get to work. From our first adult group last year, we already have a few 'stars' writing some great stories -- stories we would otherwise have never got wind of.

We're also putting together a Citizen Journalism training manual, and I'm excited to be writing a paper for presentation at the World Journalism Education Council conference called "What do citizen journalists need to know and when do they need to know it." (Shameless plug: This is going to be a stunning conference, with more than 200 delegates confirmed from around the globe, and strong African participation. It also overlaps with the Highway Africa conference, the biggest annual gathering of African journalists anywhere, and with the Soccer World Cup. And, for anyone who wants to see what we're up to, I'll be giving tours of our pioneering citizen journalism newsroom, Radio Grahamstown, and Grocott's Mail).

All of this is a major escalation of our approach to citizen journalism -- we're going all out to see what will work, what is sustainable, and what will generate good and useful journalism.

A Citizen Journalism Editor

A big insight for us is that, at small papers, while it's great to have a group of trained citizen journalists at an editor's disposal, you need to provide the time and resources needed to nurture them, as well as to edit and fact-check their work. We have decided to appoint a new "citizen journalism editor" who will concentrate and focus on this group of neophyte writers.

This editor will also help us get on top of understanding -- and learning to explain better -- how power works in our small town: How do you get something done? Who delivers and who doesn't? How do you complain and get listened to without having to organise a small riot or, for the better off among our population, without having to pony up for a lawyers letter of demand?

Paying for Citizen Journalism

Providing training and close editorial support might be enough to generate some great stories, but we also believe that, in a town where about half the population live on about U.S. $4 per day, both material incentives (cash and mobile airtime) and non-material incentives (certificates, allowing the publishing of bylines) go a long way. Starting this month, we are experimenting with paying about U.S. $10 for a published story and U.S. $7 for a published photo.

As humble as these stipends might be, we suspect they are going to be just reward for good citizen journalism, and we are counting on these payments to make the whole experience more sustainable.

Opening Up Our Editorial Meeting

We've also decided to allow the most skilled and enthusiastic members of our first adult citizen journalist graduating class of 2009 to attend Grocott Mail's daily 8.30 a.m. news meetings.

These citizen journalists receive the same small payment as the other 36 graduates who are not coming to the meetings, but they have an edge on the others by having earned the opportunity to be in the place where stories ideas are thrown around and reporting tasks are allocated.

Headlines by Text Message

sms ad.pngFinally, we're going live this week -- after six months of testing -- with our text message news headline service. To the left is an ad for the service.

We're looking at signing up a few thousand people out of the local population of 100,000, all of whom will then get one or more of our various free short message daily news headlines, and our more occasional breaking news services. One of the big issues for us, once we got the tech right, has been around audience acquisition, figuring out what we need to know about our users, and when we should gather that information. There's also the challenge of getting the business model right. Our plan is first to build the audience, and then to start selling the last 20 or 30 characters of the text message to local advertisers.

In my next post I'll talk about three new radio shows on Radio Grahamstown, the first of which launched this week. For now, if you want to listen to the streaming audio of the first show or download the podcast, go here.

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February 27 2010


Can Citizen Journalists in South Africa Help Open up Government Data?

Communities need information, particularly information about what government is doing, and how people can access government services. In South Africa, this information doesn't flow so much as trickle -- and often a paper-based trickle at that!

The fact that communication between government and us citizens is so poor is arguably part of the reason why we are reportedly second only to China in terms of the number of social protests per day (and they have 20 times our population).

In many areas, government is doing more than people know, but the lack of data sharing and access to basic information helps incite anger and frustration. We lack useful information in electronic format about everything from police and ambulance response times, waste disposal, street light repair, and pothole repair, not to mention bigger issues like the provision of good social housing, the construction of new medical clinics, and data about school performance. better. Here in South Africa, anger often translates into marches, strikes, barricades and sometimes riots,. People have figured out that there is nothing like a well organised, small riot to open up the information flow.

With this background in mind, the recent Knight Commission report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital age, is helping our Iindaba Ziyafika project in South Africa. We're approaching some of our information flow priorities with fresh insights. The deep thinking that has gone into the Commission's report -- and its unusual citizen-centric perspective as opposed to focusing on the typical 'how do we save newspapers or journalism' approach -- is refreshing and useful.

The three big areas the commission explored, with a U.S.-only focus, are: "Maximizing the Availability of Relevant and Credible Information," "Enhancing the Information Capacity of Individuals," and "Promoting Public Engagement." Below are some reflections on the first area; some thoughts on what we're doing (or trying to do) in terms of the second and third will follow in the next few weeks.

Making Information Available

First, in terms of "Maximizing the Availability of Relevant and Credible Information," we've been struck by how much information there is about government, and yet how historically inaccessible it has been, even in advanced democracies like the U.S. That much is clear from the Commission's work. And, in South Africa, much of this information is even less easily available, and rarely in digital form.

The same is even more true in the rest of Africa. Basic information -- the building blocks of representative democracy -- such as knowing the timing of a local government body meeting (a city council, or municipal executive), what the agenda is etc. can be seriously hard to come by. And if available, getting it as Word document is often just as challenging.

There are other challenges, too. Though the press, and newspapers in particular, have had the resources to attend government meetings and access agendas, minutes and other documents, they have only reported on a small subset of the available information. This was usually what was deemed the most interesting through the usual but often fairly arbitrary agenda setting of editors.

There's a lot more wrong with the traditional news reporting approach than just narrow subject selection. Most of the time, reporting is about 'what's happened,' rather than what's still coming up, and why we should sit up and take notice. In other words, the news is so often about decisions made, and issues that we can often no longer do much about.

We're finding that a more proactive, anticipatory (and participatory) journalism is more essential in areas where the municipality or local authority does not make unmediated information easily available.

As Peter M Shane, the executive director of the Commission mentioned in a subsequent speech about the Knight commission's work:

A community without public accountability suffers from unresponsive government. Neglect is common, corruption all too plausible. Money is wasted, as government officials are slow and awkward at doing what other governments do quickly and nimbly. Voter turnout is low, not because people are satisfied, but because people are resigned.

Sadly, these words could describe almost all local government in South Africa. Some are better than others, and our area, the Makana municipality, is one of the most efficient and effective. But they are not communication champs. And part of their relative efficiency, if this is fairly measured, relates, I believe, to having an independent newspaper, Grocott's Mail, doing journalism in our town for 140 years without a break.

In 2008, Grocott's Mail even took the local municipality and mayor to court after they withdraw local government advertising in the wake of a series of critical stories about financial mismanagement by the council. The case was big deal, and widely followed in South Africa. The council didn't have a leg to stand on, which is why they eventually settled out of court. But this only happened after our dogged local paper was deprived of critical advertising revenue for many months.

Asking Citizen Journalists to Step Up

Taking up the Knight Commission's cudgels to maximise the amount of information (and ensure it is both credible and "the right information at the right time"), we've been focusing on finding the information and getting it out. To do this, we're embracing citizen journalism in more complex ways than before, including exploring different ways of training, editing, nurturing, rewarding and recognizing our citizen journalists. We're doing this because, like many small newspapers, we don't have the labour power to cover all the important civic issues well. We're hoping our citizen journalists will be more able to do the work of ferreting out existing data and information.

Most times, the information is there -- it just takes a really patient person to find it, stand in queues, whine, beg, plead and push... It is not for the easily discouraged, nor is it easy to do for our few busy professional journalists, each of whom has a few pages to fill virtually on their own.

So how best to inculcate a desire (and impart the necessary skills) to push and prod and persevere to get information out of every level of the state? And what does one do when a lot of the information and data is in the same format as it was before the digital age? Will people volunteer to photocopy the daily handwritten police reports and capture them in a digital system? Or do we try and encourage local government to catch the digital wave faster than it has so far?

In my next post, I'll share more of what we're doing, and share some big milestones and next steps for getting more useful news and information in and out. This includes ideas for allowing citizen journalists to join the usually jealously protected daily news diary meeting at the paper, and some ideas of how unearth and digitize much needed sources of information in our small town.

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December 01 2009


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).


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.


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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