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November 22 2010


How Should Public Media Respond to Efforts to Defund It?

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

"Here is what I still don't get," wrote NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen in response to my November 18 article, "how can public media develop a strategy or simply a coherent response to the culture war in which it is entangled if it cannot admit to itself or reason publicly with the fact that only one side in the culture war wants to destroy it... and the other one doesn't? What is public media's culture war strategy? Not to have one?"

Rosen's comment prompted a few thoughtful answers, first on MediaShift in the comments, and then at an impromptu session at Sunday's Public Media Camp.

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"I don't think it's the place of public media to 'take sides in the culture war," wrote MediaShift executive editor Mark Glaser. "I think it's public media's role to provide a forum for different opinions on the culture war, and give space for diverse opinions on it. That doesn't mean that individuals who are a part of public media can't give their opinions, and they should. The 'view from nowhere' only goes so far. But should NPR, PBS, etc try to out-dittohead the dittoheads? That doesn't make sense either." Instead, he suggested, the already-existing fan base for public broadcasting brands should be rallied. "There are already millions of people who support public media financially through donations, so maybe it takes a grassroots effort by those people to counter all the attacks."

Station manager Anthony Hunt suggested that a workable strategy might be to "develop allies that have much better armor than we do, or certainly don't want to see us change our attempts to remain value neutral because this fight won't be going away anytime soon." He suggests that public-media makers need help because they're under-resourced, and "bring a tote-bag to a knife fight" -- a phrase that echoed a quip by Jon Stewart in response to conservative comments about the Juan Williams flap.

Peter Corbett of iStrategy Labs, who helped to organize the PubCamp, suggested going on the offensive by developing "a 50 state strategy that includes gathering your troops (biggest fans) and preparing to mobilize them for war," and, somewhat jokingly, "taking a page out of cereal/fast food marketers' playbooks: go after their kids early and often, and then turn them on their parents."

Jauvan Moradi, who works at NPR Digital Media, suggested that rather than a "culture war" strategy, what's needed is a better business strategy, to deal with the possibilities of reduced funding.

"There are certainly tensions today," he wrote, "progressive vs. conservative, public values vs. private interest, urban vs. rural, new economy vs. old -- arguably reaching a pinnacle not seen in prior decades. But public media has never been a monoculture of us vs. them. Every local market has a different flavor that reflects the interests and diversity of its audience. The national content producers strive for a sort of neutrality that not only reflects our journalistic sensibilities but also allows for a sort of universality that works with the local flavors in hundreds of towns and cities. It's not our place to take a side amidst cultural tension."

Rosen disagreed. "I think culture war is precisely the right word for that is happening, and for the dynamic I am pointing out. The attempt to de-fund NPR -- an actual vote in the House of Representatives -- because of what happened with Juan Williams has no other logic than culture war logic...Now if the people in public media come to the conclusion: 'There's nothing we can do; it's up to people outside the system to make our case. We're not a participant in these so-called culture wars. We're just the victim, the target....' I can understand that, too, but they should at least arrive at that conclusion after thinking it through."

Rosen Appears via Skype

In order to think it through some more, Rosen joined Public Media Camp attendees via Skype for a discussion of strategies and obstacles. Here are a few highlights from the discussion:

  • Andy Carvin of NPR noted that the organization's government affairs office is firewalled from the editorial side of the house, which allows it to advocate. On the digital strategy end, the big question is "Can NPR mobilize people?" Right now, ethics and social media rules prevent that.
  • Several attendees noted that there's a tremendous amount of misinformation being circulated about the structure and funding of public broadcasting, and debated whether members of the public might respond to a campaign to clarify the issues, or simply ignore it.
  • Threaded throughout the discussion were comments that any battle to save or expand public media could not be waged on only one side of the partisan divide. Core supporters in past fights have been rural Republicans, whose constituents depend heavily on public broadcasting for news and educational resources in otherwise weak media markets.
  • Maxie Jackson, president and CEO of the National Federation for Community Broadcasters, suggested that NPR is now "toxic," and that organizing efforts should focus on the services that public stations provide to users in their communities. He noted that the stations that serve Native Americans provide a stark example of how much local service is crucial to underserved populations.
  • Corbett suggested a viral "I [heart] NPR" day, to mobilize and inspire fans who might then be primed to respond politically when the time came.

Rosen warned that advocates for public broadcasting need to appeal not just to facts, but to pay heed to frames. There's a tendency, he noted, to think "we're not communicating clearly -- sometimes that's true, but in a culture war, there's 'systematically distorted communication.' It's not a messaging problem, it's that there are actors who profit from this distortion. It's important to know when you're in this situation -- the goal is to engage those who aren't engaged in systematically distorted communication and discredit and shame those who distort."

Jessica Clark directs the Future of Public Media Project at American University's Center for Social Media, and is a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation.

CSM logo small.jpg

The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

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NPR, PBS Try to Tame Controversy, Embrace Tech at PubCamp

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

The last few months have been a bumpy stretch for public media. Due to controversial editorial decisions at both NPR and PBS, these organizations have gone from just covering the news to being the focus of it as well.

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NPR has faced withering criticism from the right for its seemingly abrupt firing of news analyst Juan Williams. The local Mississippi Public Broadcasting received similar criticism from the left after it dropped the popular national show Fresh Air from its line-up due to what it viewed as inappropriate sexually explicit conversation. And PBS came under fire for cutting controversial comments Tina Fey made about Tea Party-favorite Sarah Palin from its broadcast of the Mark Twain Prize ceremony, supposedly due to time constraints.

While each of these firestorms was put out by the institution that created the controversy, the second annual National Public Media Camp, which wrapped up last night at American University (AU) in Washington, D.C., provided an opportunity for representatives from all three organizations to share their experiences and -- more importantly -- the lessons learned. Not surprisingly, the session entitled "How to handle an online revolt" was one of the many highlights of a packed weekend of diverse discussions.

NPR social media strategist Andy Carvin's talk about the Williams incident combined his first-hand knowledge of managing a social media disaster with that of Thomas Broadus" from the Mississippi radio communications team and PBS' director of digital communications Kevin Dando. Broadus's former boss, who has since resigned, provided a casebook study of how to not respond to an angry Internet: ignoring the web at your own peril.

Carvin thanked his lucky stars that he had the good fortune to hire a comment moderating firm only weeks before NPR's home page was hit by more than 10,000 comments a day in the immediate aftermath of Williams' dismissal. Dando, whose preemptive plan to host Tina Fey's full speech online muted the conservative outcry, told the audience that even PBS.org got angry (and confused) comments denouncing the television service for firing Juan Williams (even though that was really done by NPR not PBS).

"When you have an online conflagration, you're probably better off letting users vent," Jon Gordon, the social media director of Minnesota Public Radio, observed after the discussion. "And it's interesting to hear, that is the independent conclusion reached by all three of those people who talked about online revolts. To me, that was the value of that session."

How it Worked

"The goal of PubCamp," said Carvin, "is to create an informal but high energy environment where members of the public with certain skills to bear can come and work with public media staff to find ways to collaborate with each other."

PubCamp organizers Carvin, PBS product manager Jonathan Coffman, iStrategyLabs founder Peter Corbett, and MediaShift corespondent Jessica Clark employed a freewheeling, unconference format to facilitate this interaction. Each morning, all of the station managers, fundraisers, and web developers -- as well as the larger group of public media enthusiasts in attendance from non-profits, the press, and tech community -- gathered in the large conference room provided by AU and shared ideas for sessions and discussions over coffee and bagels.


"The entire success or failure of the event is based on what attendees are willing to propose in that first hour," Carvin explained. "That puts enough pressure on the people who come to put some thought into it and to do something constructive and interesting."

The 160 or so participants, some of whom came from as far away as Brazil and Japan, were not lacking for ideas. Out of this participatory process came informational sessions like "Metadata best practices," big idea talks like "How does public media respond to the culture wars?" as well as technical discussions about the Android mobile platform in "Collaborating with Google."

While nominally led by the person or team who proposed the topic, sessions were similarly reliant on the input of the attendees. For example, Jon Gordon of Minnesota Public Radio, guided a talk about effective use of social media on Saturday afternoon.

"I proposed that session not because I really had the answer but because I have questions to ask of the community here," said Gordon, who took over as the social media and mobile news editor at MPR earlier this year. There was enough interest that a second social media discussion was staged on Sunday morning.

Gordon attended his first public media unconference in St. Paul in 2008. This community engagement and brainstorming event, as well as another staged by Santa Cruz public radio station KUSP, helped inspire the first National PubCamp and a dozen other local PubCamps last year.

How it Succeeded

5195429417_ccb3e50097_m.jpgMany first-time attendees found the unconference process somewhat bewildering, but everyone I spoke with seemed happy with the discussion it produced.

E-Democracy.org executive director Steven Clift, another Minnesotan who was among the third of conference-goers who were not public media employees, made the trip primarily "to meet the people in the online side of public media," he said.

Clift also used his first PubCamp experience to discuss a pet issue he's passionate about: improving the quality of online news commenting by reducing user anonymity. "Local newspapers are fundamentally undermining their democratic mission -- and their brands -- by hosting poor quality commenting," he said.

NPR mobile operations manager Jeremy Pennycook was excited to meet Michael Frederick, a software engineer at Google who NPR CEO Vivian Schiller described as "a celebrity" in her welcome speech at the opening plenary.

"It's always great to develop relationships with people who are in your field but aren't doing what you're doing," Pennycook said. "It's my job to go between people like Michael Frederick who are knee deep in code and people who are content producers or making decisions about media at the executive level."

Although Frederick's primary job is programming Google Docs, he used the 20 percent of time his company sets aside for creative ventures to work with Pennycook and build the much beloved NPR Android mobile app.

How it Aims to Change Public Media

Carvin hopes future PubCamps will lay the groundwork for more open source collaborations like the one between Pennycook and Frederick. Carvin said he hopes PubCamp becomes a "movement," and noted that his primary complaint about the first full year of the organization was that it had not produced more technical advances.

"One thing that I wanted to see happen at more of at the PubCamps we did this summer was more people writing code," he said.

To foster innovation at the national PubCamp, the organizers set up a separate room stocked with food and plenty of coffee for developers. The "Dev Lounge" produced one tangible result: A WordPress plug-in that will allow users to edit, excerpt, or fully republish NPR stories. Two other projects -- an SMS polling platform and a trackback system for quotes -- were also in the works.

But the most lasting result may be the connections formed in the Dev Lounge -- and indeed within the PubCamp as a whole. At the closing plenary, the coders announced they were forming a Google Group to float new ideas and keep in touch. As Amy Wielunski, a membership manager working on fundraising for dual licensed PBS/NPR station WSKG in Binghamton, N.Y., pointed out, "just the fact that we're having these conversations is a huge step forward."

"Why would I have ever had a reason to interact with Andy Carvin before?" asked Wielunski, who spoke up at the online revolt session about how the Juan Williams incident had affected membership contributions at her station.

"I wouldn't," she said.


What did you think of the National PubCamp? If you weren't able to attend, what did you think of the event coverage on Twitter and NPR? Would you attend a future PubCamp? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Photo of Jay Rosen by Julia Schrenkler via Flickr

Corbin Hiar is the DC-based associate editor at MediaShift and climate blogger for UN Dispatch and the Huffington Post. He is a regular contributor to More Intelligent Life, an online arts and culture publication of the Economist Group, and has also written about environmental issues on Economist.com and the website of the New Republic. Before Corbin moved to the Capital to join the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program at Mother Jones, he worked a web internship at the Nation in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @CorbinHiar

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