On June 15, the Federal Trade Commission hosted the final workshop in a series of three that tackled the question "How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?" Comments from the assembled experts and observers ran a by-now-familiar gamut of pleading special cases and offering standalone solutions.
Media execs, pundits and professors offered up predictions that the market would solve everything, cautious optimism about new nonprofit news experiments, and controversial proposals for taxing advertisements or small electronics in order to fund more public media. Faced with vitriol for even daring to consider such suggestions, FTC staff and commissioners quickly issued disclaimers that they had committed to nothing more binding than producing a related report.
Releasing yet another analysis of the problems at hand would be a missed opportunity. Like the Federal Communications Commission, which mounted its own wide-ranging Future of Media inquiry this spring, the FTC is facing an unprecedented creative challenge: to devise interlocking policy recommendations that will not only support new business models for commercial media producers, but offer incentives to the myriad civic entrepreneurs building digital media tools to help Americans participate in public life. Crafting such policies is not a job for just one agency, or even one administration. But, over time, multiple decisions at national, state and local levels have the potential to cumulatively reshape the country's media system for a networked age.
Creative policymaking involves taking a wider view by considering the interdependent evolution of complex systems rather than affirming the assumptions of entrenched incumbents. For example, while much of the “save the news” conversation has focused on ways to subsidize reporting—especially at the local level—this is only part of the picture. The 2009 Knight Commission report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, provides a useful rubric of three linked functions that media policymakers should consider: making relevant and credible information available to all Americans; strengthening their capacity to acquire and share that information; and promoting engagement with information for civic purposes. Together, these offer a framework for building a new national media ecology.
Such a system would offer new prospects for supporting innovative individuals, noncommercial outlets, nonprofit organizations, and companies that value civic dividends as much or more than stock returns. Often these operate right at the cusp of commercial media’s “market failure”—cobbling together inventive collaborations and relying on government, foundation and individual support to provide information, tools and spaces for dialogue to users too poor, too remote, or too fractious to constitute a viable target for ad-driven journalism.
Emerging public media projects like One Economy and the Bay Area Video Coalition are pioneering hybrid media models, which combine content production by and for underserved audiences with both digital literacy training and social media engagement strategies. Within public broadcasting, projects like the Public Insight Network and StoryCorps offer new contexts for users to serve as experts, sources and creators. They challenge the assumptions underpinning legacy journalism orthodoxies: that only professional reporters can produce content that serves a civic purpose, and that users’ main purpose is to consume it.
Such projects also tap into what Clay Shirky’s latest book terms “cognitive surplus”—the unexpected but undeniable willingness of everyday citizens to offer their time and passion to making, sharing and commenting on media via participatory platforms. Shirky observes that while much of this energy is burnt off in seemingly trivial ways, it can also be directed toward powerful public ends. But, he notes, participatory civic media projects are hard work—requiring clear goals, rules for self-governance, new funding structures, and stewards to maintain or redirect projects when volunteer energy lags.
Here’s where the real mental stretch comes for policymakers: figuring out how to design media systems that structure, develop and reward these new capacities in both producers and users. “The opportunity before us, individually and collectively, is enormous,” writes Shirky. “What we do with it will be determined largely by how well we are able to imagine and reward public creativity, participation and sharing.”
That’s why the solution Dan Gillmor offered at the FTC hearing— that government’s main contribution to supporting journalism should be subsidizing access to high speed broadband—is necessary but not sufficient. Access is not enough. Journalism isn’t either. But by devising policies that support access, journalism and public engagement via new platforms, policymakers can begin to create the communications system our democracy needs.