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Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Platforms and Public Media

Published:  November 3, 2010
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The BBC recently implemented this iPlayer feature (see screenshot above), one example of a trend in public media towards user engagement and shared platforms.

Though we focus on media policy here at the New America Foundation’s Media Policy Initiative (MPI), such policy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It must address the needs of the day. As the FCC explores policies in its “Future of Media” inquiry, understanding the changes in technology and designing the policies to address these changes is crucial to successful media policy.

The most easily visible change in the field of public media, like all journalism, is the rise of new platforms for the delivery of content. At a recent event we hosted, Mark Thompson, Director General of the British Broadcasting Corporation, was very proud of the BBC’s iPlayer feature, which was introduced within the last few years and allows users to look back at any content from within the last seven days for free. The iPlayer is being expanded so that users will eventually have access to the entire archive.

In his remarks at New America, Thompson referenced the idea that public media creates a “public space” where all audience members are equal, creating a sort of “common culture.” Another panelist at the event, Geneva Overholser, director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism, was drawn to this characterization of public media as a uniter, not a divider. Her program at USC has developed the Alhambra Source, a local-focused online site that provides news in English, Spanish, and Chinese to serve the three largest populations in the city of Alhambra, east of Los Angeles. Overholser said that providing news in multiple languages allows one community divided by language to “come together to solve community challenges.”

In several ways, these new media innovations emphasize user participation—something the Knight Report, the foundation for our work here at MPI, highlights as no less important than the availability of information. Whether through interactive platforms or the solicitation of citizen journalism they enable public media to serve those who feel they don’t have a voice in the opinion-driven mainstream media.

These examples from the panelists demonstrate public media’s drive to change with the times; modern audiences want different types of content in significantly different formats. As Overholser concluded, news media outlets should not only “serve the public, but also go where they are.”

The solution, as our panelists observed, may be a fundamental change in the news culture itself to allow for more collaboration. Public Broadcasting Service President Paula Kerger explained that American public media outlets are attempting to do this. For example, NPR and public television can team up on issues that NPR might be able to address better. In this way, public media avoid unnecessarily overlapping coverage and wasting resources. As Kerger said, the advantage of this tight economy is that it has brought different news organizations together, such as the nonprofit news org ProPublica.

Just last week, we saw the expansion of the Public Insight Network, founded seven years ago by American Public Media (APM) to facilitate direct communication between reporters and sources around the country. ProPublica officially joined on Saturday, while the Center for Investigative Reporting and The Center for Public Integrity will join later in the year. The network, funded partly by the KnightFoundation, helps journalists to cover the issues and engage with their audiences.

As public media continue to experiment with new forms of digital content delivery and collaboration, it seems likely that news producers will find broader changes occurring in the very structure of their work, both to leverage new platforms but also to bring about sustainable economic models and long-term solutions to the challenges journalism faces today.

Another similarly ambitious project is the development of the Public Media Platform (PMP). Kerger explained that this is the ongoing, NPR-led effort to bring together American public media content from PBS, NPR, and their affiliates into one format, with the primary goal being an “interactive conversation” with users. The goal of the project is to develop an open Application Programming Interface (API) that will allow media producers—big and small—to deliver news and educational content easily on a shared platform.

For example, one of the partners in the project  is Public Radio Exchange (PRX), which describes itself as “an online marketplace for distribution, review, and licensing of public radio programming.” PRX allows stations, producers, etc. to upload content to the catalog and then use new content, with the nonprofit service taking care of copyright concerns such as royalties. And we also see similar manifestations of this phenomenon in the PEG (Public, Education, Government access) sphere, with PegMedia.org providing PEG community television stations with a method to share content; the site has free video files for downloading and clear instructions on how to upload your own files.

The PMP project, announced in early June, is currently several months into the six-month planning phase. Those interested in the future of public media are likely awaiting the outcome with bated breath. Could it transform the American public media landscape just as the BBC’s iPlayer has influenced British media? 

For ourselves, we continue to craft policy ideas that will better support the interactive networked public media of the 21st century. For us, the takeaway from all these innovations is that—for the policies to be appropriate—policymakers should assume that multi-platform networked outlets are the future.

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