Archive for the ‘talking public media’ Category

Charles Lewis: How to Start a News Nonprofit

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Talking Public Media: Conversations About Media & Democracy

[Interview conducted May 2008]

A former 60 Minutes producer, Charles Lewis hit hard limits on what he could cover in the commercial sector. So he jumped ship, and embarked on the “tough slog” of building his own nonprofit news outlet at a time — the late ’80s — when the industry was still flush, and the Internet largely unknown. The Center for Public Integrity went on to break ground as a new type of public-interest news outlet, while Lewis has since founded the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, and played a key role in forming the Investigative News Network.

Notable Quotes

• STARTING UP: “The first time we got a six-figure grant was in ’94. For the first four years I could not get a major foundation — a well-known, large, kind of iconic foundation — to even answer my letters. So, y’know, it was a tough slog, a very brick-by-brick thing.”

• SPREADING THE WORD: “When I started the Center, the Internet was not really used by the public — the late ’80s, early ’90s. And so when we released something, we’d go to the National Press Club, and it’d be on C-SPAN, or the wire services would move stories based on what we had found, and it would be framed as findings even though it was a news story. And it worked, and people started noticing us. But the Web obviously helped, because instead of printing up a few hundred copies of a report, you could obviously put it on the Web and it would be available everywhere.”

• SIGNAL TO NOISE: “The problem is the Web and the blogosphere … doesn’t easily distinguish between quality and crap … That, and you start to be lumped in with a lot of things that you’re sheepish to even be associated with …. So the Web has its downsides, too, I would say. The viral nature of something exciting moving — we’ve seen that. And the Center saw lots of very big studies that got instant global attention when it hit … but the other side of that is, it’s getting lost in the din.”

• SELF-LIMITING JOURNALISM: “My worry is the extent to which both political sensibilities and intellectual squeamishness, about covering or not covering certain subjects, will creep into any new systems or forums. Most of these things come down to people and they come down to large bureaucracies — and whenever that happens, generally you’d better look out, because people get kind of strange, and frankly kind of closed-minded about what they’re willing to do. We’ve seen some of the results of the sort of calcification, and what I’d call a sort of nervous anxiety, about what the outcome of investigative journalism might be, who might be offended, etc.”

• THIS MAGIC MOMENT: “I think the opportunities are just breathtaking, and I actually think this is the most exciting time to be alive, or a journalist — ever. It’s sort of like what it was like in the end of the 1940s, with the advent of television — except it’s multimedia, it’s every potential form of communication imaginable, all exploding at once.”

• THE FUTURE: “Whatever happens is going to be a startup; it’s not going to be an existing entity trying to adapt. Entrepreneurialism always works better at new platforms, unencumbered by the past, or bureaucracies, or precedents, or cultural sensibilities that date back decades.”


CHARLES LEWIS, TALKING PUBLIC MEDIA
Interview by Josh Wilson, May 2008

Let’s talk about your path into nonprofit and noncommercial media. I know the basic story — that you got frustrated at 60 Minutes and needed to strike out on your own — but I’m sure there’s more to it.

[Laughs] Yeah, yeah, that’s an understatement. I had done investigative reporting at two networks, ABC and CBS, over an eleven-year period — and I basically came to a sense that there was a lack of seriousness and sincerity, really, about doing thorough, substantive investigative journalism, and I began to realize that I had done my time there, and it was time to move on.

This occurred in a number of specific cases of specific stories where they were not aired, or parts of them would not be aired. And I mean, I’m giving you the sort of Cliff’s Notes version …

But this happens in every sort of major news organization. There are these pressures we all hear about — and it does happen, and I experienced it firsthand, and I saw my colleagues experience it.

And I’m an old-fashioned, meat-and-potatoes guy that likes to investigate the bastards, whoever they are, and I don’t like anybody telling me that I can’t do this or that when it comes to that kind of work. The reasons would have to be really compelling, and they weren’t. [Laughs.]

So I didn’t have any idea what was out there; I just knew the world I was in was not working for me.

I was familiar with some models; I knew the Center for Investigative Reporting had been around; I knew about the Better Government Association in Chicago, which was really more of a nonprofit watchdog entity than a journalism entity — although it was a partner with many journalism outlets in Chicago.

The two of them had different models, in the way they were funded and their backgrounds and their approaches … and CIR, as you know, is the oldest nonprofit investigative journalism entity, actually I suspect in the world, from everything I’ve done and research I’ve done.

And I was close friends, still am, with Lowell Bergman — so I was familiar with the CIR model, but I had issues with the model, there were some things that I would want to do differently and ended up doing differently.

Everyone adapts to whatever they’re encountering and whatever they’re approaching based on experiences, tastes, biases [and] life experience. And I had a slightly different idea in mind. And I didn’t know it would be nonprofit at first. I mean, I didn’t know what IT would be — capital I, capital T — I just knew that I needed to be in charge of it [laughs], not anyone else telling me what I could do or should do.

That’s how it all started. And I explored all kinds of possibilities. I explored for-profits, I explored nonprofit, I had offers from numerous commercial news organizations, I had offers from Hollywood folks [laughs] — I had lots of possibilities.

But the one that I was most intrigued with was a nonprofit, and that’s really what became the Center for Public Integrity.

It wasn’t a short, quick odyssey; it took, literally, a long time. From start to finish — I left in November of ’88 and began working full time to make the Center happen, having obtained some funding, about a year later, actually, October 1, 1989. But it was a tough slog to get just to that point, and of course the next two or three years were really a tough slog.

So starting nonprofits is not a simple matter. And when you’re trying to control it, you deliberately have a board that will not be involved in fundraising, because they’re journalists. [Laughs]

And you have certain rules or sensibilities about what money you’ll take, and from whom, and all that stuff — and when you start down those roads, you’re starting to shut doors off to yourself, in terms of opportunities to grow the organization.

And in your earnestness for moral and ethical purity, or at least the perception thereof — hopefully both — you know, it actually does affect the level and degree of your success, in terms of your capacity, your size, all that stuff.

The more earnest, the less capacity?

Yeah, the more earnest and the more fastidious you are about your funding sources, in other words, the more limiting you become … to what money is worthy of your enterprise. I’m being slightly humorous here — my feeble attempt at humor.

But that degree of earnestness can impede the growth and the capacity of the enterprise — because if you’re too picky, you won’t accept money from anybody, and you won’t have any money.

At some point, you have to come off the ivory tower and come down into the village. [Laughs] And anyone who has started anything has had to do that. No matter how lofty the original notion.

So probably about five or six years to get it to a state where you considered it –

The first time we got a six-figure grant was in ’94. For the first four years I could not get a major foundation — a well-known, large, kind of iconic foundation — to even answer my letters. So, y’know, it was a tough slog, a very brick-by-brick thing.

Do you feel that’s changed?

No, I still think it’s hard to start things, actually — because it’s a very complicated dynamic between resources you need, what is your mission, what exactly is your self-imposed mandate.

And I hate to say it, but then it comes down to those intangibles, like the buzz factor — are you being noticed?

And if you’re doing something that’s counter to, or even in competition with existing major media, you are almost by definition not going to be receiving news coverage.

And so, off the bat … you’re certainly not assisting yourself, helping yourself in terms of publicity and attracting attention to yourself in the community, whatever that community is.

And it’s very, very hard.

So, there’s a direct relationship between the media discovering something and the availability of philanthropic funds. [Then] the hot commodity — or one of other cliches, the flavor of the month — gets all the funding, because it’s exciting, and that entity is a player and donors are thrilled to be associated with it.

And they feel what they’ve done is important, and it’s showing that it’s important because others have seen it as well, and there’s this exciting moment when that all happens.

But if any piece of it’s not worked right, if you don’t have the people, if don’t have the right projects, and you don’t have folks noticing what you’ve done — in other words, if what you’ve done is not terribly significant or even new, or impressive, or whatever word you want to use — then the funding will be affected by that.

I don’t care how many soapboxes you get on, how many phone calls you make, how many meetings and luncheons you attend. You will not be able to go beyond your own performance, or your record as an entity.

And — that part is a very, very tricky dynamic to understand — because without money you will not be able to function. And if you don’t function well, you don’t get money. It’s a little bit like a cat chasing its tail. It’s exceedingly difficult.

And the reason, I think, that nine out of ten new enterprises, companies or nonprofits fail is because getting the balance down — between the resources needed and the ways in which they are expended and the impact from those expenses — y’know, it’s a very, very delicate equilibrium.

With a startup, you don’t have a lot of people …

The capacity issues for a startup …

Yes — capacity is just a very big deal.

What’s the potential of the Internet to change or open up this situation, or will it?

Well, I’ve seen it on both sides. When I started the Center, the Internet was not really used by the public — the late ’80s, early ’90s. In Washington, most usage of the Web didn’t start occurring most places until the mid-’90s.

And so when we released something, we’d go to the National Press Club, and it’d be on C-SPAN, or the wire services would move stories based on what we had found, and it would be framed as findings even though it was a news story. And it worked, and people started noticing us.

But the Web obviously helped, because instead of printing up a few hundred copies of a report, you could obviously put it on the Web and it would be available everywhere. From the mid-’90s to today, we’ve seen a exponential explosion in terms of how many people that is. And of course you have the global component, which you didn’t have with news conferences at the Press Club.

So, yes, the impact of the Web is astonishing in that sense, in terms of what you can do journalistically, but also, most importantly of course, your economies of scale, your costs of this and that, in many ways go down. And your reach and your dissemination of course is the most exciting part, because it’s global.

And that’s all great. The bad news is that now there are tens of millions of people who have websites or blogs …

The info glut.

Yeah, there is a glut. And the problem is the Web and the blogosphere … doesn’t easily distinguish between quality and crap … That, and you start to be lumped in with a lot of things that you’re sheepish to even be associated with …. So the Web has its downsides, too, I would say.

The viral nature of something exciting moving — we’ve seen that. And the Center saw lots of very big studies that got instant global attention when it hit — I mean, the excitement of the Web is quite real and quite palpable and thrilling to behold — but the other side of that is, it’s getting lost in the din.

Do you think that there’s an opportunity for what I’m going to broadly call “public media” to provide standards or credibility amidst this undifferentiated glut? And if so, do you have any thoughts about what that would look like?

I have ideas about what everything should look like [laughs] … but I don’t know public media and what public media will become, both from the standpoint of technology, and the so-called spectrum, and the new digital channels …

I have friends who are authors of books about it, and I can get answers when I need ‘em, but there’s good news and there’s bad news about the PBS/NPR model: The good news is that nonprofit institutions were created in our lifetime, at least mine — 40 years ago — and it’s thrilling and inspiring to know that new things that have high impact can be created. We sometimes forget that, frankly, certainly in the public context.

So just the vision and possibility that it could happen at all is inspiring.

Yeah … when I see that a news organization today has 30 million listeners throughout the nation, and it started out of thin air forty years ago, that’s terribly exciting. And when I see it’s doubled its audience in the last decade, that’s thrilling.

When I see that they have over thirty bureaus around the world when CBS is down to five or whatever it is — that is remarkable.

So we have to stand back and acknowledge what we do see, before we go forward, and so — some of the things that have been created are magnificent.

On the other hand, you’re talking to an investigative reporter kind of junkie. I mean, I’ve been doing it for thirty years, and that’s all I really mostly care about.

And, with the exception of some of Bill Moyers’ programs and specials and Frontline, some of the Frontline shows, there’s not much of that on PBS — and NPR generally speaking does not do investigative reporting.

And so, in all the things that are contemplated, do I know what new structures and new systems will be created to enable investigative journalism, or to ensure that quality in-depth journalism occurs?

I’m not persuaded we’ve ever achieved that, number one, and number two, I don’t know what that is. And I don’t think anyone does, honestly. Is there a lot of discussion about it? Of course there is. I mean there’s an event in Washington, I know the American University Center for Social Media has been involved in mapping –

The Beyond Broadcast project …

Beyond Broadcast and folks, and — and I’m on faculty with Pat Aufderhide, who is in the AU School of Communication, and I myself am starting a new research center at American called the Investigative Reporting Workshop, which will be I think the first entity that I know of, at least in the U.S., looking at new models to do investigative reporting, both creation and dissemination or delivery of investigative reporting, as the sole mission of the enterprise …

I think what you’re asking is the question of the hour in many ways, certainly regarding the public realm, and public journalism, and what’s possible and all that.

But my worry is the extent to which both political sensibilities and intellectual squeamishness, about covering or not covering certain subjects, will creep into any new systems or forums.

Most of these things come down to people and they come down to large bureaucracies — and whenever that happens, generally you’d better look out, because people get kind of strange, and frankly kind of closed-minded about what they’re willing to do.

We’ve seen some of the results of the sort of calcification, and what I’d call a sort of nervous anxiety, about what the outcome of investigative journalism might be, who might be offended, etc.

I’ve been hearing people saying or discussing this and thinking about it for years and years and years, and I’m into the — I’m into investigating. Period.

Everything else kind of follows…

Yeah, everything else follows. If you’ve got the information, and you’ve got the quality journalism that you’ve been able to either do yourself or work with others to achieve, you’ll find a way to get it out these days — and that is one advantage of the Web.

But back to your question, it’s a great question, I don’t think we have what you just asked, and I don’t think anyone has any idea where it’s headed. And anyone who would say, “trust me, it’s gonna be great,” I would also hold onto my wallet and lock my doors.

There’s a mixed record here of setting up federal and national systems and guaranteeing they won’t be politicized in recent years, but they do become politicized — so let’s just get over that idea [laughs].

So you’re hearing a suspicious, independent cuss here, on the other end of the phone.

That’s fine. You know, independence is one of the bullet points in the SPJ Code of Ethics, to “act independently.” This is a bit of an aside, but I did leave SFGate.com after Hearst took over because of a lack of opportunity, because of people telling me what I couldn’t do. I started Newsdesk.org because the Internet appealed to me as a place where it was possible to be more independent.

I wonder if there is the opportunity to create a model or system or method — maybe not an institution, but a method — by which journalists can act independently within the classic decentralized Internet structure, where there is no center, everybody’s independent — but if they’re all signed on to a set of standards, for example, suddenly you have the professionalism and the support network that lack the hierarchy. That’s the theory behind Newsdesk.org. And that might be pipe dreaming.

No no no. I may be misinterpreting what you’re asking, but I think that could be very useful and there’s a need for it.

In fact, I’m on the advisory committee of a new thing called the I. F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence — it’s going to be an annual prize and it’s going to be administered by Harvard’s Nieman Foundation — and there have been discussions with I. F. Stone’s son, Jeremy Stone, about what constitutes an independent journalist and independent journalism, and what are the criteria, and we’ve been in deep discussions really in recent weeks.

And you know, I have been asked by them to write about this very subject, and to discuss that is and how to define it. And most journalists, no matter where they work, assume they’re already independent. Also the phrase “investigative” — “Oh, I’m investigative.” What do you mean? “Y’know, I ask questions …”

So these definitions and these terms are still not well understood, even inside the profession of journalism itself.

One of the things that we made a point of at the Center for Public Integrity when I ran it for the first fifteen years was that, to have a code of conduct and standards for — and this really more along the lines of ethics and integrity, about news-gathering techniques — but I was very very strict, as or more strict than the news organizations and networks, places like that, that I have worked.

Given the name of the organization, the Center for Public Integrity, I had very clear ideas about what was reasonable in news-gathering and what was a violation of privacy, or other sensibilities.

And so there’s a way to do investigative reporting and not violate any laws or do things that are just simply unreasonable, I would say.

And even something that basic [as having a standard] is actually borderline revolutionary, because you have lawyers telling you for libel reasons “don’t do it,” because then you’re charged with libel later in some civil situations; they’ll hold it against you that you had a standard — anyway, you can basically lose your mind splitting hairs on any one of these questions, and that’s just the ethics dimension, but the independent one is almost as vexing. It’s not a simple question of what constitutes an independent journalist.

I’ve just interviewed nearly two dozen great journalists of the last half-century about their truth-to-power journalism at the national level, as part of a book I’m writing, and I would dare say in 45 hours of interviews, I would never have asked them to define what we’re discussing — do you know what I mean?

Because not a single one of them — which is probably collectively several hundred years of experience in journalism — would have said the same thing, I suspect.

About what?

About what is an independent journalist. Or — they would all insist that they were independent — and they were — but they all worked for news organizations that at one time or another were not so independent.

And so, I don’t mean to make everything overly complex… but the fact is that these are not simple questions. I mean, they’re great questions, but they’re not simply answered.

So I think it’s something we need to come to grips with as a profession. I think going forward in the Information Age or Internet Age, we need to know better what the answers are to these questions.

But the fact is, there’s no — because we have something like 45 or 50 journalism nonprofit organizations alone in the United States, not to mention a few hundred colleges and universities that teach journalism — there is no single arbiter of anything about journalism, as you know.

There are no professional standards; this is a profession that prides itself on not having any standards [laughs].

I always go back to the SPJ Code –

Well, it is, it’s true — although that code, no offense to SPJ, I mean I’ve been a member for, gosh, a long time — but the SPJ code is actually not the most demanding code.

It’s a perfectly nice and reasonable code. It says some good things, and that’s why we put it on the website, but it doesn’t get down and dirty in the precise techniques and things that are useful for investigative reporting to be discussed, I guess you’d say.

So you can have internal policies that are different, or even go further than the SPJ Code of Ethics, which we did try to do at the Center in some cases.

It’s particularly delicate when you’re dealing with international journalism, where the language is different, the mores are different, the practices even about something that’s verboten in the United States — paying sources — is actually done quite a bit around the world.

One source versus two sources, a lot of the standards and techniques and practices of journalism vary according to geography, and in terms of the duration of their democratic experience, I guess you’d say.

And so — and existing laws in place — do they have criminal libel? Turns out 158 of 168 countries have criminal libel in the world, which is an astonishing thing to say, but it’s true. Article 19 has recently apparently found this in an international survey.

So if you not only risk getting civilly sued, but also thrown in jail in almost all the countries in the world, you can see how delicate this is in setting a standard.

So … now the public space is a global space. It was always kind of global, but it was in the context of the U.S.

Now it’s not — and that may sound like a small point, but it’s actually a rather significant point, because basically there are no global standards for this kind of stuff … I don’t mean to make everything so complicated, but these things are complicated.

It sounds like we have starting points for lots of important issues and ideas.

It’s also not rocket science. These things can be formulated and can gain currency over time, in terms of both the profession and the business of journalism, including the public sector part of journalism.

There are ways this can occur, but especially today there’s a lot of work to be done.

Which would you like to talk about: past or future? Legacy of public media, or opportunities for public media in the future?

I don’t know much about the future. I’m trying to forge it as much as anybody, and I have entrepreneurial leanings in various ways which will play out in the months and years ahead. So I have ideas about the future. But I don’t know about the systems that are going to be established in the future.

Then think in terms of opportunities, as an entrepreneur.

Well, I think the opportunities are just breathtaking, and I actually think this is the most exciting time to be alive, or a journalist — ever. It’s sort of like what it was like in the end of the 1940s, with the advent of television — except it’s multimedia, it’s every potential form of communication imaginable, all exploding at once.

So what’s possible in terms of what you could do journalistically to tell a story, to explain a story — but also even to get a story … some of the various new techniques, from computer-assisted reporting to satellite imagery — all the different techniques now are just breathtaking.

It takes journalism so far, centuries beyond Lincoln Steffens or S.S. McClure or whatever. So I mean, when we see what the technology enables, it is thrilling.

And from an entrepreneurial standpoint, we are obviously seeing a rather significant historic economic transformation — a euphemism everyone uses — but it’s true, the transformation.

And for an entrepreneur, the question is, who is going to pay for this information, this particularly difficult-to-get information, that is the most expensive, time-consuming and slightly riskier information to prepare?

What we have been seeing is [that] most of the for-profit models rely on folks without journalistic sensibilities or concern for community … those folks are into their shareholder earnings and their quarterly profits, and keeping them rather high — uncharacteristically high, vis-a-vis the rest of the industry sectors, even.

And so … the question is — what will emerge in the months and years ahead, and is there a way to redefine this landscape, or even this information that’s so crucial and so important? Is there a way that this information will become suddenly more attractive to the mega-players out there that dominate the global landscape economically?

And I actually think the answer to that is yes. Will it happen? The answer’s yes. Do we know exactly in what form? We don’t quite yet.

But whatever happens is going to be a startup; it’s not going to be an existing entity trying to adapt. Entrepreneurialism always works better at new platforms, unencumbered by the past, or bureaucracies, or precedents, or cultural sensibilities that date back decades.

And so, we’re going to see new startup for-profits, nonprofits and hybrids of the two emerge. We’re seeing it already — but we’re going to see it, I think, on a larger scale, in an economic way that finally takes, so to speak.

So far, the for-profit model has not had any success lately — not really, not substantially for this kind of work — and it is what is terrifying most journalists and most journalism production shops, so the owners in other words — and somehow that’s got to shift.

And I predict it will shift, and I think it will shift even in the next three to five years — but what do I know? I mean, no one really knows. But there are enough signs of ferment and enough signs of where things are going to suggest that it’s possible.

And I do find that utterly thrilling.

Geneva Overholser: ‘Public Media’ or Public Interest?

Monday, June 14th, 2010

Talking Public Media: Conversations About Media & Democracy

[Interview conducted May 2008]

It was in the depths of 2006, with the severity of the media crisis only deepening, that GENEVA OVERHOLSER — former editor of the Pulitzer-winning Des Moines Register, ombudsman for The Washington Post, and currently director of the School of Journalism at the University of Southern California — issued her now-classic “On Behalf of Journalism: A Manifesto for Change” sent the conventional wisdom to the recycling bin. It’s not just about Craigslist eating up classified-ad revenue. Journalists, she said, are not open to change. The public trusts them less and less. And “relentless” pressure on media companies to achieve “unusually high profit margins” quarter after quarter only deepens the quagmire.

Notable Quotes

• PUBLIC INTEREST: “One of the great things to emerge is the understanding that transparency and accountability to the public are absolute hallmarks of journalism in the public interest, the vision of information in the public interest … this means that all of us who care about journalism are reminded of the point of it (which we’ve too often needed to be reminded of). It’s not about the journalist, it’s about the public interest — arming people with the information they want and need in order to live their lives more richly and be citizens in a democracy.”

• TRUST: “People will say they do value their local newspaper or their local television station, but they generally believe the press is not as reliable as it used to be.”

• NPR & PBS: “They have their own complexities in terms of being a model; they began with the controversial question of government [funding], and that has affected them substantially, which I hope would not necessarily be true for most public media, but I think it’s important to note that they’re sort of singular in that regard. Although I think there may well be a role for government, it’s important to note that it’s complex. Also, NPR increasingly has a commercial model — they may call them sponsorships, but they aren’t much different from advertisers …”

• PUBLIC PARTICIPATION: “When they are part of a public that is being skeptical, or that is stressing the questions, then they are better. So I think having a public media, having a set of public media, having citizens who are expressing themselves, who are committing their own acts of journalism or who are demanding better journalism — [these] have a real effect of a ‘rising tide lifts all boats.’”

• FOUNDATION FUNDING: “Foundations aren’t necessarily [a solution] — they may be interested in health reporting, but what if you decide when you’re doing this health reporting that you’ve come across a remarkable energy story … are you gonna hold off and then you have to go to the foundation that cares about energy? I’m mean, it’s not the way reporting can work.”


GENEVA OVERHOLSER, TALKING PUBLIC MEDIA
Interview by Josh Wilson, May 2008

What are the strengths and weaknesses of public media in the internet era?

When you say public media, do you mean media that are mostly contributed to by non-journalists? Or do you mean nonprofit? I guess you need to define public media for me.

I’m being deliberately evasive on that because different definitions are emerging.

Yeah, well, I don’t know how useful the phrase is; [but] it opens a door to what we really need to be focused on — which is information in the public interest …

Think about something like the Center for Public Integrity, which is certainly a professional, nonprofit center for investigative reporting based in Washington, doing what often looks like fairly traditional investigative reporting, but according to an untraditional economic model, basically because their financing is noncommercial.

It’s certainly producing reporting in the public interest that’s very different from what, say, is happening in the Twin Cities, where you have two struggling newspapers, one of them which had been bought by an equity investor, and you have Minnesota Public Radio, which is a really interesting model; you’ve got MinnPost, which was started by a former publisher of the Star Tribune, being backed by a bunch of investors, and mostly done by professional quote-unquote journalists who have been laid off or took buyouts from these other struggling commercial media. Then you’ve got the Minnesota Monitor [now the Minnesota Independent -- Ed.], which is a nonprofit, done by a guy who’s made money — the Center for Independent Media.

Some of the things that Jan Schaffer recognizes, like that wonderful New Hampshire medium that emerged from the library in that little town [Deerfield] that couldn’t meet its information needs. So from the library came this online medium ["The Forum"] that began meeting people’s needs. I mean there are all kinds of things going on — it’s a wide, yeasty mix, right? There’s plenty of room, and there’s plenty of need — whether they can survive, of course, is the question.

What public support means is another question — I mean, you know, newspapers are publically supported too if people subscribe. I mean, when I was editing [the Des Moines Register], people would call me up: “Well, I pay for this newspaper!” They pay 20 percent, max, circulation prices. But, that’s public support.

What are the strengths or weaknesses of public media in the Internet era?

One of the great things to emerge is the understanding that transparency and accountability to the public are absolute hallmarks of journalism in the public interest, the vision of information in the public interest. Because the public are demanding this … this means that all of us who care about journalism are reminded of the point of it — which we’ve too often needed to be reminded of: It’s not about the journalist, it’s about the public interest — arming people with the information they want and need in order to live their lives more richly and be citizens in a democracy.

It means we’ve got new models that we’re launching, it means that citizens are becoming more aware of the importance of journalism as a public good. This is great! That is good for everyone. It’s good for old-time journalists, it’s good for democracy, it’s good for these emerging publications that are made up entirely of citizen contributors.

We are now talking about reliable information, information in the public interest, ethical journalism, whatever you want to call it, we’re talking about this as a public good, and that really is essential to me. In recent decades, we’ve just assumed that the journalism will be provided. It will be provided primarily by commercial media, it will be paid for by advertisers. Fundamentally, we have very little public sense of responsibility for the quality of this information or even for the continued provision of it. There was a presumption that it was just going to flow our way.

The difficulties that have originated with this presumption, and with the failures of journalism to serve the public interest, and also with commercial models collapsing, as well as with the public generally becoming less trusting of all sources of power (it’s not just journalism … there’s much less trust in everything, from Congress to big business) — all these factors mean that the public is really in the arena now, much more likely to demand higher quality journalism, and much more likely to feel they have a responsibility to help produce it. We can hope that there would be sectors of the public who are willing to pay more, and maybe get philanthropists to support the journalism as well,

We’ve seen that a little bit with Herbert and Marion Sandler [the ProPublica funders]. We’ll see more of it — but, that’s also problematic, by the way. [Laughs] None of these things are no-strings. But they’re all there.

There seems to be more consciousness of the problem of the newspaper as commercialized, as a scandal sheet, and reporters have lost a certain cachet. Yet, you just described a countercurrent, of a recognition of the importance of journalism.

Right. And I think those both — they coexist. People will say they do value their local newspaper or their local television station, but they generally believe the press is not as reliable as it used to be. So it’s really hard to know what to make of those kinds of things. But what I do see arising, I think, is a much greater concern on the part of the public about where they’re getting their information and whether their information needs are being heard. You see it now with Free Press and the media reform movement, but you also see it in the blogging movement …

So there’s a huge expectation, which is really healthy, that journalism matters, that news in the public interest matters, that public information matters, that civic discourse matters, and I think that’s absolutely terrific. It also means we’re seeing more, not always better, but more media criticism, and fundamentally that’s a good thing.

Let’s talk about the legacy of public media up to this point. Even before the Internet emerged, public media have been undergoing changes.

Do you mean NPR, or PBS?

Yeah. Not necessarily to coin a phrase — “legacy public media” …

They have their own complexities in terms of being a model; they began with the controversial question of government [funding], and that has affected them substantially, which I hope would not necessarily be true for most public media, but I think it’s important to note that they’re sort of singular in that regard. Although I think there may well be a role for government, it’s important to note that it’s complex. Also, NPR increasingly has a commercial model — they may call them sponsorships, but they aren’t much different from advertisers …

I wrote a book chapter about NPR, and I was trying to think about what were the things that really made it unique, and one of them clearly is public support. It means something, that you have to go to your news consumer and ask them for their support, and they give it to you. It was in a book that came out just recently from the University of Missouri called “What Good is Journalism?”

But the point is that I do think, yes, that that public engagement with the media and this particular legacy public media has been very important and formative. [I]t’s surely one of the reasons that NPR has been as good as it’s been, and that its listenership doubled essentially in this past ten years, although it has leveled out.

I like to believe that the explanation is part of the same reason that we’re seeing the increase in attention to what they call the British invasion — the Economist and the BBC — which are giving Americans substantial news at a time when our own for-profit media are cutting back. I think NPR is the exception to that sad truth, and it was responsive to the desires of people in communities throughout the country to receive substantial news in the public interest.

Maybe you can talk about the roles public media can take in the Internet era.

Well, I think the media are very much a part of the culture, and are affected by the culture, and we saw that after 9/11, when media were not adequately aggressive, and were not exercising the amount of skepticism we’d hope they would.

When they are part of a public that is being skeptical, or that is stressing the questions, then they are better. So I think having a public media, having a set of public media, having citizens who are expressing themselves, who are committing their own acts of journalism or who are demanding better journalism — [these] have a real effect of a “rising tide lifts all boats.”

You know, there is a wide variety of what’s happening with public engagement. We’re selling our house, so we’ve got some stuff in the basement, boxes of books and eighty long-playing records — I put them on Freecycle D.C., and it is so wonderful — so I’ve had people trooping by taking my box of puzzles, you know, jigsaw puzzles, and my eight boxes of books and my husband’s old table saw — well, that is a form of public medium.

Some of what has happened is that we have disaggregated the pieces that used to come together to make a newspaper, like the classified ads. We also would have had the celebrity news … we had the bridge column, we had the comics — it had all those things that came together and they helped support substantial news … the kind of thing that keeps a democracy going. Well now we’ve kind of disaggregated a lot of that, and reaggregating it in some other way could be part of the solution. If we’re smart we think about how we do social networking, and this Freecycle component, and delivery of the news …

It’s a really interesting time. I couldn’t be more hopeful than I am about having so much public engagement on this question of “Are we, as a democracy, getting the information that we need?”

We used to behave in the journalism world the way doctors do: “Oh, don’t worry your pretty little head about what happens behind this veil” — you know — “only one of us can understand it,” which is surely no good way to provide the public with the information they need. That arrogance is over.

The high priesthood.

The high priesthood. Boy, insufferable it was, even if you were in it!

There are definitely some good folks in it, though …

Oh yeah absolutely — we can’t do without them. We’re nowhere near replacing them

Even replacing may be a little bold — reinventing, reimagining, and redeveloping …

Right, we’re doing all of those things, but nothing has yet arisen that in any way, to date, sufficiently addresses the need to have eyes on the inner working of business and government. In my view. Nothing has yet arisen that anywhere near duplicates the kind of quality, however imperfect, and quantity, of eyeballs on the public business that we need. Most people don’t have time to do that.

That bottom-line investment in reporting power. Person power. So you say nothing yet has arisen to date to replace the newspaper?

I do think the newspaper is the main engine of that kind of reporting for us in this country. In this country until recently it has been a hugely successful commercial model, and you know that really has ended. There were plenty of problems with having the decisions made by businesses that were more focused on profit than public service. But what has happened now is that they can’t even count on this profit — they’re not able pay for this journalism and what we’re struggling with now is figuring out how we’re going to pay for the information needs of the citizenry.

And we’re seeing lots of interesting experiments, but I think we have a long way to go especially before we will really and see the kind of journalism that can go up against big governments and big business. Which is really pretty daunting. It requires deep pockets and tenacity and guts and rolodexes and a lot of things —

Yeah, you need a foundation to do that.

You need a lot of foundations to do that. And foundations aren’t necessarily going to be — they may be interested in health reporting, but what if you decide when you’re doing this health reporting that you come across a remarkable energy story, well — you know, are you gonna hold off and then you have to go to the foundation that cares about energy. I’m mean, it’s not the way reporting can work.

Actually, what I meant is, you need a foundation — as in, you need a base, some sort of journalism infrastructure to stand on, as a reporter or news publisher, which is hard to find these days. But, yeah, the grantmaking foundations are not really in sync with the needs of news publishers.

Actually I do think foundations are going to have to see this as part of the public good. I had dinner with Putnam, you know Robert Putnam who wrote “Bowling Alone,” and I was talking to him about journalism as social capital. I think we need to think of it as social capital.

He was saying that?

No, I was, but he agreed with me, or he sounded like he agreed with me. I think this is the kind of thing we’re going to have to engender among foundation leaders and wealthy people in this country, and communities … you know, the Knight Foundation brought this before community foundations, which are sitting on pots of money across the country…

Yeah, Dan Gillmor made a good comment about that in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007.

Yes, exactly. That was a fine op-ed.

The thing is, as a reporter, you don’t want to be dependent on a special-interest funder …

Well, you never know what you want to be dependent on. You want to do good work, and I figure you’ll do it any way you can, as long as you’re guaranteeing your independence and keeping your eye on responsible reporting.

What are the opportunities that academics should be thinking about?

I think the academy, the journalism academy, is not doing nearly all it could do. And communities where various universities and colleges are located — you know, they could be making themselves available to the public who want to do the journalism, or want to understand news literacy better. They could be setting up organs on the Web for media criticism. There are all sorts of things that journalism schools could be doing that they aren’t doing. That’s a huge effort and the web clearly makes it much, much richer.

What are the lessons that of the Internet that public media needs to take to heart?

The Internet is a whole new frontier — it really feels like the Wild West, it has endless possibilities and endless pitfalls, and so it seems to me that when we talk about information in the public interest as opposed to everything else that is going on in the Web, we need to think about what constitutes responsibility towards the public, what constitutes the public good …

[I]n my view, that means we’ve got to think carefully about news literacy on the part of the public, so that the public can judge information. In Canada, there is a required course in news literacy in junior high and high school, in all the provinces, which is remarkable. We need to have news literacy here. That’s number one.

And number two, we need to think very carefully as journalists, and as citizens interested in contributing to or providing journalism ourselves, about what are the enduring values that need to go forward in digital media.

We don’t need dead trees, we don’t need the inverted pyramid, but … we could each come up with our own lists, [on which] we’d find truth-telling — or some close approximation to accuracy — you would find context, you would find independence from factions, or, we’d find transparency about our allegiances …

So if I’m providing information in the public interest, it doesn’t matter if I’m a journalist or not, but I need to tell you: what is my intent, here’s what I intend to provide to you; and is it without fear or favor? And it’s perfectly honorable if what I’m doing is giving you the best sales job I can on Hillary Clinton — but I need to say that to you. So transparency, accountability. And then if the public is armed with a better understanding of media; and those who provide media are intent upon being more transparent about what they do, and holding themselves accountable, then the sky’s the limit.

But, you know, Lord knows, it’s not, “Oh, now we have the Web, we needn’t worry about anything else — ”

The techno-Pollyannas.

Right, right. I’m very excited about it, though, good Lord, the depth you know, and it’s really going to reach people, and I still go talk to newsrooms, and people say, “Oh my goodness, I can’t get more than 30 inches in the paper, I guess I can always think about the Web…” Yeah! It’s amazing, the resources available to people now who want to do good work.

I like the optimism.

Yeah! I couldn’t be more excited. Of course, I’m not paid by a daily newspaper anymore.

Persephone Miel: What Should PBS Do?

Monday, April 13th, 2009

Talking Public Media: Conversations on Media & Democracy

Internews Network’s PERSEPHONE MIEL, a recent fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center, brings some Internet-era vision for the idea of public media. Rather than look to new nonprofits and new structures, she says the real opportunity is to activate existing public media — PBS, NPR, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — to more effectively serve people and communities. But this may require a reinvention of what an NPR or PBS “station” is, as well as a reimagining of the role of taxpayer funding in this picture.

Read Miel’s lively blog for more media criticism and commentary, and check out her Berkman fellowship project, Media Re:public.

Notable Quotes

• MISSED POTENTIAL: “There’s a really strong sense … that public broadcasting has a huge potential role to play, as the media landscape shifts and as we shift into more and more online delivery and platform-agnostic content. But there’s a really good chance that they’re not going to seize that opportunity, and that [public broadcasters] could end up being completely irrelevant to the next wave of journalism — which would be sad.”

• INTERNET’S ROLE: “A lot of what people hope to see happen in the new media space, when people are feeling optimistic, is the kinds of things that public media broadcasting was supposed to do — I mean, is supposed to do: serve the community in its entirety, be accessible, really reflect the community, and so on.”

• WHY NO PARTNERSHIPS? “Public media is supposed to be going where the people are, regardless of whether there’s money there or not. So the fact that they don’t seem to be looking for partnerships with local nonprofit-place bloggers or other things, trying to bring in that new stuff, now that they can — it’s kind of depressing.”

• NOT PAYING ATTENTION: “[P]arts of public media have not taken advantage of the ability to listen to their audience in the way that the Internet era affords, and that people are more and more coming to expect. This has nothing to do with the Internet era, really … we have a lot of discussions about the media ignoring people in the lower-income percentile, not representing them, not being interested in them — and I certainly think that public media should be working to a higher standard on that front, and I don’t really think they do.”

• “Many of the same exact things that are happening within newspapers are happening in public radio.”

• “Maybe what we really need to do is expand the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s charter, so that they can fund online-only resources.”

• “Public broadcasters need to get over themselves, [they're] as bad or even worse than many of the print journalists about the high-priesthood thing.”


PERSEPHONE MIEL, TALKING PUBLIC MEDIA
Conducted by Josh Wilson, May 2008

Give me your sense of the strengths and weaknesses of public media in the Internet era.

Ha. That’s a small question. Well, first of all, there’s a growing consensus among people within public media — when I say ‘public media’ at this point, I’m meaning just standard public broadcasting, NPR and public radio and television — to talk about public media and public-service media as something bigger than that, and as something we need more of, and that it could be lots of different things.

There’s a really strong sense both within the system, and certainly from a lot of critics, or not even so much critics, but people who want public media to succeed, and value it — that public broadcasting has a huge potential role to play, as the media landscape shifts and as we shift into more and more online delivery and platform-Agnostic content.

But there’s a really good chance that they’re not going to seize that opportunity, and that [public broadcasters] could end up being completely irrelevant to the next wave of journalism — which would be sad.

While the potential is exciting, the failure to seize the opportunity should at least be instructive.

A lot of what people hope to see happen in the new media space, when people are feeling optimistic, is the kinds of things that public media broadcasting was supposed to do — I mean, is supposed to do: serve the community in its entirety, be accessible, really reflect the community, and so on.

You end up seeing people within public broadcasting who have gotten very locked in, to the extent that even the TV people and radio people don’t really work together very well, a lot of the time … but even more so, that they’re not doing a great job of taking their own content online.

And they’re also not taking on a role of being a welcoming place for other people who might be wanting to do that.

There’s all these foundations out there funding little tiny experiments of citizen journalism and so on, and hyperlocal — and many of them are nonprofit. And it just strikes me, why are we creating more nonprofit media when we already have a whole lot of nonprofit media organizations around the country who could be, in theory, boosting these new efforts, or making them happen?

We all know that there’s organizational-culture problems that are certainly not only within public media …

But public media is supposed to be going where the people are, regardless of whether there’s money there or not. So the fact that they don’t seem to be looking for partnerships with local nonprofit-place bloggers or other things, trying to bring in that new stuff, now that they can — it’s kind of depressing.

And there’s a real split — the problem is there are people within NPR and within local stations, as well as within PBS and within local stations, that really do want to move this stuff forward — and there are some really interesting experiments.

What are some of those experiments?

Minnesota Public Radio has a whole bunch of things that they’re doing, there’s Public Insight Journalism Network, you probably know about … And New Hampshire Public Radio, which is tiny, but which has done some little citizen journalism things — they did this thing called Primary Place — and Chicago Public Radio is in the middle of a really huge experiment of having launched an entirely separate radio station, that uses none of the NPR content — it’s called Vocalo. Check it out. They openly admit that they don’t know if it’s going to succeed, but –

At least they’re trying.

Yes. At least they’re trying.

So you see some leadership, at the local level, or at the state level?

Not that I have a lot of inside knowledge of it, but — one of the reasons that Ken Stern left NPR was that there was a lot of tension between the national organizations and the big stations versus the little stations who felt that they weren’t getting enough support — that they were being left behind, and not helped to do new digital things.

And then at the national level I think there’s a certain amount of feeling of like, “Well, they just don’t get it” — I mean just the sort of typical city-cousin, country-cousin kind of thing … nothing unusual about that.

My perspective is that it’s wide open, right now — but my own work trying to take public media online has been very challenging at the institutional level. Members of the public get it. But the institutions seem out of step with that. Why has it been so difficult? Why aren’t people paying attention?

Many of the same exact things that are happening within newspapers are happening in public radio. And, y’know, I think [the Corporation for Public Broadcasting] sometimes finds their hands tied, because of their original covenant, which is actually determined by the law — they’re only allowed to fund public broadcasting stations — officially, they’re only allowed to fund projects that will be broadcast.

They obviously want everything to have more and more of a Web component. For me the question is what the local stations really want to do and become. Not soon, but at some point, the whole model of how they deliver their stuff is going to get ripped apart.

People really just aren’t going to care anymore whether they get their signal on a local broadcast frequency — they’ll be either using satellite radio, or they’ll be using podcasts, or they’ll be listening to it over the Internet, including on their mobile phone. It really won’t matter whether that organization is in Milwaukee or Washington, D.C. anymore.

Some go to one of the national services, there’s American Public Media and Public Radio International and so on, but what are they going to do as that broadcast function becomes irrelevant?

I bet you have an answer for that.

Well — no, I don’t have a full answer. I mean, I think they basically have to decide whether they want — either they can go to a completely bare-bones retransmission operation for the people who still have radios, because obviously people will still use radios for a long time, it’s not going to go away in a year or probably ten years, it’s just that there’ll be so many other options.

Or they can decide they really do want to be a local media operation, and find a way to do that that’s competitive, which would probably mean finding a way to hook up with local or regional citizen-journalist initiatives, blogs, maybe local governments providing information systems — and really re-imagining themselves not as radio or TV stations but as community news hubs.

But it’s not in any way clear that that would necessarily work; it may depend a lot on the community.

What can public media be doing to support actual journalism? What about ProPublica?

[Laughs] That’s a-whole-nother question. I think nobody knows that. We just don’t know yet.

Yeah, let’s not worry about them quite yet.

Right, so … NPR is a huge news organization, right? And it does very good work, and they could aspire to do more work and better work if they wanted. And they have a really huge reach in the market.

And then PBS doesn’t really have a big news organization — they have one half-hour news program that might as well be on radio, pretty much — and yet it’s still very influential … and Frontline. I’m not worried about Frontline. Frontline is going to exist no matter what. They will find a home no matter what happens to WGBH.

Tell me more about the roles public media could play in the Internet era — you spoke about how there’s an opportunity to become more of a community resource.

The question is whether some amount of important journalism is going away as newspapers fail, or get bought out, or get smaller, or become nothing but a shell for AP content and advertising, right? Let’s just assume that might be true. So you have that happening on the one side — and you have people talking about the need for nonprofit journalism on the other side — and so, who should be filling that local news gap? If it’s going to be nonprofit, why shouldn’t it be somehow part of public media?

And specifically the NPR or PBS legacy networks?

[Laughs] “Legacy networks … ”

I meant that simply as “already existing.”

Maybe what we really need to do is expand the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s charter, so that they can fund online-only resources.

Must it come from CPB?

Not necessarily, but I mean, why — why create a new CPB, right? CPB has got a budget.

You just have to wonder about how politicized it is. Should we be planning around that? Such as what Charles Lewis said about the Marshall Plan for journalism. It sounds to me like there are ideas for something other than CPB to do that, that could be nonprofit, or public/private — but not linked to a government charter.

Right — um, well yeah, unless you think that the, whatever, $70 million the CPB gives away is our money. [Laughs]

That’s a great point. There is just such an expectation of, “why bother working with CPB, it’s so politicized — you can’t fight City Hall,” but it is our money.

Right. [And] to some extent, I think in certain ways, foundation money is our money too. The tax breaks that we give whoever donated the money …

You would like to see some courage on the part of the campaigners, perhaps — to try and set their sights on CPB and try to open it up and loosen it up somehow?

What do you mean when you say ‘campaigners’?

I guess when I said that I envisioned the National Conference on Media Reform, who are all about building campaigns. So maybe there is a leadership opportunity here.

Maybe.

What are the lessons of the Internet era that public media should take to heart?

One of the things that got said at News Tools 2008, and I can’t remember who, but someone said, “aggregation is creation.”

It’s one of the classic complaints against all traditional media — that it’s taken them forever to figure out that it’s actually to their advantage to point people to other people’s stuff. But public media is, from most of the Web sites that I’ve looked at, pretty bad at that.

And lots of parts of public media have not taken advantage of the ability to listen to their audience in the way that the Internet era affords, and that people are more and more coming to expect.

This has nothing to do with the Internet era, really … we have a lot of discussions about the media ignoring people in the lower-income percentile, not representing them, not being interested in them — and I certainly think that public media should be working to a higher standard on that front, and I don’t really think they do.

What should public media look and act like in the twenty-first century? What are the opportunities that public media-makers, academics, nonprofit leaders and grantmakers should be thinking about?

Partnerships, partnerships, partnerships. Public broadcasters need to get over themselves, [they're] as bad or even worse than many of the print journalists about the high-priesthood thing.

They need to look at more partnerships and kind of reach outside of themselves, whether it is to local bloggers or schools, and really see themselves as a community service and less as a high-priesthood.

And we have to get rid of pledge drives.

And they have to — oh — get rid of pledge drives?

[Laughs] Yes; that’s essential.

Really — how are they going to pay for themselves?

Well, we have people working on that.

Tell me about it.

[I]t’s called Project VRM — Vendor Relationship Management. Doc Searls and a whole group of folks around the world are working on it.

[Publisher's Note: Future editions of Talking Public Media will address the topic of what vendor relationship management is.]

Talking Public Media: Conversations About Media & Democracy

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

What, exactly, is “public media” in an era of vanishing newspapers, expanding Internet and wireless networks, empowered publics and an increasingly lively (if chaotic) nonprofit-news sector?

Talking Public Media pursues this fluid notion in conversation with diverse journalism practitioners, advocates, educators, academics, admirers and critics.

Our initial four interviews were conducted in May 2008.


Charles Lewis: How to Start a News Nonprofit
A former 60 Minutes producer, CHARLES LEWIS hit hard limits on what he could cover in the commercial sector. So he jumped ship, and embarked on the “tough slog” of building his own nonprofit news outlet at a time — the late ’80s — when the industry was still flush, and the Internet largely unknown. The Center for Public Integrity went on to break ground as a new type of public-interest news outlet, while Lewis has since founded the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, and played a key role in forming the Investigative News Network.

Geneva Overholser: “Public Media” or Public Interest?
It was in the depths of 2006, with the severity of the media crisis only deepening, that GENEVA OVERHOLSER — former editor of the Pulitzer-winning Des Moines Register, ombudsman for The Washington Post, and currently Director of the School of Journalism at the University of Southern California — issued her now-classic “On Behalf of Journalism: A Manifesto for Change.”

Persephone Miel: What Should PBS Do?
PERSEPHONE MIEL a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center, brings some Internet-era vision for the idea of public media. Rather than look to new nonprofits and new structures, she says the real opportunity is to activate existing public media — PBS, NPR, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — to more effectively serve people and communities. But this may require a reinvention of what an NPR or PBS “station” is, as well as a reimagining of the role of taxpayer funding in this picture.

Ted Glasser: The Case for a National Endowment for Journalism
Talking Public Media kicks off with a conversation with TED GLASSER, a professor of communications at Stanford University, and an advocate of national-scale reform of through the creation of a National Endowment for Journalism. He also weighs in on the FCC and its adequacy to the changing media moment, and the importance of developing journalism support structures that can serve basic civic needs, particularly in communities that the commercial model for news publishing overlooks.

Ted Glasser: Imagining a National Endowment for Journalism

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

Talking Public Media: Conversations on Media & Democracy

Go big or go home! For its debut edition, Talking Public Media chats with Stanford communication professor TED GLASSER, who brings a fifty-state strategy with his modest proposal for the creation of a National Endowment for Journalism.

Glasser also weighs in on the FCC and its adequacy to the changing media moment, and the importance of developing journalism support structures that can serve basic civic needs, particularly in communities outside of the commercial news-publishing model’s target audience.

Notable Quotes

• BIG VISIONS: “We’re at the very early stages of talking about what a National Endowment for Journalism might look like … we haven’t figured out most of the details, but there are any number of opportunities to secure substantial funding for something like this.

“One good place to begin would be by tapping into the billions of dollars the FCC brings in when it auctions off our airwaves, those natural resources, and those auctions are likely to continue, and they bring in billions of dollars, and there’s no reason why that couldn’t be used to begin to create and endowment for journalism.”

• JOURNALISM ALTERNATIVES: “Alternative journalism is journalism aimed at people who aren’t well-served by existing newsrooms — they’re not hard to identify. They’re all over the United States. Almost every inner city lacks a serious neighborhood newspaper. You go up and down the [San Francisco ] Peninsula, and it’s not difficult to find the poorer communities without weekly newspapers.”

• REFORM: “[I]t needs to be radical reform, in the sense that it needs to get at the root of the problem, and that is the absence of the infrastructure to support the kind of journalism we would all agree we want. I’m not proposing any radical or strange form of journalism. I’m trying to find a way to support what almost everyone would agree is the kind of journalism we need.”

• THE INTERNET: “[T]he early talk about the Internet democratizing the world is far off base. We’ve made the same claims about almost every new communication technology. That’s not to deny that computerization of communication has fundamentally altered the landscape — it has. And it’s created all sorts of interesting and new opportunities.

“But the opportunities depend on … a core of quality journalists. And that’s the very core that’s shrinking now. I mean, we keep firing some of the most talented, or encouraging them to take buyouts, and it gets reported in the most euphemistic ways. We don’t even use the word fired — it’s ‘laid off,’ ‘bought out’ — these people are being fired! At a time when we need more journalism, not less journalism.”

• NATIONAL DIALOGUE: “We need a national commission, and this coincides with — supports — a notion of a National Endowment for Journalism, that ask these larger questions: What system of journalism does a democracy of the kind we have in the United States need? To what extent can the marketplace sustain it, to what extent can it not? And to the extent that we agree that the marketplace cannot sustain the kind of journalism we all agree we need, then we need to ask ourselves what can we do to bring that about. Rather than accepting whatever the marketplace yields.”


TED GLASSER, TALKING PUBLIC MEDIA
Interview conducted by Josh Wilson, May 2008

Most of the folks I’ve been speaking to have been thinking about public media in a very broad sense, not in terms of state-sponsored media, but more generally in terms of developing new nonprofit models. And every now and then somebody says “oh, but then there’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting, using our money, maybe we should make them more responsive to our needs.”

It’s odd that it’s so easy to forget that public media traditionally has had that presence in our lives. Or had it — and if it doesn’t anymore, why is that?

Ted Glasser: Well, it’s never been a major force in American society. We have an aversion to the state playing that kind of role. Now we have, as you point out, we do have the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but it’s been systematically underfunded to the point where, compared to European countries and elsewhere in the world, we just don’t take it seriously.

So in general, you don’t think that um programs like McNeil-Lehrer and All Things Considered are important but don’t own as much of the public market share as they should?

I think they’re vitally important, although I’m not a big fan of McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, but I think public broadcasting is vitally important. I think funding for it ought to be strengthened, but more importantly the idea of publicly supported media, not publicly owned and controlled, but publicly supported media deserves more of our attention.

Okay …

But not just radio and television — there’s a particular bias in the United States in favor of talking about public support for broadcasting even though it’s marginal, but there’s virtually no conversation about creating a system of subvention for other media –

Subvention?

Subsidy.

For other forms? For example, online media?

It could be anything, we don’t need to talk about what it is, what we need to talk about is the importance of a system of strong, sustainable newsrooms. Whether those newsrooms produce material for websites or newspapers or radio or television is less important, and partly because most newsrooms are multimedia now anyway, so specifying the technology is really increasingly beside the point.

You do have a prescription for the situation you just described, and I’m wondering if you could describe that a little.

Well we’re at the very early stages of talking about what a National Endowment for Journalism might look like … we haven’t figured out most of the details, but there are any number of opportunities to secure substantial funding for something like this.

One good place to begin would be by tapping into the billions of dollars the FCC brings in when it auctions off our airwaves, those natural resources, and those auctions are likely to continue, and they bring in billions of dollars, and there’s no reason why that couldn’t be used to begin to create and endowment for journalism.

And then the task would be to define what we mean by journalism, what kind of journalism do we want to support. The goal would be to create the conditions for supporting journalism that the marketplace no longer supports or never supported.

So it would be alternative forms of journalism, journalism aimed at minority communities, journalism where communities are deemed to be demographically unattractive. You know, the places that have historically been disenfranchised and are increasingly disenfranchised given the failure of the business model of journalism.

What about the seeming lack of interest by the American public in serving the underserved via public media, i.e., viewing it as “alternative” journalism, which I suppose has all sorts of political implications.

Alternative journalism is journalism aimed at people who aren’t well-served by existing newsrooms — they’re not hard to identify. They’re all over the United States. Almost every inner city lacks a serious neighborhood newspaper. You go up and down the [San Francisco] Peninsula, and it’s not difficult to find the poorer communities without weekly newspapers. The stronger communities like Palo Alto are amply served with local media.

So by alternative news you mean –

I mean alternative to the marketplace.

Can you speak about the strengths and weaknesses of public media in the Internet era?

By public media you mean — ?

Everybody has been defining it in their own way, so I’m reluctant to impose my own definition. I’d like to use an inclusive one — to say that both existing traditional public media, publicly owned media, as well as emerging publicly supported models –

Do you include privately owned?

You know, Geneva Overholser suggested, when I was talking to her, that subscriptions and newsstand sales do constitute a form of public support for commercial and privately owned papers … but I think we do need to speak about the tax-exempt sector.

I think there’s a very weak and underdeveloped infrastructure for public media. That’s not to say that there aren’t great examples of people doing wonderful work, but it’s hit-and-miss, there’s no systematic support for it, and that’s why I think there needs to be public support for public media, not simply philanthropic support, not simply entrepreneurial support, but something that we can count on that will create not simply outlets, but outlets that coalesce into a larger system.

I think what the United States desperately needs is not simply alternative media or minority media that serves the needs of the particular community, but [to] find ways to create linkages to successively larger media, which is to say that there needs to be a relationship between mainstream and minority media, so that local communities get to participate in successively larger discussions, so that we create opportunities for participation in society through a system of media –

You are describing something a lot more aggressive than the piecemeal approach of, “Let’s support this small project here.” That’s the philanthropic approach right now — very cautious, focused on the entrepreneurial side and lacking vision for what you describe as a system.

I think you’re absolutely right. And it needs to be radical reform, in the sense that it needs to get at the root of the problem, and that is the absence of the infrastructure to support the kind of journalism we would all agree we want. I’m not proposing any radical or strange form of journalism. I’m trying to find a way to support what almost everyone would agree is the kind of journalism we need.

Does the Internet provide that opportunity? Is it the ideal mass medium for what you’re talking about, or does it need to be more inclusive of traditional media?

It depends on what you’re trying to do. There’s still a digital divide in the United States. And it’s in part a divide grounded in funding and funds. It still costs money to buy a computer. And there’s a literacy question. You need to be able to operate the software. I don’t know of a recent study that suggests how big this divide is, but we need to find ways of getting computers into the hands of more people and getting more people to be comfortable with computers if the Internet is going to serve the role of an alternative newspaper.

But it sounds like you don’t think the Internet is itself a magic bullet that’s going to make it all better.

Oh no, the early talk about the Internet democratizing the world is far off base. We’ve made the same claims about almost every new communication technology. That’s not to deny that computerization of communication has fundamentally altered the landscape — it has. And it’s created all sorts of interesting and new opportunities.

But the opportunities depend on … a core of quality journalists. And that’s the very core that’s shrinking now. I mean, we keep firing some of the most talented, or encouraging them to take buyouts, and it gets reported in the most euphemistic ways.

We don’t even use the word fired — it’s “laid off,” “bought out” — these people are being fired! At a time when we need more journalism, not less journalism.

One of the things that comes to mind when I think of a large system of support is — control versus independence. One of the key points of the SPJ Code of Ethics is to act independently, which is something that isn’t as possible in the hierarchical commercial newsrooms of the day.

With regard to control and independence, I think it’s a non-issue, in fact it’s easier to maintain independence and control in a publicly-supported media environment than a privately-supported one because 1) there’s more transparency and 2) there’s more accountability.

We can demand from the state transparency and accountability that we can never demand of Google or Yahoo or anything. Now that isn’t to say that the conditions for independence and autonomy seem to me to be stronger in the public sector than the private sector. And you know NPR has exhibited, if not more, certainly as much independence as any other news outlet in the United States.

I’m more fearful of the subtle but insidious control that advertising imposes on the press, and the insidious and not-so-subtle control that people like Murdoch impose on the press. and we as the public — there’s nothing we can say about that. There’s no one we can call, there’s no one we can convene, we just accept it.

And you hear the phrase constantly in journalism “these are the realities we have to accept.” And I think that’s the phrase we need to abandon. These are not the realities we have to accept. We should identify for ourselves the ideal set of conditions and then ask ourselves how do we get there. Rather than accepting the conditions that are imposed on us by a model that equates free enterprise with free press.

It seems like the media-reform community — who often focus on exclusively top-level policy and aren’t really involved with producing journalism — sometimes suggests that all we need is a friendly FCC and everything will be nice and pleasant and the corporations will behave. That’s a simplification of their message — but do you think that that is a step towards having transparency, being able to make demands on the private sector?

The FCC only deals with broadcasting. The whole media landscape calls into the question the role of the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC was modeled on the Interstate Commerce Commission. It views communication as an aspect of commerce, not an aspect of culture.

It can’t figure out quite its regulatory framework given its supervision over computers and cable, all the things that don’t demand the scarce frequencies that were the original justification for the FCC back in the 20s and 30s. We need to re-think the role of the state in creating a system of diverse media and opportunities for diversity of journalism.

What would that look like?

We need a national commission, and this coincides with — supports — a notion of a national endowment for journalism, that ask these larger questions: What system of journalism does a democracy of the kind we have in the United States need? To what extent can the marketplace sustain it, to what extent can it not? And to the extent that we agree that the marketplace cannot sustain the kind of journalism we all agree we need, then we need to ask ourselves what can we do to bring that about. Rather than accepting whatever the marketplace yields.

Would this commission be public, or private, or a combination?

Conspicuously public and democratic.

State chartered, or — ?

To be honest, that level of detail I just don’t know. A few of us are working on that, but it will probably take us a long time to figure out some of the details, and even if we get to that level of detail, it’s going to mean nothing unless people understand and agree with the larger democratic premise that communication is a democratic enterprise. It needs to be operated democratically, it needs to be justified, defended, and supported democratically. It’s a democratic institution, journalism is a democratic institution, it shouldn’t be subject only to the whims of the private sector.

It is a little bit of a literacy and awareness, civics and media literacy and education issue.

I think that’s the biggest challenge, particularly among journalists. Journalists are historically, in the United States, libertarian in their view of press freedom. They have a right-wing bias among journalists, they might not like to think of themselves as right-wing, but their understanding of the First Amendment is very right-wing, it is very focused on individual liberty, not on the needs of the community.

And they celebrate the relationship between free press and free enterprise. And I think the education challenge begins with journalists and then spreads into the larger community. But I think you’ll find these ideas much more receptive in the larger community than in the journalism community.