If 'newspapers' can die, then 'public broadcasting' can die, too

I’m so glad the newspaper industry is blazing the trail to either self-transformation or self-immolation in this new media world. Public media companies are being given a very close look at an industry in gut-wrenching transformation just before our own will undergo the same. The trail before us has been blazed, and we should be thankful.

Recently in Online Journalism Review, Robert Niles wrote a great link-bait article — It’s time for the newspaper industry to die — in which he explains why newspapers need to dump the word “newspaper” from their internal lexicon and psychology. He offers several reasons for this.

But the best reason centers on that favorite word of mine: Community. And the reason applies to public media, too.

Niles recognizes a fundamental shift in newspapers over the last decade: they’ve cut back on real community service while maximizing shareholder profits.

Great content and great tools are not enough to build the large, habitual audience that content publishers will need to maximize their opportunities to make money online, through advertising and sales. Even more than those two things, a website needs great engagement with its readers. And engagement with the public is something that’s been budgeted out of too many newsrooms over the past generation.

It’s time to bring that back. It’s time to do that online. And if a beloved label needs to be sacrificed to inspire the innovation that will enable this effort, so be it. It’s time for the “newspaper” industry to die. Because we all need the news industry to survive.

I would submit the term “public broadcasting” can take the same route to oblivion. One-way broadcasting can no longer be the point, even if that’s the most comfortable thing to do. Community engagement, public service, gathering, convening, whatever — that’s got to be the goal. Broadcasting is a tool, a means to an end of public service.

What we want from a “newspaper” isn’t fish wrapping or bird cage lining, it’s news, information, connection to events. What we want from broadcasting is pretty similar. But let’s not confuse the delivery system with the purpose. And let’s not believe for a moment that retransmitting someone else’s non-local, marginally-relevant content is something worth preserving in a world of on-demand access to all content anywhere.

Since entering the public media world professionally almost four years ago, I’ve always thought the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was ripe for transformation (and not because of that Bush administration weasel Kenneth Tomlinson). Why? Because they need a name change and a mission reevaluation. It’s too bad the purpose of the CPB — funding and fostering public Broadcasting — has its instructions enshrined in law.  It’s making it difficult, if not impossible, to fund new projects. Consider this Q&A between IMA’s Mark Fuerst and CPB’s current president, Pat Harrison, at the recent IMA 2008 conference in Los Angeles (audio clip, about 1 minute):


Harrison gets it. Sure, she’s referring to reauthorization for CPB in Congress, but that’s just cover for avoiding talk about shifting funding out of pure broadcasting and into community engagement. (In fairness, the CPB has spent millions over the past several years on new media research and projects, but as I’ve noted before, we haven’t really seen any transformations.)

This is really too bad. Because while newspapers are stuck with an old term and a psychology that’s hard to shake, we have those challenges plus actual laws that govern a significant portion of our funding. To change the laws or create new ones to foster and fund community building and interaction via all available media may be politically impossible.

3 thoughts on “If 'newspapers' can die, then 'public broadcasting' can die, too

  1. And what about stations for whom federal funding, while important, is less than 10% of overall revenue? Can a local philanthropic or member base support these initiatives or is it necessary for some sort of for-profit/non-profit hybrid.

    It seems like a real Catch-22, or chicken-egg problem. We want to transform to be more engaging of the community which, in turn, could naturally lead to more community buy-in in the form of membership dollars to sustain the journalism and interaction. BUT we need the community “buy-in” (literally) to provide the funding to get it started.

  2. Dan — thanks for the comment. I actually think a station that has a low percentage of CPB revenue is in a much better position. Because you can use that 10%, say, to fund traditional broadcasting operations and development. The other 90% is theoretically free to do whatever you want, right? Well, sort of.

    The less you’re beholden to the “B” in CPB, the more freedom you have to do public media or new media or social media or whatever you want to call it.

    Of course, a lot of this talk is theoretical and forward-looking. The reality is that Broadcasting brings in the most money for now and, for as long as mass media models hold sway, will dominate our operations. But I still see a day when that will fundamentally fall apart.

    I have to say, as much as I love public media, I barely listen to radio or watch TV — public or otherwise — anymore. I get my news online (thus breaking my dependence on NPR) and find social media much more rewarding than mass media. I’m not typical, of course, but what if social media adherents — like Robert Paterson — are simply at the leading edge?

  3. Thanks, John. I had read the Niles piece before and saved it for future reference as we here at ‘HYY try to map out how we’re going to make ourselves relevant for the Greater Philadelphia “community.” Gotta admit I hadn’t come acros Robert Paterson (I just started really thinking about this stuff) so thanks for the tip!

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