Public broadcasting has always had trouble engaging in the new media world. Now NYU professor Jay Rosen has come up with an explanation that sheds light on media culture problems I’ve seen and experienced.
In a talk at the World Bank earlier this month, he offered “Rosen’s New Media Maxims,” a set of four rules or observations about the media world in which we now live. And the second maxim was particularly illuminating for me:
Open systems don’t work like closed systems; if you expect them to you’ll get nothing but misery and failure
In the case of public media, the “closed” system represents the old way of doing things: broadcasting from a single control point to a passive mass audience and allowing for virtually no feedback or participation. Or when there is a feedback channel, it’s narrow and tightly controlled. While there are regulatory reasons for controlling broadcast signals in this way, the notion of “we broadcast and you watch” pretty much permeates the culture I’ve experienced.
Online media function differently, however, because by their very nature, they’re two-way or multi-way systems. Top-down still works online, but that misses the point and the power of a networked media system. In an online world, media and conversations flow top to bottom, left to right and back again.
In moving online, most of the stations I’ve seen have done so either in a broadcast fashion or they’ve done tiny projects off to the side that don’t threaten the old system (and consequently can’t lead the company in a new direction). In many ways this makes sense — the money is still coming from broadcast-based memberships and advertising, plus the CPB is, well… the CPB and can’t put too much effort toward non-broadcast service.
Given the sturm and drang I’ve watched (and participated in) Rosen’s open/closed maxim stood out as exceptionally true. In this video excerpt, he makes a full explanation then goes into a lengthy answer to an audience question of how to bring openness to a company that’s always been closed:
So it’s not a technological difference. It’s not a financial difference. Fundamentally, closed and open systems are philosophically different, possibly opposed. One embraces community, drawing in participation and “hosting” conversation and engagement. The other treats the public as a media receiver. Sure, there are some middle grounds here, but this is a big difference that has powered, silently, a lot of conversations in which I’ve participated, without realizing it.
No wonder we struggle with this. No wonder there’s both dismissal of the new as irrelevant to the mission and nevertheless pitched battles over who will control the social network engagements, who gets or shares in the online revenue, and how and when content will or won’t appear online. We’ve been experiencing the “misery and failure” of a closed system trying to adopt an open one, not understanding why it’s not working.
Rosen’s New Media Maxims
In addition to the open vs. closed systems maxim, there are three more Rosen rules, all in this extended excerpt from his talk at the World Bank. Recommended viewing.
The complete talk (more than 1 hour including audience Q&A) is available via YouTube here.