Closed vs. Open: Why public media struggles with new media

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:

Philosophical Differences

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.

2 thoughts on “Closed vs. Open: Why public media struggles with new media

  1. Okay, I accept the premise. What does “success” look like in a fully open system and how is that measured?

    1. Sorry for the delayed response… If we’re talking about media, I’m not sure there are fully open or closed systems, as someone has to at least create the “space” for participation and manage that. But to me, a more open system is going to be one that encourages and supports “audience” participation in the creation of media, and the resulting media will then be made available for others to use / remix, a la Creative Commons. Open systems allow for media, communication and relationship flows in all directions. So “success” in creating an open system means you’ve really built a platform in which like-minded people can exchange ideas, media and so forth very easily.

      Measurement is another matter. Although there are lots of measurement ideas out there, I don’t think any of them are yet “definitive” in the way that an Arbitron or Nielsen report are considered definitive (even though they actually aren’t either, but they’re accepted as the coin of the realm). You’ve got both a qualitative and quantitative measurement problem here, as even small open systems can have big impacts and very large open systems can have small impacts. A small open system I worked on in Alaska made a huge difference to a family that lost their home to arson. A large open system like YouTube has many different impacts, making some people rich, while also doing nothing for millions more.

      For me, measurement is pretty subjective at this point. It’s cultural. It would be a pubcasting CEO that says, “What do folks on Facebook think we should do with our second HD Radio stream?” It would be a News Director that makes all editorial meetings fully open to the public via live webcast and podcast and in-house visitors. It would be the creation, hosting and development of a public media social network of 1,000 true fans that not only give money to a station but are actively engaging with one another over important community topics, news, events and so forth.

      After that, then I’d also want to see web metrics of the normal kind: analytics reports, social media traffic patterns, etc.

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