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Ernest Wilson

It’s official: “Public Media 2.0” has graduated from theory into practice.

“We believe that a successful broadband policy and implementation requires Public Media 2.0,” said Ernest Wilson, the new chair of the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, at Friday’s unveiling of the Knight Commission’s new report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age. Echoing the report’s opening salvo, he stressed that, “The time has come for new thinking and aggressive action.” Or, as Ben Scott of Free Press put it in a later panel: the commission has provided a menu, and now it’s time for us to get in the kitchen and start cooking.

But what are the ingredients for Public Media 2.0, and who has discovered recipes that work? Over the past few years, that’s what we’ve been examining at the Center for Social Media through our Future of Public Media project.

In February, with support from the Ford Foundation, we released a white paper, Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics, that explores how a wide variety of digital, mobile and participatory media projects are allowing groups of engaged users to grapple with important issues. For us, this is the signature function of public media — to provide publics with reliable content and powerful tools that allow them to actively participate in democracy. In order to keep track of this swiftly evolving sector, we’ve created a weekly Public Media 2.0 Showcase.

Last week, we released a report commissioned by the CPB as part of an initiative designed to reveal the challenges and opportunities of Public Media 2.0 for public broadcasters. In our report, we identify eight best practices in digital journalism, and profile related projects. Our research team consulted a wide variety of recent reports and conference proceedings, and then confirmed our findings with ten new media and journalism experts (including MediaShift’s Mark Glaser.)

We found that some of the most powerful media experiments are akin to fusion cuisine: hybrids that unexpectedly combine platforms, funding sources, and perspectives to attract diverse and enthusiastic publics. The report offers up a smorgasbord of innovative examples, but here’s an overview of each best practice, and a Public Media 2.0 project that gets it right. Keep in mind that not all of these were produced by traditional public media outlets, but instead use technology to help serve the public in new ways.

Eight Ways to Get Public Media 2.0 Right

1. Involve: Buffalo Rising serves as an example of exactly the sort of community-based media project that the Knight Commission report talks about. A Originally a traditional advertising-driven glossy monthly magazine, the project was launched in combination with has evolved into a daily and weekly-updated social media site. The content focuses on hyper-local coverage of the city of Buffalo, with a heavy emphasis on articles about city and neighborhood development. The editors of Buffalo Rising have also partnered with local NPR affiliate WBFO to appear for 30 minutes weekly for a live discussion about the latest articles on the magazine’s website. The interviews are archived and delivered as a podcast.

Both the stories for Buffalo Rising and the WBFO segments emphasize civic impact, providing information to readers about how they can act on issues or events, or get involved in city planning. The goal is to improve the economy and quality of life in the city. The editors of Buffalo Rising also openly advocate for development ideas, reporting in follow-up fashion on how their stories have shaped the decision-agenda at City Hall, the county, or at the state level. The Buffalo Rising news and social media site has several thousand registered users. Co-founder George Johnson believes that registration creates a sense of “membership” and “ownership,” which help increase the quality of comments, feedback, and participation.

2. Go deeper: Yale Environment 360 is an example of an increasingly common digital format for in-depth reporting and analysis. These projects focus on what have traditionally been specialized beats at news organizations, such as science, health, or foreign policy. The site publishes daily and weekly feature reporting, analysis, and longer opinion articles by leading science and environmental journalists, scientists, academics, and policymakers. It commissions freelance features from some of the top science and environmental reporters, many who have been laid off or bought out of their positions at print newspapers or magazines.

The site also publishes freelance articles from students and early-career journalists. It has a blog, updated daily, that tracks environmental and science issues, and features a very active user comment section. Hosted by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the initiative is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Packard Foundation. The site is non-profit, foundation funded, and operated in partnership with a university. We profiled a similar project, Kaiser Health News — this one is run directly by a foundation — in a recent Public Media 2.0 Showcase post.

3. Reach new and non-traditional publics: Too often, Public Media 1.0 has been aimed at white, middle to upper class media consumers. New America Media demonstrates how Public Media 2.0 might engage a much more diverse range of users through both offline and online distribution. A hub for ethnic news outlets, this project makes the content of individual outlets more accessible to general audiences. It also provides media outlets and members of the public with opportunities to connect across shared concerns.

The site serves as a portal and organizes its original and aggregated multimedia content — text, photos, radio, video, photo galleries and blogs — by ethnicity as well as by beats such as education, health, indigenous, and intersections. With its YO! Youth Outlook project, NAM curates youth media content from a range of outlets and sources, with a strong new media emphasis (see the video below for a taste).

It also produces, “New America Now: Dispatches from the New Majority,” an hour-long news and culture audio magazine by and for California’s ethnic communities. Listeners can download it online, and the program airs on San Francisco public station KALW, with shorter segments available for broadcast across public radio. NAM has pioneered new routines for outreach to ethnic communities via a multilingual polling initiative, including the first-ever youth poll conducted by cell phone. Results of these polls offer journalists, politicians and social scientists unique and targeted opinion data.


NAM’s YO! TV serves up news by and for youth in the Bay Area

4. Repurpose, remix, recycle: The ScienceBlogs website expands the reach of 100 independent science-related bloggers by connecting them with a community of more than 1.5 million monthly users. Bloggers added to the portal are recruited based on their area of expertise (i.e. physics, biology, philosophy, law, public health, etc.) and track record of success with their site. Participating bloggers include university scientists and doctoral students, attorneys, physicians, journalists, social scientists, and filmmakers. The most successful bloggers average between 200 to 1,000 user comments per post, and write as many as a dozen posts a day.

ScienceBlogs was launched as an extension of for-profit print magazine Seed, and has subsequently boosted the magazine’s brand, visibility, and subscriber base. Seed, however, provides little to no editorial oversight for the bloggers. ScienceBlogs generates revenue through paid advertising, which comes mostly from pharmaceutical, energy, chemical, and book publishing companies that are attempting to align themselves with science. (Some of these same companies underwrite productions of PBS’ “Nova,” Scientific American Frontiers, or PBS’ “NewsHour.”)

5. Collaborate: Collaboration has become a particularly hot topic within public broadcasting. On Friday, in conjunction with the release of its report, the Knight Commission announced support for a joint project of NPR, PBS and CPB that involves the creation of 12 community-based online news hubs. Such efforts build upon recent attempts to knit fragmented public broadcasting entities together in order to support more wide-reaching reporting.

For example, Economy Story is designed to provide comprehensive coverage of the economic crisis and its reverberations from local, national and global perspectives. Partners include NPR, the “NewsHour,” PBS, PRX, PRI’s “The World,” American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” the “Nightly Business Report,” Youth Radio/Youth Media International, Capitol News Connection, Public Interactive, WNYC, and KQED.

According to Laura Hertzfeld, the managing editor of the site, Economy Story serves as a central spot to showcase and explain the work of the partners and address the gap between local and national coverage on the economic crisis. “Public media does two things really well,” said Hertzfeld. “First, it’s good at looking at data and analyzing data; and second, it’s good at telling great personal, human interest stories. Economy Story is working to connect those two things.”


Jake Shapiro, executive director of Public Radio Exchange (PRX), discusses the Economy Story collaboration

6. Enable media literacy: Calling for universal broadband access and open networks is all well and good, but in order for Public Media 2.0 to thrive, this infrastructure has to be matched with the adoption of broadband content by all kinds of users. That’s where media literacy training comes in. Projects like Know the News employ interactive tools and games to help users develop news literacy skills. The initiative was born from Link TV’s “Global Pulse” and “Latin Pulse,” which are five-minute programs that present and analyze news gathered from more than 30 half-hour news programs from around the world.

While the two programs were designed to promote news literacy skills, they lacked the interactive element that attracts a younger demographic. Know the News was designed as a dynamic tool for use in university-level journalism and communication courses, although it’s free and open to everyone. The central feature of Know the News is a video remixer that allows users to edit global coverage of televised news stories. Users can then add their own commentary, and publish and share their work with the entire Know the News community. A customized ratings tool allows users to rate and comment upon remixes and stand-alone news stories by evaluating them for fairness, accuracy, presentation and trustworthiness.

Know the News also includes an interactive news literacy challenge, a wiki where educators and students can post and share their research, and learning guides that outline the ways in which these tools can be incorporated into course activities. The Know the News beta site was launched on July 29, 2008, in order to be incorporated into the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. It’s currently in an outreach phase and is partnering with professors to achieve expanded classroom use.

7. Play with form: Never before have there been more ways to produce, access and display news content. Current experiments range from the whimsical (check out Doodlebuzz), to the hyper-topical (think Twitter’s role during and after Iran’s election) to the prescient (see the multiplayer game, World Without Oil).

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The New York Times has been a clear leader in experimenting with compelling new technologies for reporting and engagement. The site recently won the top Knight-Batten award for a cluster of projects that creatively encourage user participation around breaking news and controversial topics. Useful interfaces like the Debate Analysis Tool and the Document Reader provide unprecedented access to the raw materials of news production, while participatory tools like Represent and One Word spur interaction. Multimedia reporting projects like “Going to the End of the Line“— which gives users a glimpse of the final stop of various subway lines — are both informative and gorgeous.

8. Promote political discussion and participation: Amid raucous partisan jockeying, Public Media 2.0 projects have to find ways to vet, represent, and integrate a myriad of perspectives in order to help publics make informed decisions. PolitiFact, a project of The St. Petersburg Times, combines humor with fact-checking to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. The site offers three “meters” that help users “find the truth in American politics.” Reporters and editors from the newspaper gather and assess the data that feeds each one:

  • The Truth-O-Meter ranks statements by politicians, lobbyists and those who testify in front of Congress on a scale of “true” to “pants on fire.” This summer, the scorecard has been closely tracking opposing claims about health care reform.
  • The Flip-O-Meter kept track of candidates’ changes in positions during the 2008 presidential campaign, ranking them from “no flip” to “full flop.”
  • The Obameter analyzes how well President Obama is adhering to his campaign promises. As of late August, the Obameter had tracked 35 kept promises, 7 broken promises, just over 100 promises “addressed somehow,” and a whopping 372 still waiting for action from the president.

PoliFact serves as a resource not only for people, but for other news organizations. For example, libertarian magazine Reason used the Obameter to analyze which promises the president had elected to keep first.

Public Media Camp

The examples above demonstrate that Public Media 2.0 continues to evolve. To help it along is the upcoming first national Public Media Camp, organized by NPR and PBS and hosted by the Center for Social Media at American University. By bringing together public media staffers, open source developers, and public media enthusiasts, the camp will help strengthen the relationship public broadcasters have with their communities through the creation of collaborative projects. Stay tuned for details on the new tools and partnerships that emerge from this event.

UDPATE (10/27/09): After a comment on this post, I contacted Elena Cala Buscarino, the editor of Buffalo Rising, to check in on the status of the project. “It is true that we stopped our print publication in February of ’09,” she responded via email, “but our advertisers came along without the slightest qualm and continued to pay a nice premium for ads. With the occasional exception of a down on their luck not-for-profit, we’ve never given any ad space away—and those incidents are few, far between and short lived, because our ad space is valuable, and it pays for the five regular employees. As to downsizing staff, we’ve essentially cut the middleman in gathering specialty stories (we did have a food writer along with a community activist writer and an event writer). With citizen journalism and my writing of the meatier stories, we find that many of the stories are better informed and a lot less expensive to get.”

Buscarino also notes that publishing online has allowed Buffalo Rising to be more timely and grow more quickly than they could have in print. What’s more, she writes, “we have a better feel for who our audience is online.”

Jessica Clark directs the Future of Public Media project at American University’s Center for Social Media. There, she conducts and commissions research on media for public knowledge and action, and organizes related events like the Beyond Broadcast conference. She is also the co-author of a forthcoming book, “Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media,” due out from the New Press in December 2009.

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