Facing the Mortgage Crisis, a multi-platform community outreach project spearheaded by KETC/Channel 9 in St. Louis, has become a model for public broadcasting stations nationwide.

Launched July 1, 2008, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the project connects financially struggling residents with appropriate resources. St. Louis was hit hard by the mortgage crisis, and this, along with KETC’s proven track record of community engagement, led CPB to select KETC as the project’s producer.

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Facing the Mortgage Crisis combines traditional news reporting, mortgage crisis-related video segments, and social media resources, including a blog, Twitter account, YouTube Channel, Facebook page, and a map of community resources.

The project embraces a strong community engagement approach, bolstered by KETC’s partnerships with local online news publication the St. Louis Beacon and 26 community organizations. KETC also hired consultant Robert Paterson, who provides another layer of insight on the project on several blogs.

According to the project’s site:

Public media is in a unique position to have a profound impact on critical issues such as the mortgage crisis. By raising public awareness, mobilizing networks of trusted community partners, and by aggregating community resources, public media organizations can make a significant difference in the communities they serve. Collectively, the impact will be felt across America.

This video also provides an overview of KETC’s accomplishments with Facing the Mortgage Crisis:

Expanding into Other Markets

In light of KETC’s success with this project, CPB provided additional funding for public broadcasting stations around the country to replicate KETC’s model. The new projects are targeted to reach 32 markets identified by the U.S. Treasury Department as being severely affected by the mortgage crisis. KETC is managing the wider initiative. (Participating stations are mapped here.)

The participating stations’ project websites show varying levels of sophistication in the content they’re creating. As a result, it may seem as though stations have different levels of commitment to the project. Amy Shaw, KETC’s vice president of education and community engagement, said the websites are not always reflective of their success with community engagement. While leveraging social media is a part of the project, she said an even larger part involves “facilitating grassroots dialogue” and “forming networks of trusted community partners.”

In many locations, the project’s success relies on collaboration among public broadcasters, in addition to community partners. For example, in hard-hit Detroit, Michigan Radio and Detroit Public TV created a comprehensive site with a frequently updated blog. Cleveland’s ideastream also includes comprehensive television and radio resources, and has had great success with community outreach.

Some stations also teamed up with commercial outlets. South Florida’s WUSF and Bay News 9 worked together to put a human face on the mortgage crisis. Their site emphasizes independently produced videos of local importance to South Florida residents. Dayton’s public television station also partnered with a local commercial station and actually won their local ratings the night their mortgage crisis special aired. This is an incredible achievement, although Shaw was quick to point out that ratings aren’t always the most accurate measure of success in a public media project.

Facing the Mortgage Crisis also partnered with United Way’s 2-1-1 service, a call-in number that connects people with the resources they need, including emergency services, financial assistance, and health-related information. Many of the local station sites feature a prominent link to regional 2-1-1 centers. (For example, KETC’s site links to United Way of Missouri.)

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In a blog post, Paterson explained some of the metrics KETC used to measure the project’s success. Notably, 2-1-1 calls increased 400 percent after KETC began the mortgage crisis initiative. Shaw also noted that an extremely effective campaign in Cleveland resulted in a “2-1-1 deluge.”

New Model of Participatory Public Media

Developing appropriate metrics for this kind of engagement projects is a challenge. The national project is currently being analyzed, both internally and by two outside assessment firms. The results of these reports won’t be released until February, but Shaw was able to provide some interim takeaways.

Most notably, the project has found that in order for public media to thrive, “stations need time to build internal capacity.” Stations that are used to being “the voice out” to the people need to adjust to a new model of participatory public media. Stations also need to work on building internal competencies, placing an intentional focus on outcomes, and allowing relationships to drive work in the future.

Here’s what KETC President and CEO Jack Galmiche wrote in a letter to CPB President and CEO Patricia Harrison:

Stations are making the breakthrough in understanding that they can leverage Web 2.0. The costs of going here are not financial, they are cultural. Through Facing the Mortgage Crisis, there is a core group of stations who are discovering how to use the online space to amplify the value of our traditional content and to use it to offer a voice to the American people.

Stations are learning by experience how to connect social media and digital content in all that they do — making it possible for the public to have a much deeper relationship and an identity connection with the station, while at the same time having a “safe and trusted place” to ask questions, have conversations, and build connections. The stations that are making this possible are also learning how to use their online space to converge national, local and public content on the web and are beginning to understand how to use the web to listen to every whisper in their communities and to reflect back what they have heard.

The project officially ended last month, but some stations have made a significant commitment to press on and transition to the next level of the project. Ideally, Shaw said, Facing the Mortgage Crisis will serve as a “gateway to a broader conversation.”

“This is a concerted, national public media effort,” she said. “It’s not just about the mortgage crisis, it’s about how to make the public see public media as significant, relevant and worth supporting.”

In many ways, said Shaw, the project has spearheaded participating stations to “make the transition from public broadcasting to public media.”

Katie Donnelly is a research fellow at the Center for Social Media at American University where she blogs about the future of public media. With a background in media literacy education, Katie previously worked as a Research Associate at Temple University’s Media Education Lab in Philadelphia. When she’s not researching media, Katie spends her time working in the environmental field and blogging about food.

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