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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University’s Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM’s research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

This article was co-authored by Jessica Clark, with research support from Christopher Ali and Erin Roberts.

After a slew of reports, conferences, and hearings, the calls for public media to step into the journalism breach have been met with action. Over the past year, there has been a wave of experimentation in local news projects in public media, a trend that is increasing rapidly, especially at radio stations. As Ken Doctor sums up in this Newsonomics post:

We’ve seen 12 topical sites prominently launched in major cities, under the rubric of Project Argo. We’ve seen National Public Radio building out a state-of-the-art internal wire (the NPR API), facilitating the sharing of national, global and local stories among public radio stations. We’ve seen the Corporation for Public Broadcasting fund various new initiatives, including the Local Journalism Centers, aimed at improving regional issues reporting. We’ve seen Boston’s WBUR, the Bay Area’s KQED, the Twin Cities’s MPRNews.org and L.A.‘s KPCC all launch standalone news sites over the last year, moving beyond the programming brochure look that has long characterized public radio on the web.

These projects are just the start. They are matched by ambitious proposals to ramp up stations’ reporting capacity, such as Bill Kling’s push to add over 300 new reporters to local public radio newsrooms, and NPR’s new Impact of Government initiative, which will add reporters to cover state governments in all 50 states.

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Click here to read the entire series

Eight Strategies

How often and how well are rising public media news projects actually engaging members of the public? Researchers at the Center for Social Media (CSM) have been examining the rise of multiplatform local news projects in our Public Media Showcase, profiling the efforts of stations including KQED, KETC (now the Nine Network of Public Media), WHYY; nationally funded projects including the Local Journalism Centers the Public Insight Network; and individual programs like the PBS NewsHour. Through this research, we’ve observed some trends, some challenges, and some hopeful indicators for the future of public media. (View highlights from our journalism and public media coverage here.)

A year ago here on MediaShift, we outlined eight strategies for effective public media 2.0 experiments: Involve, go deeper, reach new and nontraditional publics, repurpose/remix/recycle, collaborate, enable media literacy, play with form and promote political discussion. Our research since has focused in particular on the first strategy, examining diverse efforts to involve users in news creation, curation and conversation. But along the way we’ve found evidence that the other strategies are also gaining traction.

Several prominent projects have emphasized “going deeper” in their news coverage — see, for example, Argo and the Local Journalism Centers, which depend on particular content verticals to draw users. Many station sites now include social media features that repurpose, remix and recycle content, and we’re seeing more and more projects that experiment with form — using maps, databases, widgets and visualizations to present information.

Some stations are moving beyond distributing content and incorporating digital literacy efforts as well — one gateway for reaching new and nontraditional publics, where there’s still a lot of work to be done. This year’s election also provided the chance for both national and local news projects to build upon the electoral experiments launched in the last two cycles. We cover several of these trends in more depth below.

A Continuum of Engagement

Stations, makers and programs are adopting a range of engagement strategies to involve users, from closed to open. In our past year’s research, we’ve explored numerous multiplatform and participatory reporting models, from the hyperlocal to the global. Figuring out how well public media projects are working requires a more nuanced sense of how members of the public are expected to interact with them. Informed by interviews conducted by CSM research fellow Erin Roberts, we’ve developed the following scale to help assess the openness of a given news project, and the corresponding roles expected of users. (See the main image to the right.)

  • Editor-driven approaches follow the traditional journalistic model, with editors controlling the production of news from start to finish, engaging users only once content is broadcast or posted.
  • Interactive approaches provide users with narrowly focused options to interact with content, usually through features such as clickable maps, blog commenting, moderated discussion forums, Twitter and Facebook accounts, etc.
  • User-informed approaches actually position users as sources, relying on them for information, perspectives, and crowdsourced research, which are then filtered through an editorial process.
  • Community-centered approaches invite users to participate in the production process, with a small amount of guidance.
  • Finally, on the most “open” end of the scale, user-driven approaches embrace users as full collaborators in news production.

Not surprisingly, we discovered that most public broadcasting news initiatives are still clustered on the closed end of the spectrum. While many have begun to embrace interactive features, few are actually inviting users to become full creative collaborators. In fact, the potential of users as collaborators is only beginning to be realized, with just a few public media organizations inviting users to create and repurpose content. Examples on the open end of the public media scale tend to be outside of traditional public broadcasting — community media projects, and hyperlocal citizen journalism sites — which offer the virtues of inclusion and active engagement for users, but don’t share the same level of trust as big brands like PBS and NPR.

On the whole, both stations and national public media news projects are centrally concerned with retaining editorial control in order to remain authoritative and balanced sources of news and analysis. Conversation with users on sites like PBS NewsHour is lively but highly moderated, with editors directing specific questions to anchors, or calling for participation sharply limited by topic. Interactive projects like public media games, widgets, maps, etc. retain this same centralized feel, but give users focused options for engagement and content creation.

The aim, says Dave Gustafson, the NewsHour’s online news and forward planning editor,

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Dave Gustafson

is to foster “high minded discussions of important topics” — closer to the authoritative vibe of a magazine like the Economist than the staccato, 24/7 pace of a site like Yahoo! News.

“We want to be as open and engaging as possible while still protecting ourselves from the free-for-all,” Gustafson said.

Like many outlets, public broadcasters are struggling to ward off online trolls who discourage civil exchanges with name-calling and flame wars; NPR recently contracted with professional moderators to help field thousands of comments per day. Projects such as the Public Insight Network are now figuring out sophisticated ways to open the doors to deeper consultation with users. Some of the more daring station-based news experiments have also begun to adopt some of the methods and values of community media makers, such as the Nine Network of Public Media and WHYY, with projects described below.

The most promising projects combine elements from across the continuum, providing users with a core of trusted information, along with robust interactive multimedia packages, opportunities to comment on and suggest coverage, and spaces for inclusion, debate and content creation. Learning how to mix and match these approaches coherently and intelligently will be an ongoing challenge—one that promises to turbocharge the relevance and depth of public media.

Collaboration is Key

This year, we’ve seen increased cross-platform collaboration among public media outlets, perhaps most notably with the CPB-Funded Local Journalism Centers, which consist of regional partnerships working to address broad topics, such as health, agribusiness and regional economies. These projects are progressing at varying rates, with differing approaches toward online and in-person community engagement. Kathy Merritt, CPB’s senior director of program investments, said, “CPB is really trying to drive the ongoing conversation around collaboration. We think it’s really important. And, frankly, it hasn’t really been the practice up till now.”

Although stations are collaborating more with one another, there has been both tension and promise when it comes to partnerships with outlets outside of the public broadcasting system. James Rainey’s recent article in the L.A. Times describes the competition between public radio news, local newspapers, and new online outlets:

Don’t count on any clarity in the local news space any time soon as newspapers tenaciously cling to their incumbent advantages — including staffs still larger than most of the upstarts — and upstarts continue to crowd the space.

I’m doubtful of the few who have been suggesting that public radio stations and their websites will become the primary sources of local news. I expect we’re looking at a more cacophonous future — with the radio news sources just one of many voices in the room.

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The Nine Network of Public Media/KETC has circumvented this tension by actively embracing a partnership with local newspaper, the St. Louis Beacon. KETC and the Beacon collaborated on both Facing the Mortgage Crisis and Homeland, which Amy Shaw, the network’s vice president of education and community engagement, said has been “to the benefit of both organizations.”

Nationally, collaborations are starting to bubble up in order to fill gaps in investigative reporting left by receding print coverage. The Public Insight Network recently announced an ongoing partnership with ProPublica, Center for Investigative Reporting and The Center for Public Integrity. ProPublica, Frontline and the Times-Picayune also teamed up on a multi-media investigation of the New Orleans police department earlier this year. And last month, Frontline and ProPublica partnered on The Spill, an hour-long documentary on the BP oil spill. These strategic partnerships have successfully employed the strengths of each organization, and it’s likely we will be seeing more of them in the future.

Increased cross-platform collaboration is likely to be of great benefit to public television stations, which simply have not been able to capitalize on local news the same way that public radio stations have. In February, Center for Social Media researcher Christopher Ali conducted a descriptive content analysis of the news and information programming of all PBS stations with available websites.

Ali found that 70 stations produced no local newscast at all; 86 stations produced a weekly newsmagazine; six stations produced a newscast that aired one to three times per week; and just 13 stations produced a nightly local newscast (four times per week or more).

There are several reasons for the dearth of regular local newscasts — the most obvious is the cost of production. However, we have observed some successful cross-platform news experiments like KQED News. Additionally, we’ve seen some improvements in national public television news programs, like the NewsHour, which launched a rebranding effort last year to attract more digitally savvy young adults, and has been gaining both audience and redistribution of content through its coverage of the BP oil spill and the recent elections.

Diversifying the Public Media Audience

One of the blatant gaps that public media makers are still struggling to fully address is reaching new and non-traditional publics. In a recent study of PBS’s major public affairs shows, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting found guest lists that were “strongly dominated by white, male and elite sources, who are far more likely to represent corporations and war makers than environmentalists or peace advocates.” (PBS’s ombudsman, Michael Getler responded that “counting heads on a news program is meaningless unless one also analyzes what they are saying.”)

Most pubcasters would agree that widening representation is a good thing, and that it is only a first step towards reaching new users. Currently in a beta phase, the WORLDCompass.org site represents a step forward, serving as “an all-inclusive platform for anyone with something interesting and thought-provoking to share,” aggregated around monthly themes that include topics like Diaspora and The Skin You’re In.

Another gap that still persists is the very real struggle with differences in digital literacy — some users clamoring for mobile, others still learning how to use email. Researcher Christopher Ali documented this gap in his coverage of WHYY’s new NewsWorks initiative: “This digital divide was illustrated by one of WHYY’s community forums held at a community digital media center. Here, one room featured WHYY proselytizing the value of NewsWorks, while in another room, community members were attending a regularly-scheduled class on how to use e-mail.”

Some public media initiatives, Ali noted, could find themselves in a Catch-22 trying to reach everyone and end up “both too early for digital neophytes and too late for early adaptors.”

However, some stations are doing an admirable job of addressing this particular issue. WHYY itself offers a host of community media options, with the Dorrance H. Hamilton Public Media Commons offering training courses for adults, after school programs for youth and professional development for educators. This type of training serves multiple purposes: It builds community engagement and brand loyalty, and provides locally produced content from a community perspective. The Nine Network of Public Media combines media training and distribution with their NineAcademy, a free community media program that trains locals in shooting, editing, and storytelling. The academy is in turn an intrinsic part of the station’s Homeland project, which covers immigration issues.

The Public Media Corps project, which the Center for Social Media is helping to incubate, is also experimenting with community-driven models for digital literacy training and engagement with local news. Check back on MediaShift early next year for best practices gleaned from this beta test.

Persistent Challenges

Many of the challenges facing local public news initiatives are immediately apparent: Funding, staffing, training, and the hotly debated tensions between local versus national coverage and broad versus vertical approaches. Having a digital expert on staff can make a huge difference, as can a relatively small amount of funding to devote to digital resources.

During this time of great experimentation, we have found that innovative approaches may not always immediately attract users. In cases like these that rigorous impact measurement is crucial for strategic, iterative project development.

Public broadcasters face the difficult task of finding new ways to characterize success in an open environment, as CSM’s Erin Roberts points out in her coverage of NewsHour: “Until recently, public broadcasters have focused almost exclusively on how many people encountered their content, not who those people are or how they interacted with the content.”

Digital civic engagement may never scale up to the level estimated broadcast audience, but as the continuum above suggests, more participatory approaches position publics for deeper involvement, which in turn can open up new opportunities for both local relevance and fundraising.

The National Center for Media Engagement’s recently revamped guide for producers lays it on the line:

The best engagement projects reflect thoughtful consideration of issues, audiences, alliances and, most importantly, outcomes … While it’s simpler and possibly more appealing to imagine a family gathered in front of a glowing TV set, eating popcorn and enjoying every minute of your program, the reality is more complex. If you want to affect the way people think, believe and act, you must engage them across platforms, in different settings and over time.

Given the ever-shifting ground for public media news projects, stations and producers need better tools and opportunities to share best practices with one another in a clear and systematic way. Establishing formal and informal hubs for networking, learning and information sharing among these projects — like Idea Lab here on MediaShift, or Harvard’s Nieman Lab — could help to catalyze the creation of new and better projects around the country.

As we move towards 2011, there are even more shifts on the horizon. For now, however, public broadcasters still lag well behind local newspapers in their range and volume of coverage — as a set of recent local news ecologies conducted by the New America Foundation suggest, they’re a key but incomplete solution to the problem of diminishing accountability journalism in U.S. communities. More is needed on all fronts — funding, sharing of best practices, and systematic assessment — to transform this moment of experimentation into a vital public news service that not only informs citizens, but gives them the civic agency to actively participate in our democracy.

Katie Donnelly is Associate Research Director at the Center for Social Media at American University where she blogs about the future of public media.

Jessica Clark directs the Center for Social Media’s Future of Public Media Project, and is a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University’s Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM’s research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.