Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Where are the Watchdogs?

One of my professors returned an analysis paper I had written for a reading: Who is watching the watchdogs? a report done by the Center for Public Integrity awhile back about the Federal Communications Commission. This opaque agency through structural regulation (mostly deregulation) is responsible for the media landscape we enjoy (suffer?) today in the United States. 

He liked my points but commented that I while I have many insights into the problems of watchdogging the media, I offer few solutions. Fair enough. I did talk to him later and pointed out that I do have some ideas, but a 5 page analysis paper would have morphed into a 12 page start at a thesis. 

So here are my ideas on what possible solutions may be: 

We (the royal we, like the FCC, Congress, the American people) need to rewrite the framework for communications policymaking. The rest of the world doesn't get our slavish devotion to localism. I don't think it has to be an either/or proposition, localism vs. regionalism vs. internationalism. My dream in setting up was that users, on one website, could see how they were connected to each other, neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, country to country. The idea of glocalism is strong on the website, but users can also venture out into international waters. How about a news website that shows users the rest of the world is a click, or two, away? The BBC is already doing this quite effectively, much more so than the NYTimes. 

The Internet must be at the center of communications policymaking. I can't take credit for this idea - there's a very smart lady at the University of Michigan Law School who's written quite a bit about this, and I'm persuaded. I heard a classmate last week bring up her concern about audience fragmentation on the web - this is where the FCC, or Congress, could create comprehensive requirements for what must be included on a website. Similar to the rules (which are long since gone) that every radio station had to broadcast five minutes of news at the top of the hour, every Internet provider would have to have prominent news and information links on user's home page. I would even go so far as to require ISP's to pay into a news and information fund to pay for news outlets to generate original content - they do this in Holland with 10% of the revenues for public broadcasting program guides going to newspapers. You could also start by requiring every public library in the United States to have a news site as a front page on their computers. Which leads me to my next solution: 

Public Libraries: I'm sure I've written about this before. I don't know why they go overlooked, but it seems obvious to me spending a lot of time in various public libraries that they serve an important social function. I spent a couple hours with reference librarians trying to dig up sources for a paper I'm writing - these folks live to learn, and they live to help other people learn. It's their tradition, and they've changed many a life by doing so, Frank McCourt to name one, and one closer to my heart, my grandfather who happened to have some freak gene in his poor, Irish, fisherpeople DNA that sent him to the New London library to read and dream about something greater than himself. 

Public media: this is where the government can play a significant role. We got our 1st Amendment issues about the government getting involved with newspapers. OK. But we already have a public broadcasting system in place with established rituals of funding and firewalls in place to prevent the government from interfering (Congress forward funds public broadcasting by 2 years). A restructuring is in order: regionalizing the existing decentralized system; and expanding licenses for low power FM. Also, a public media trust fund so that member stations can innovate without fear of offending their aging major donors who want things just as they are. 

The master plan behind all of this is simple: the more people are involved in the media, the more they'll pay attention to how it affects them. To those folks who say 'I don't want to be involved in the media, I don't have time' - I say fine. That's why we need regulations in place to make sure people are exposed to relevant information as much as possible. 

Where are the watchdogs in all this? We are! 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Centralizing the Decentralized

We Americans love our local autonomy. It's everywhere in our society from the power of school boards to include intelligent design in science curriculae to the pro-choice and gun rights groups: movements: protecting the rights of the individual.

Our broadcasting system is much the same. Despite mass media's homogenizing influence, we intuitively believe in the uniqueness of individuality, and that it's important.

That's why localism is such a big deal in broadcasting. Our European brethren and sisters across the pond don't get it. Too much navel gazing, too little international reporting. The good of the group must be weighed with the good of the individual - and the group is probably more important in the end.

So I was intrigued when I read this article in the public broadcasting trade rag Current about the new CEO Vivian Schiller.

"NPR doesn’t want to “control and dominate” the web sphere via," Schiller said. “If we are successful, it will morph into this constellation of sites” from local stations, allowing listeners to experience public radio “on whatever platform they prefer.”

Schiller's allegiance to NPR's member stations are understandable: just like every other legacy news distributor in the United States, they are trying to keep their revenue streams flush while trying to figure out new ones.

And who are the cash cows that keep NPR afloat? Member stations. They pay millions to carry All Things Considered and Morning Edition, the flagship news programs. If you've ever volunteered for a pledge drive, you know when you ask why they are pledging, national programming almost 100% of the time is at the top of the list. They like the local stuff too, but it comes later. How do member stations stay relevant when audiences can stream online at or get podcasts dumped by subscription on their iPods? Schiller thinks it's by bolstering the local relevance of stations.

She'll have many things to overcome, but the largest is the software most stations use for their websites: Public Interactive. NPR bought it last year from Public Radio International, the good folks in Minneapolis who bring you This American Life and the BBC. PI has the advantage of automatically updating a local station's site with content from NPR...the problem is with their small staffs, and I would also argue to some degree, staff who lack competence in new technology, can't create similar local content. You can do all those things on PI - but imagine you've spent the last 20 years making public radio news, and now they want you to take a picture and shoot some video. Some have embraced it (and take damn good pics!). Many have not.

Schiller and Co. will have to overcome, just like newspapers, a technological generation gap on how to produce information, and understanding how it's received and consumed. She knows this, and I say Godspeed to her as she tries to overcome the inertia of a decentralized public broadcasting system.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


I've become increasingly irritated with columns that speak platitudes about why newspapers are important for American democracy. It's not that I even disagree with them - I just think they could come up with better arguments.

David Simon wins the prize: a great article showing what happens when you don't have people (reporters, citizen journalists, whoever) exercising our formidable public information laws. I used to have this experience with international students who would do reporting internships with me when I would send them, as any good intern should have to, to get public records, or attend police precinct meetings, or in one infamous case in my career, have to make a stink because a government funded neighborhood group invited us to cover a candidate forum at a building built by taxpayer dollars, and then said we weren't "allowed" to tape it. Right. (We ended up taping it in the end.)

The students from non western societies I could understand being amazed at the amount of access granted to reporters, but German students thinking they were barred access from a sub committee meeting at city hall? This is America, baby! Seriously, it was good instruction about how little the American press tradition is understood by other nationalities, and the international students, particularly from Africa, really ran with it once they realized what was available. 

The point is, as Mr. Simon articulates, we all need to flex a little muscle in access to our government. And we need to find an allies as he did to enforce our great public information and government access laws. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

Schiller On the Media and News

Vivian Schiller started her new job as CEO of NPR last month, and she's hitting the circuit. 

Her National Press Club speech today (March 2) emphasized the need to maintain the localism of affiliate websites and acknowledged that the "system" doesn't work well together. So true. 

Schiller has an interesting set of challenges as NPR attempts to connect with digital natives, as well as diverse communities. To some degree public broadcasting, while not a slave to advertising, is a slave to listener donors, especially major ones who tend to veer into their last career as retirees. On one hand their sense of ownership of public media programming is charming; but it can also be a choke hold on adapting programming to increase listenership. By that same token, station leadership can also serve as a choke hold on innovation, and this was an issue I think Ms. Schiller addressed in her speech: to create a network, and that means centralization. Not all station managers are equal; some stations are innovating, some are not. That hurts NPR - they're relying on the affiliates to bring in the $$$. 

The web oddly should be able to do just that. It can target niche audiences, and go after new ones with programming that can be distributed across mobile platforms. I subscribe to my nerdy public radio shows; there could no doubt be podcast only programs to serve specific audiences. I suppose this is the long tail theory approach to developing programming. 

Schiller comes from a commercial media background (CNN, NYTimes). It'll be interesting to see how she brings those experiences into her work in public media. 

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Whither Goes Television News?

There must be something in the air, because I've been reading and hearing a lot about the future of television news. First, this article about the We Media conference. 

Then, a telelecture (I don't know if that's a word, I just made it up - sounds good, doesn't it?) with Bob Benz, formerly of Scripps Interactive, now off into the world of media consulting. The irony of the timing of his lecture was not lost: a former employee of the Rocky Mountain News, he was speaking to us on the day of its closing. And he also pointed out the three newspapers he worked for in his career have all closed. 


According to Benz, some folks in the cable world blamed the newspapers for their own demise: giving away content for free, not coming up with innovative ways to change how advertising reaches readers and thus pay for reporting. To him, newspapers are merely augurs of things to come for cable. The model is based on advertising, just as newspapers. And the technology is available for people to carve out the ads, or watch online, just about any kind of viewing that doesn't involve advertising. 


He's certainly not alone. The We Media conference last week in Miami had all the big guns out, like CNN, thinking about what's next. The major theme: embrace social media.  Embrace "the future". This was Benz's theme as well. I can't remember if he said this, or if someone I was talking to said it, but stop trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The technology does not fit the financial model of running a business, not just media but in other sectors as well. This is a theme in "The Long Tail", coined by Chris Anderson in an article he wrote, and later developed into a book. Benz talked about it too in his lecture (actually, it's a phrase that gets bandied about quite a bit in the circles I travel in, but it may just be the company I keep.)


Lots of great examples going on out there. The Daily Show's website has got to be generating some kind of revenue. Their video ads are short and savvy - I couldn't believe it when I was actually humming the AT&T tune - they got me! I'm sure the revenues still dwarf in comparison to what it earns through the ads, but the crazy thing is, Jon Stewart just might be able to go completely on his own and support the production of the program through targeted ads delivered not only online but across mobile platforms as well. As Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame has demonstrated, wealth is generated by a company's ability to collect information about its users, and the Daily Show has an audience people are trying to reach. 

We cling to the advertising model because it's proven to generate the most profit which in turn is used to create content. And as long as we buy stuff (which we will, goddamit we're Americans!) we're going to need to know about it. But how We the Consumer go about it is what the news industry is still struggling to find out.