Public Media: Front and Center at the Future of News

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Throughout the country and across the political divide, there has been a surge of support lately for a national investment in journalism. Meeting the information needs of our communities has become what the Twitter folks would call “a trending topic.”

In fact, this month alone saw the release of two major reports on the state of journalism and newsgathering in the United States.

The landmark Knight Commission report, Informing Communities, was presented in Washington earlier this month by a star-studded lineup of speakers, who offered a vision for the future of journalism shaped by policy changes in support of nonprofit and emerging media models. And just last week, Leonard Downie, Jr., the former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, released The Reconstruction of American Journalism, an analysis of the current state of the news industry that includes a list of recommendations for policy makers and news organizations to take up immediately.

These are encouraging signs of a growing recognition that journalism and access to information are necessary for a functioning society and a healthy democracy. And these reports have recognized that leaving such important issues solely to the whims of commercial, advertising-driven media will not suffice. Both reports put public media – and reform of the current public media system – front and center in their list of solutions to the journalism crisis.

Public media & the public interest

So what can be made of this renewed interest in public media? As newspapers downsize and commercial broadcasters dedicate most of their air time to weather, sports and disaster reporting, more hopes are being pinned on the idea that we can inject new life into a noncommercial system established more than 40 years ago. As the dust is cleared from the original reports, speeches and legislation that established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), it is obvious that we have yet to realize the system’s full potential to inform and engage us.

There are some obvious reasons to look toward public media amid the crisis in journalism – not the least of which is the simple truth that public media are freed from the profit motives that drive commercial media. And public broadcasting already has an infrastructure in place that can be built upon – especially during a time when media are fractured and dispersed.

Indeed, here is a network that is relatively ubiquitous and excels at national and international reporting. Yet despite being situated in most of the country’s media markets, public media do little local reporting. As the small newspapers that previously filled that role continue to vanish, the demand on our public media institutions to cover local issues has increased.

Experimentation, local reporting, or both?

As The Reconstruction of American Journalism reveals, there are plenty of creative ventures that mix for-profit, nonprofit, collaborative, foundation-supported and existing public media to produce reporting and provide information that our society requires.

Take, for example, the new Knight Commission and CPB collaboration to fund a pilot project with several NPR stations to “expand original reporting, and to curate, distribute and share online content about high-interest, specialized subjects.” The goal is to increase the amount of original public affairs reporting and to share this content across stations and platforms. Though the project is a bold step by the CPB that should be applauded, an increase in public affairs reporting does not guarantee an increase in local reporting.

Though it would be great if one of these stations were to take on, for example, an issue like health care – producing high-quality content that can be shared across the country -- who will cover the statehouse? Who will tell us about the debate around the casinos moving into low-income neighborhoods? Or break down the complexity of the local landfill’s expansion?

Philanthropy is not enough. We need political action.

While the Knight Commission and Columbia Journalism School reports are commendable for encouraging the philanthropic community to fund innovators, we must ensure people take action on media policy issues as well.

There are some actions that we can take right now to ensure a proliferation of independent public media. Congress is weeks away – for the first time in ten years – from passing legislation in the House that would make it possible for more local community radio stations to get on the air. Meanwhile, Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) has introduced a bill that would protect local public access, educational and government (or PEG) television channels, which serve as one of the sole outlets in most communities across the country for independent, citizen-produced content on the TV dial. And we can’t forget the very real battle happening right now over the future of the Internet at the FCC and in Congress. If we are committed to the survival of journalism and the free flow of information, we must be equally devoted to ensuring that Net Neutrality protections become the rule of the road.

But if we truly seek to embrace a national public media infrastructure, we will need dramatic reforms to the system that was founded forty years ago. Downie and Schudson have joined the chorus of recent calls (ours included) to revamp the CPB. They recognize the importance of a politically insulated and more diverse governing board for the organization. And they also argue that public media stations should have to produce a minimum amount of local reporting in order to receive funds -- encouraging rewards for collaboration between stations, nonprofits and university news organizations.

But as long as funding remains mired in partisan politics, public media are doomed to fight over the scraps instead of investing in innovation and collaboration. We have our work cut out for us. In addition to updating public media institutions, we have to overhaul the annual congressional appropriations process and ultimately replace it with a more stable funding mechanism. This is not a new idea: The founding documents that established the CPB specifically sought to “free the Corporation to the highest degree from the annual governmental budgeting and appropriations procedures.”

The momentum for journalism and public media is encouraging. But we have to keep it going with smart, detailed proposals. The public needs an opportunity to weigh in on what they need and want from a new public media system. But these reports offer proof that we are moving in the right direction.