Commentary: With shift in plans, Greater Public hits the brakes on digital

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The departure of Jeannie Ericson from Greater Public and the cancellation of the short-lived Digital Day at the Public Media Development and Marketing Conference represent a damaging retreat from public media’s digital future.

Brighton

Brighton

Over the past 11 years, the Integrated Media Association was one of the only focal points within public media for collaboration on digital strategy and realistic, shareable solutions for public TV and radio stations. Under the leadership of Mark Fuerst and then Jeannie Ericson, with the commitment of lots of smart people at local stations, iMA worked to bring public media into the digital age. When iMA merged with Greater Public last year, it seemed like a positive step toward integrating digital with our marketing strategies and revenue generation.

One year later, Greater Public opted not to renew Ericson’s contract and to cancel Digital Day. This effectively ends iMA and the cross-disciplinary collaborations it facilitated.

When you consider changes in media technology and business models and the challenges they pose for public media, the timing is terrible: Consumption of digital media has now surpassed that of radio and television and continues to accelerate. Many public broadcasters are still in denial about changes needed in our organizational models and the skill sets required to become truly effective with digital and social media.

In many ways, we bolt digital on as merely an extension of our broadcasting operations and traditional methods of doing business. By persisting in doing this, public media risks being left behind by its audiences and the public at large. As viewers and listeners increasingly engage with media on digital platforms, consumption of broadcast programming is becoming an after-thought.

Does public media’s leadership believe this trend will change? What are the odds that young people will decide to throw away their tablets and smartphones and begin consuming media that they must schedule their lives around and cannot share? Or that the explosive growth of the Internet and mobile across the globe will somehow reverse itself? The decision to shut down iMA and Digital Day seems to rest on the assumption that we can continue working as if these changes aren’t happening all around us.

In reality, public media’s best opportunities for growth reside on digital platforms. We must develop strategies and best practices for consistently engaging viewers and listeners in the digital spaces where they discover and consume media. We should be doubling down on digital, not retreating.

As a system of local stations, national networks and loosely affiliated content producers, public media has many challenges in adapting to the digital age. We may be doing the best we can with our current resources. PBS and NPR Digital Services are trying to fill some of the gaps for local stations’ websites by providing a range of digital tools and services, and many of these are helpful. But most of these tools and services were handed to stations without any inclusive discussion of what their needs really are. PBS Digital is at least trying to promote a conversation about strategy with its Digital Advisory Council. NPRDS seems focused on its own products and hasn’t engaged in a broader dialogue.

Given the different approaches to digital services taken by PBS and NPR, joint licensees are caught in the middle. NPRDS offers Core Publisher as a content management platform; PBS Digital offers Bento. Both have advantages and limitations, but — most importantly for joint licensees — they are completely different platforms and cannot be integrated.

Meanwhile, some stations have independently built outstanding digital services and staffs, while many others struggle to maintain viable websites. The deficit of digital staffers and skills throughout the system can never be completely filled by top-down technology solutions, especially when they are developed without an understanding of the needs and capacity of local stations.

But, as I see it, our biggest deficit is the lack of a venue for discussing digital strategy. For more than 10 years iMA and its annual conference provided that, bringing together participants from across the public media spectrum to discuss common challenges and best practices and to build digital skills and strategy together.

This is difficult and requires commitment and persistence — in many cases, public media professionals within the same station don’t even share the same language. That’s one reason that the combination of PMDMC and Digital Day in Denver was so important: It was a deliberate attempt to build cross-disciplinary bridges and a common vocabulary on the technologies and challenges we all now share.

It sounds good to say the discussion of digital will continue as part of the PMDMC. Digital should be a part of every public media conference. But I know from talking with digital staffers that many of them won’t have funding to to attend without the justification of an iMA Conference or Digital Day. Conferences aren’t the only possible venue for collaboration on digital strategy and shared solutions that can lift all boats. The problem is that we don’t have any other effective venues. So we continue to drift.

And you know the proverb: If we don’t change our direction, we’re likely to end up where we’re headed.

Jack Brighton has worked in public media for 28 years as a producer, on-air host and digital director. He also teaches digital technology and online journalism at the University of Illinois, has served on planning committees for several iMA conferences and is a member of the PBS Digital Advisory Council.
UPDATE: Greater Public President Doug Eichten responded to this commentary in a Sept. 19 letter to the editor.