Whom do you trust to report the news? Young media-makers at a Harvard conference this month said they’re losing faith in media institutions and transferring it to the individual, empowered by web technology.
That may not be surprising to hear at a gathering billed in part as “geeks meet wonks.” Of 200 or more attendees, it seemed at least half were tapping at laptops, uploading photos to Flickr.com and asking questions via wiki. Several posted reports on their blogs as they listened.
Dozens more attended the Beyond Broadcast conference May 12-13 through the online world Second Life. While the virtual attendees watched a video feed from the real-life conference, they could see and interact with animated digital avatars (mostly slim and attractive) for one another in a digital replica of the old classroom.
The talk might sound “incredibly dorky,” said Brenda Greeley, blogger-in-chief for pubradio’s Open Source talk show. But what geeks are worried about should be a matter of concern these days, just as it was important in the Iron Age to pay attention to what metallurgists were saying.
Attendees, including some of today’s and tomorrow’s likely thought leaders, testified to a shared belief: the untrammeled power of individuals to make and distribute media through the inclusive, antiauthoritarian Internet.
Nothing less than two-way media will do. “You can’t be a one-way company in a two-way world,” commented Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America. One-way media were declared dead more than once.
By that standard, podcasting loses points. It’s merely another means of delivering one-way, top-down media. It’s just time-shifting, said Terry Heaton, an outspoken Nashville consultant who urges clients in commercial broadcasting to put audience voices onto their websites and on air.
The work of public broadcasters in particular was on the table at the conference, whose subtitle was “Reinventing Public Media in a Participatory Culture.”
Minnesota Public Radio, for one, won favorable notice from Wired.com for development of Public Insight Journalism (earlier story), discussed at the conference by MPR news chief Bill Buzenberg. Wired.com writer Mark Anderson described the Internet-powered system for collecting news sources as “the day’s most broadly realized example” of media tapping into the knowledge of their users.
This crowd may have grown up enjoying PBS or NPR, as several said, but it generally gave notice that all media producers will be judged by what they do and not who they are.
Many were unimpressed by journalists’ professional vows of independence and not much interested in pubcasters’ traditional promise that they won’t take ad money.
That idea is so 1968. Giving up commercial revenues was the old structural prescription for media that would aim to serve the public interest. It was based on a hard-earned distrust of Wall Street, Madison Avenue and commercial motivations.
The 21st century structural fix to implant the “public” gene in media, many conference attendees would have said, is openness — media flinging open their doors to the public. Then faith takes over: Individuals, empowered by the Internet, will do what’s needed.
“Our concept of public media is changing,” said longtime producer John Barth, managing director of the Public Radio Exchange. The key to being “public” is the values served, not the funding source. Consider Nightline, he says, a genuine public service even though it’s carried by a network owned by the Walt Disney Co.
Even journalistic brands, such as NPR or Time, will matter less when people choose which news reports to believe, said Barth. They can instantly compare what various sources are saying, and even check the reporters’ raw material, which is often online. “The old filter of relying on one brand is going to disappear.... We will be comparing much more and trying to triangulate.”
If the public signs up as reporters, and the audience becomes its own editor, computer algorithms will assist. Gather.com, a new social networking site that posts a user-written article every four minutes, relies on users’ reaction “to bring the best stuff forward,” President Tom Gerace said on a panel.
Algorithms already help people find the good stuff, Barth says. Amazon.com suggests books you’d like by comparing your browsing with others’ purchases. Google’s search results favor websites that have links from other well-connected sites. Countless websites give the best display to content that users rate highly. Barth puzzles over Flickr.com’s subtle formula that chooses the users’ most interesting photos. What exactly is interestingness?
A generation has seen how far you can go with a $500 computer, an Internet hookup and some free software. The cheap technology is so powerful that it has ended the days of “star or starve” for young media-makers, tech writer Skip Pizzi said in an interview. Now there’s a ramp that electronic media amateurs can scramble up, sounding and looking professional as they learn skills that may someday let them earn their living as media-makers.
They don’t face that fateful leap that squelched media ambitions for many, said Pizzi, a onetime NPR engineer and now geek/wonk for Microsoft. Rising producers don’t have to quit their old livelihoods to try for success in the big institutions that possess mixing boards the size of a dinner table and video cameras that cost as much as houses.
But how do media institutions make that leap to new media? They face the quandary of “Tarzan economics,” a phrase adopted by several speakers. As old media swing on vines through the digital jungle, they sometimes must let go of one income stream before they can grasp the next one.
Fortunately for people in broadcasting, they have the luxury of not letting go of the first vine quite yet, Pizzi said in a panel discussion. Adding broadcasting to new media creates “one of the most powerful synergies going,” he said. “It’s your game to lose.”
It’s “premature to walk away from broadcast media,” said WGBH Chief Technology Officer David Liroff, especially when it can be coupled with the Web’s ability to find and deliver content on demand. When Google users look for material about “evolution,” Liroff said, the PBS-distributed series by that name ranks No. 2 out of 448 million pages on the Web. Look for “Jesus,” and Frontline’s “From Jesus to Christ” comes up sixth. Search for “pyramids” and Nova’s documentary ranks No. 13.
But big media institutions generally haven’t begun to admit the world has changed profoundly, said panel moderator Christopher Lydon, host of the two-way pubradio talk show Open Source. “They won’t understand the simplest rule, that your audience is your friend,” he told Wired.com. “Your audience is smart. Your audience is trying to help. Let them into the conversation.”
When Lydon’s team was planning how they’d interact with listeners, they deliberately chose the now-familiar form of the blog, said chief blogger Greeley. “We wanted [the audience] to assume they have the right to bloglike behavior: ‘You have the right to leave your mark in the same place we’re producing a radio show.’ ”
Well-capitalized dot-com startups don’t have to fear Tarzan economics. With a cool idea, they can start swinging through the jungles without a vine. They often launch without knowing what their business model will be, said venture capitalist Dan Nova, managing general partner of Highland Capital Partners in Lexington, Mass.
That’s okay because two-way purveyors of user-made content can be so profitable. He ticked off advantages: low customer-acquisition costs, low customer-retention costs, low content-development costs. For an investor, what’s not to like? And when you’re ready to sell your dot-com to a bigger company, Nova said, both old-media and new-media companies will compete to bid up the price.
It works for investors because it works for users: The content entertains and changes rapidly. MySpace.com went from 15 million to 50 million users in a year, said Nova. The new slogan, he says, is “If they build it, they will come.”
If for-profit sites succeed at being public media, that’s a huge theoretical and political challenge to public broadcasting, known for programming that’s excellent because it’s willing to invest more resources to create it — mainly skilled human labor — than private-sector producers would want to spend for a modest-size audience. If two-way media chug along with users donating great content, what’s the need for public broadcasting? That’s a big “if,” of course.
Some of the best participatory media, such as Digg.com and Slashdot.org, came from neither the public sector nor the for-profit world, said a conference organizer, Jake Shapiro, executive director of Public Radio Exchange in Cambridge, in an interview.
Open media gets some of its inspiration, Shapiro said, from the open source software movement, a hive-like cooperative that relies on individuals’ donated labor. In one of its greatest triumphs, the movement developed Apache server software, which has beaten Microsoft’s products to become dominant on the Internet, according to Yale Law School Prof. Yochai Benkler, who wasn’t at the conference but whose new book, The Wealth of Networks, was cited repeatedly.
For pubradio to join the action, Shapiro said, one of the best steps would be for more stations to work selectively with local bloggers and podcasters, promoting the best, making them findable online, experimenting to develop relationships that work for both parties.
Stacy Bond, a former news producer at KQED-FM in San Francisco who shares that view, said after the conference that she feels like she’s straddling the divide between old and new media. Indeed, that’s one of her freelance gigs: teaching outsider podcasters the skills of audio production that she learned as an insider.
“On each side, a giant learning curve is going on,” Bond told Current. The media outsiders want to learn how to make podcasts as listenable as pubradio, she said. At the same time, she sees insiders trying to become more “authentic” and inviting their audiences to join in communication.
As a web consumer, too, Bond said she’s on a learning curve, increasingly realizing that she can tag or rate content on the Web, which helps bring the good stuff to the attention of other web users.
“I think I’m going to start my day,” Bond admitted, “but it turns into two-and-a-half hours of media consumption.” She finds herself surfing from BoingBoing.net to YouTube.com, fascinated by what she finds and where that leads. “It’s become this danger.”
Those learning curves sometimes intersect.
Conference attendees who mulled citizen journalism agreed they don’t want to lose many attributes of good reporting, said Dan Gillmor, who quit newspapering to explore journalism’s future as director of the Center for Citizen Media.
The Web does give journalists new ways to serve their old values, participants said. It excels at timeliness. It can help accuracy by letting reporters correct their errors immediately, Gillmor said. It aids transparency by letting reporters add full-disclosure links. It heightens their credibility with links to source materials and contrasting viewpoints, he said.
“A lot of what we’re talking about boils down to one word—honor,” Gillmor said. “If one is honorable in this media space, that is a big leap.”
The Web is extraordinarily open to diverse opinion, attendees said, with a refreshing honesty: Users can sample the perceptions of individuals rather than depending on a journalist to attempt objectivity.
But being your own editor also makes it easy to see only what you agree with. “People don’t want a window so much as a mirror,” said Dan Dunsky, a TVOntario producer. “People tend to go to sources of information that are going to substantiate what [they] already believe.”
The benediction of the gathering — with its almost religious faith in the Internet’s openness and potential for collaboration — came from Charles Nesson, white-maned Harvard law professor and Berkman Center founder. PBS viewers would know him as moderator of many Fred Friendly Seminars.
On one side of a deep divide over the media future, Nesson said, are people who prize openness and share a global consciousness. On the other side: the dominant mindset of media corporations, eager to control copyrights and distribution channels.
With so many people putting their shoulders behind the Internet, history has arrived at an inflection point, Nesson asserted, “when a competing consciousness starts to grow strong enough to offset the consciousness of the for-profit world.”
“The idea of people coming together around good, I believe, has a competitive advantage in this space. Why is that? Because if people can aggregate willingly, are there more people willing to aggregate around a good cause or a bad cause? I think around a good cause.”
“I would love to make content that is good enough so that you would want to share it, would want to include it in your aggregation. . . . And I am confident that content of quality will come to the top,” Nesson said. “Be confident. There is an optimistic future ahead. There is divinity in the ’net...."
The Beyond Broadcast conference was hosted by Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and organized by Berkman, the Center for Social Media at American University, Public Radio Exchange, the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, the Project for Open Source Media and the Center for Citizen Media. Funders included the Omidyar Network and, indirectly, the MacArthur and Ford foundations.
Web page posted June 2, 2006
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.