Reimagining public media outside of its ‘ever-shrinking box’

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A June 28 meeting of about 100 media makers and funders in Philadelphia opened with a back-to-the-future moment — an audio clip of President Lyndon B. Johnson speaking at the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.

“I think we must consider new ways to build a great network for knowledge,” Johnson said, “not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and storing information that the individual can use.”

Vince Stehle, executive director of Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media and conference organizer, selected the speech to frame a day-long exploration of how public media could be redefined. Attendees considered new funding models, some with a familiar ring, and new ways to measure the impact of public media’s efforts.

“Increasingly, public media encompasses a broader set of institutions beyond the traditional powerhouses of NPR and PBS, as important as they may be,” he wrote in an email. To reflect expansive concepts of what public media is and could be, GFEM renamed itself Media Impact Funders, a change adopted during its Philadelphia meeting.

Free Press, the media reform and advocacy group, put some concrete proposals for reimagining the field on the table with a report released at the GFEM conference. In “Greater Than the Sum: Creating Collaborative and Connected Public Media in America,” Free Press laid out a framework for redefining and reinvesting in public media by drawing together recommendations that have been bandied about over the last few years.

One proposal calls for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to be “reinvented” as the Corporation for Public Media. It would manage a centralized trust fund rather than the federal appropriations provided annually by Congress, which would end. The fund would aggregate money from a number of federal agencies, such as the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts, and distribute it in support of organizations, projects and platforms inside and outside the world of conventional public broadcasting.

Free Press President Craig Aaron said he understands that the public media reform plan may sound farfetched, but he believes that collective action and political will among public media’s major players and advocates could drive the change.

“We are putting out a unified strategy, and if everyone gets out of their silos and works together, public media does not have to stay caught in this ever-shrinking box,” Aaron said in an interview. “The federal money is there; it is just being spent elsewhere while we fail to collaborate and work toward a solution.”

Steve Waldman, an Internet entrepreneur and journalist who led last year’s FCC study of the changing media landscape, said that private funders have a new collaborative role to play, too. Grant makers should pool their grant money at the national or state level, creating a “CPB-like entity, but private,” he told conferees.

The pooled funds could aim money at projects and organizations in underserved areas that are often overlooked by grant makers, Waldman said, and at local news organizations covering controversial local issues.

“Some funders are skittish about funding local journalism that takes on civic leaders and institutions,” Waldman said in an interview. “A statewide fund would give funders a firewall of deniability.”

Pooling resources would also allow grant makers to provide much-needed operational support to established media groups while also backing the start-up ventures and experimental projects that recently have diverted their attention.

The importance of support to both established public media outlets and start-ups was highlighted in a session at the GFEM conference exploring the partnership between the online reporting outlet NJ Spotlight and New Jersey Public Radio, the new station operated by New York’s WNYC. Officials from both organizations discussed their need for financial support for specific projects — such as their joint reporting this year on statewide education issues — and for general infrastructure.

Partnerships are innovative and exciting, said Nancy Solomon, managing editor of New Jersey Public Radio, but they can also be risky and time-consuming. The organizations that participate still require support for overhead costs and basic operations.

“It’s the myth of aggregating content,” she said. “You still have to have the resources to create the content. You still have to pay for it.”

Rethinking metrics, too

Measuring the impact of media projects was of key interest to grant makers at the meeting, judging by the turnout for a session on two measurement projects. One, run through the Foundation Center, seeks to track and map media funding nationally. The other, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates and the John S. and James L. Knight foundations, is designing a set of metrics that gauge the impact of programs.

The measurement process may be inexact, said Kathy Merritt, CPB director of radio program investments, but it would at least provide a framework for asking, “What are we trying to achieve?”

She described the CPB-backed Localore project as an example. The initiative, led by the Association of Independents in Radio, pairs indie producers with public stations. CPB’s goals in funding it were not only to support the content production but also to stimulate new ideas for community service by local stations. A systematic approach for setting and evaluating such goals would be beneficial, Merritt said.

Joseph Pyle, president of the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation, agreed that traditional metrics used for public broadcasting projects — program ratings, stories generated, web-search hits — are no longer sufficient. His foundation supports coverage of health issues at Philadelphia’s WHYY.

“We fund a reporter, and when the grant comes up for renewal, our board says, ‘What’s the impact?’” Pyle said in an interview. “I’d love to have the tools to answer that question more broadly.”

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