The following interview was conducted via Skype, which is owned by Microsoft; transcribed with Trint; drafted in Google Docs; posted using WordPress on a site hosted by Flywheel; and promoted on Twitter and Facebook (and all using Apple products). One article, at least a half-dozen tools and platforms involved from start to finish. Do they all align with public media’s ethics and values? Do we even know?
Any piece of digital content is born within an infrastructure increasingly dominated by what author and journalist Bruce Sterling has called “the Stacks” — Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. The influence of these megacorporations and their impact on public and nonprofit media worries Matt Locke, a former BBC executive and founder of Storythings, a U.K.-based content studio. In January, Locke posted two Medium essays in which he floated the idea of a “Public Media Stack” — a sustainable digital ecosystem that mirrors the values held by public media’s creators. “If we want to build institutions to ensure public media is a benefit that everyone can access in the next two decades,” he wrote, “we need to do something about it now.”
To advance his ideas, Locke organized a two-day summit last month in New York City to begin mapping out the future of the Public Media Stack. His next goal is to create the first in a series of annual reports that will take inventory of the tools and platforms available to public media creators, with an emphasis on highlighting ethical alternatives. I attended the summit and talked with Locke the following week about next steps and what inspired him to launch the project. This is an edited transcript.
Mike Janssen, Current: At the summit, you colorfully said that writing your initial Medium posts about the Public Media Stack was like coughing up a hairball. What inspired you to start focusing on this idea and get that hairball in motion?
Matt Locke: It’s something that’s been a big part of my work for over a decade. I was at the BBC in the early 2000s when a lot of us were thinking about the idea of public media institutions as platforms for infrastructure, not just as content-commissioning organizations. So I really wrestled with that problem with a lot of people at the BBC in the early 2000s, and that work didn’t really go anywhere because a lot of public broadcasters’ digital strategies ended up focusing on video on demand, rather than thinking more broadly about how public media could work in different ways in the 21st century.
Storythings has been doing a big Gates Foundation project over the last two years looking at the syndication and distribution of content that Gates was commissioning around their themes of global health security. We did workshops with partners looking at issues we had as relatively small or medium-sized publications. One of the challenges is tech strategy — we’re all constantly having to adjust our tech strategies based on the ecosystem’s changes. So you have to roll with the algorithms, in a way, and it felt like we were these tiny boats being batted around on the open seas of the big technology stacks.
I’d had a couple of chats with Miguel Castro, our project officer at Gates, about this and about how they use communications work, in particular on digital platforms, to make change. It struck me that we were all effectively relying on the infrastructure that was given to us by these large monopoly companies, and maybe it didn’t have to be like that. So I wanted to try and articulate this.
Also, I’d seen a few attempts over the last couple of years of people to try and say, what would a BBC of the 21st century look like? Jeremy Corbyn, the Labor Opposition Leader, had given a speech at Edinburgh, the big media conference in the U.K., in which he said that Labour would try and build a public-service Facebook or something like that, or something that made it seem that the answer was to create institutions. The one thing I’ve learned in the last decade is that that’s not the answer, that actually, public media in the 20th century was all about building institutions that created content because distribution was really hard and regulated. That’s completely reversed now. Distribution is technically much easier, but only on the terms that are given to us by these monopolies. Public media institutions are never going to own the means of their own distribution the way they did in the 20th century.
All of these thoughts were spinning around in my head, and I started thinking, what would a public media stack look like and if it existed, is it out there? I mulled it over on the Christmas break, and just before I went back to work in January I decided to have a go at writing it down. That’s when I coughed the hairball up. It needed a long stewing process of a number of years and then a bit of a break for me to get the time to articulate it.
I was interested to hear you say that 10 years ago at the BBC you and the folks you were working with were thinking about public media from a digital infrastructure point of view. Because I don’t know that we are as far along with that in the U.S. public media system.
It’s interesting, because what happened in the States after the dot-com crash — I’m old enough to have been around the Web since the mid-’90s, and a lot of people I know got involved in the dot-com bubble of the late ’90s. In the U.S., everyone got sacked and left, and went off and started forming social media companies. A lot of the people that were behind Blogger and Twitter and that early blogging scene had been burned by the dot-com crash.
In the U.K., something different happened, which is that everyone basically ended up going to the BBC (laughs). The BBC was a space where they were starting to really invest in digital. There was a whole group, in particular Tom Loosemore, who ended up leading a project called BBC 2.0 around 2006. Various of us took different elements of that to think about what public service meant in terms of things like ID and logins, curation and personalization, intensive audience engagement, wiki-style participation. A lot of us were taking these ideas out of Web 2.0 and thinking, what would that mean for public service?
Tom catalyzed all this in this internal project called BBC 2.0. He came out with some very good principles for what that might mean for public service organizations. But then the iPlayer was invented, and it became very clear very quickly that that was the digital product service that most closely matched to what the rest of the BBC thought public service was, which was making TV and radio. That got all of the investment and attention, and it became very hard to get anything that wasn’t video on demand to really get support. An organization built around the rhythms of audio and video production is going to want to embrace the technologies supporting their existing rhythms rather than create new ones.
There have been efforts in U.S. public media to create digital infrastructures that didn’t get off the ground or resulted in products that aren’t universally used. But in the last year or two, there’s been more conversation dovetailing with what you’re working on, with discussion of infrastructure such as a universal sign-on system.
Funny enough, the very last piece of work I did before I left the BBC in 2007 was on ID. This is just before Facebook, and it was effectively recognizing that identification online was going to be a really big issue and that there could be a role for public organizations to authenticate you to other services. But that didn’t really go anywhere.
The reason I wanted to cough up this hairball now is, 10 years ago we couldn’t point to what would happen if we didn’t do this. We couldn’t point to how society would play out on digital networks if it was only VC-funded monopolizing companies that created the terms of engagement, that created the kind of ecosystems in which our audiences spend their time, and what public media would have to do to survive in those ecosystems, which are not built with public media ethics or values built into them. In 2004, none of us could say what the world would look like in 2019. We would have been astonishingly prescient if we had. In actual fact, I think we were probably all too optimistic. In the early 2000s, everyone was very optimistic about how the social Web was going to actually connect people and encourage diversity of voices. I don’t think any of us really thought that it would also create the kind of negative effects of fake news and cycles of algorithmically-driven extremism and stuff like that.
The difference now is it’s very clear what a world looks like built on digital ecosystems that do not have public service at their heart. It’s easier to get people to see the need for alternatives. There is such a change in the wind in the last couple of years about the role of the monopoly platforms in terms of their financial monopolization, about the effect that’s having on traditional business models, particularly things like local media and public service radio and television, but also the kinds of public spaces that we are all having to live in. People are starting to question that very strongly, and that’s partly why I felt it was time to articulate these thoughts as well.
During the summit, you were cagey about wanting to define public media. Coming out of it, how are you conceiving of the “public media” in the Public Media Stack, and what kinds of organizations do you see benefiting from this work? It seems to be a broader definition beyond just whether an entity receives government funding.
I have a broader definition, because a lot of Storythings’ work is for foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Omidyar, and others who are creating lots of content with public-service goals that are very similar to the work that comes out of what you might think of as traditional government-funded public media organizations.
Also, I wanted to do the first workshop in New York because over here [in the U.K.] any description of public media is inevitably about the BBC. And I don’t want it to just be about the traditional public media organizations, because I think there are actually huge numbers of publishers now that are trying to create public-impact content in lots of different ways, for foundations, charities, arts organizations. The broadest definition I’m interested in is people who are creating public-impact content where their primary goal is social and progressive rather than commercial. So that would be the kind of broadest definition, and that could include, obviously, a huge number of people.
Practically, when we start to focus on target audiences and the detailed research we need to do for the report, a lot of this is going to be about some of the larger organizations and institutions, including the kind of traditional broadcast public media organizations that have developed over the last 50 to 100 years. But I don’t want it to just be about that, because this isn’t about just traditional institutions and how they change in a digital landscape. I also want to focus on an ecosystem that could support new institutions and new organizations, because we need to reimagine what a public media organization looks like in the 21st century. And the best place to start is not necessarily inside the institutions we built in the 20th century.
Our national institutions and funders are getting involved in more recent conversations in our public media system about digital infrastructure. That’s elevating the issue, but it’s interesting to think about how their participation affects the conversation and how efforts turn out.
Again, that’s come about because it’s obvious that there’s a gap — that if we don’t do it, it’s not going to happen. Everyone’s been burned, particularly in the last five years, by their over-reliance on the pivoting business models of the major platforms, and they realize you’ve got to start building some harbors. If we’re all bobbing around on these oceans of venture-capital–funded platforms, we need to build safe harbors. We need to build spaces where we can actually have some resilience and some sustainability to how we run our spaces, but also spaces that ethically share the values that we have as organizations.
One problem you pointed out during the summit is that foundations are supporting creation of content and pay less attention to how the content is published and distributed. What has been the result of that?
I would probably slightly rephrase that. Foundations are both supporting the production of content and some resilience and sustainability projects, things like the Membership Puzzle project and a lot of good projects that are about the business models of journalism in particular. … There is a lot of really great foundation support for both the business models and the production of journalism.
But I don’t see as much investment in core technologies. And I think that’s because it’s very hard to imagine how individual software technology projects can scale against the might of the big technology stacks. So unless it’s very specific bits of technology for things like measurement and evaluation of impact, we’re not seeing investment in what you might call core production and distribution technologies, because it might feel like it’s a quixotic attempt. You’re kind of this tiny David fighting against a big Goliath. And so it might not stack up as an investment for some of those organizations.
That’s why mapping an ecosystem might help, because seeing where all of these pieces might fit into something bigger might make it easier for foundations to understand where they can productively invest in technology, rather than taking each project in isolation.
Now that you’ve had the summit, what’s the next stage of the project?
We’re going over the data of the 130-plus software products that we mapped in the two-day summit. We produced a structure for how we would evaluate them, the questions we would ask of each of those products. So I’m going to be running that past the community on the newsletter over the next week or so and then start to write up that research.
I want to do some further research … to understand the rhythms of tech strategy within the sector. How often are people making tech strategy suggestions, and what would we need to do to coordinate that to make the Public Media Stack a viable proposition? I said this is a 10-year project partly because many public media organizations make major strategic decisions only on a three- to five-year basis. So you need to develop a project that’s going to be at least two cycles of tech strategy to genuinely make a difference. We want to make research forms available online to get more information about the cadence of these types of tech decisions and how the project can assist those agencies.
The aim is to launch the first report with profiles of software companies the week of July 22. That will be introductions to why we’re doing this and what we’re trying to achieve with it, and a list of the software projects at each stage of the public media workflow that we started to map out at the summit, and recommendations of software technologies. I want to make the summaries of the projects short and punchy so they’re quite usable.
One of the ideas I really liked that came out of the summit was the idea of not only producing a consumer guide to individual software products but sharing recipes or workflows — getting people from different sectors to say, “If you’re producing a podcast, we recommend this combination of technologies,” or, “If you’re producing a paid newsletter or subscription, here’s a recipe we would suggest.” I’d like to see if we can do that as well — not only recommend individual software projects but actually start to build mini-versions of the Stack for different types of media projects.
You also said during the summit that a goal of this would be to identify where there are gaps in available technologies. Do you have a sense yet of what those gaps might be?
It’s less gaps, and more the case where tools everybody uses have significant ethical issues — places where we might be storing data where we don’t necessarily know how those organizations are using it. Particularly in identity and engagement, where we want to deal with people commenting. If you have to use Facebook for distribution and engagement of your audience, then you are demanding that users use a platform that we know has been incredibly fast and loose with privacy and user data over the last five to 10 years. Some gaps are where no alternatives meet the values and ethics of public media.
There are probably too many CMSes (laughs). We all know that. There’s probably a dearth of really good tools for managing user engagement and distribution at scale. We started to discover some measurement and analysis tools [at the summit]. … It’s the hardest to find ethical alternatives to tools that make money out of audience attention — audience data, CRM stuff, payment gateways, things like that. Unlock is working on a version of a payment gate which doesn’t pass all your user data over to the people you’re paying. We’re starting to see ethical alternatives there. That’s one of the most interesting areas — how we can create sustainable models for engaging with audiences both as participants in public media but also as financial partners without basically monetizing all of their data.
You pointed in one of your Medium essays how dependent the process of making anything on the Web is on Amazon.
Part of the reason why I want this to focus on ecosystems rather than trying to start new institutions is because that’s the strategy that’s worked for the FAANG [Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google] stacks. When Amazon wants to enter a new sector and disrupt it, it moves as high up the value chain as it can. With books, it meant going straight to the warehouses. Once Amazon started doing storage, effectively it gives them a base camp in every industry that has to use the Web for part of its value chain. That’s really worrying (laughs), because it makes it very easy for them to work down the stack and disrupt industries. We’re seeing that in the way that by providing Amazon.com as a platform, it gets data about products and launches its own brand products to compete with the marketplace that they are in turn supporting.
So being the core infrastructure for a sector gives you an incredible amount of visibility of the value propositions in that sector. It makes it very easy for you to launch new services that disrupt it, which is really strong for Amazon but challenging for, well, pretty much everybody else on the planet.
We need to look at the ecosystem to recognize that this is a strategy that made Alphabet and Amazon in particular such giants, and it gives them such an ability to completely dominate sectors because they have looked at the whole ecosystem, not just individual elements. Technology investment in existing public media organizations has predominantly been around audio-video players. … That’s great, but that’s a very thin part of the stack, which means that they are entirely relying on monopolies for the rest of the technology stack. That’s where there is a real risk. That’s a business model that’s worked incredibly well for Alphabet and Amazon in particular and that we need to be looking at and trying to create opportunities for.
You plan to devote yourself to this for at least 10 years. What do you hope to accomplish with that long-term focus?
I said 10 years for a couple of reasons. One because, as I said, I think the rhythms and cadences of change in public media technology infrastructure are about three to five years long. So we can start a conversation about this now, but realistically people aren’t going to be able to act on any maps or guidance that we can produce in the report straight away.
Over the long term, I would hope that we can influence and support tech strategy and basically help more public media institutions start their tech decision-making from a more informed place. If all we do is help public media organizations have a baseline that they can start their tech strategy from, that would be a huge achievement, because I don’t think that’s the case at the moment. Too much tech strategy is either building on top of decisions that were already made or going along with recommendations from digital agencies or suppliers. And I would like leadership teams in public media organizations to have a simple guide that helps them make tech strategy decisions for the right reasons.
Secondly, I would like to do it as an annual report because I want people to keep coming back to this. You only really make a difference if you keep reminding people of the issue over time. And an annual report is a very good way of making sure that at least once a year there is a debate around the health of the ecosystem around public media. So if all we do is remind people to keep the conversation going about why the ecosystems we’re currently using are not aligned to our values and are not aligned to our ethics, that is another impact that I would be very, very pleased to see.
And thirdly, and this is the slightly long-shot one, I would hope that this would help public media funders put more money into tech development and support scaling and collaboration around technology projects.
I applaud this approach. From almost the dawn of the web, U.S. public media organizations adopted an ad hoc approach to technology solutions, with too little concern for how well those solutions aligned with our mission, values, and ethics. It’s difficult to imagine that we could deploy media platforms like SoundCloud or YouTube, or compete in social media with Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, etc., or build a scalable infrastructure like Amazon Web Services. But the alternative cannot be that we simply surrender to dependence on monopoly platforms whose primary interest is deriving massive profits from user data.
Some 20 years ago, many of us began talking about an actual public media digital strategy that would include tools and support for local PBS and NPR stations, some form of “public infrastructure” that would free stations from solving hosting, streaming, preservation, etc without forever giving up their data, and collaborative application development for open source solutions to common problems. We made a few small steps but didn’t gain enough traction.
20 years later the picture is a lot more complicated, and we are in much greater technical debt. As the big tech platforms have “matured,” extricating public media (and non-profit, local and investigative news, and other public service media) from our dependencies on them seems like an insurmountable challenge. But given the social dysfunctionalities, user exploitation, security breaches, and privacy invasions of these systems, the need for a public media stack stands in much sharper relief. We can’t build it unless we start imagining it.