10 things public media should forget and consider in 2021

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2020 should be a lesson in the Yogi Berra quote: The future ain’t what it used to be.

To think that life after 2020 will follow a linear path, you’d be kidding yourself. And the ripples of 2020 will continue long past this year.

As I scan public media, I find myself asking: Will public media emerge stronger from the pandemic? It’s too early to answer that question, but this is a perfect moment for self-examination.

Hopefully, New Year’s resolutions aside, you’re in an excellent place to think about your future, as I am thinking about my own. As you do, here are 10 things that I hope you’ll forget and consider in 2021:

1. Forget disruption. Consider dispersion. One of the many lessons from 2020 was the rapid overnight acceleration of digital trends. Legacy businesses that required high-touch in-person experiences, such as stadiums, theaters, restaurants and gyms, went dark. In contrast, digital experiences offered via Amazon, Netflix, Zoom and telemedicine saw meteoric growth, all overnight.

What’s clear about dispersion is that disruption is the basis for this digital acceleration, which formed years ago, not in 2020. And it all focuses on one highly monetizable value: the commodity of time. Public media should consider its relationship with time and how audiences perceive it.

2. Forget content. Consider value chains. If there’s one thing that everyone says is king, that’s content. And lots of resources get poured into it. And publish day comes and thud. No one shows up at the content party.

Content is just one of a string of processes that make up a value chain: content, packaging, distribution, marketing and monetization. Consider how that piece of content moves through the value chain. Great media companies consider themselves as not just content creators but as internal ad agencies that produce the products they sell.

3. Forget funnels. Consider flywheels. You’ve seen the inverted audience pyramid. You spend all of your waking energy trying to get audiences into the funnel and ultimately down to the bottom, converting them to become members. And at the end of that exhaustive process, you’re done.

But this is a short-term, linear process, focused on one conclusive achievement: Did they give us money? A flywheel approach begins where the pyramid ends, compounding that work into knowledgeable insights. How do we grow our audiences and members by placing them at the center of what we do and figuring out what drives them? And how do those motivations drive momentum to move our flywheel? Furthermore, how does one’s flywheel attract more genuine underwriters, partners, content creators, staff, etc.? Hopefully, you get the point.

4. Forget all things to all people. Consider one intersectional crisis at a time. The pandemic has proven that we’re in a state of emergency — several, all at the same time. But trying to cover it all is a lesson in futility. For the past several months, my team at Global Sport Matters has focused on the sport community’s mental health crisis. On the day before Thanksgiving, we got an email from an audience member that underscored our mission and purpose. Be the help to someone in need. Create an immediate impact by offering solutions-based resources accessible with just one click. And remain committed to that one person, indefinitely, despite the untrackable metric that might not show up on an annual report.

5. Forget monoliths. Consider nascency. Please repeat after me: Communities of color are not monoliths. Developing and engaging with diverse communities should come with an implied understanding that these communities have already been traumatized and marginalized. Approaches to them should include a nuanced strategy that considers self-awareness, cultural consideration, reflection, respect and healing. 

We should also consider the role of developing true partnerships through established initiatives, like the Local Media Association’s Word in Black. To reckon with public media’s whiteness, listen to what this moment means. Perhaps then you can imagine what public media needs to look like in 2021.

6. Forget the front door. Consider the “God” door. While much of 2020 focused on the coronavirus’ impact and how it landed in our communities, over 18,000 public and private government computer systems were digitally infected on the back end. The act was coined a cyber-pandemic and created countless numbers of “God doors” in systems that would allow hackers access in complete stealth mode. 

There’s no question that we should all be self-respecting in the work that we do. But when the stakes are so high, when people’s lives hang in the balance, this is no time to be demure.

Public media was hard-hit in 2014 when 56 million credit cards were compromised in an attack that focused on Home Depot. Imagine an organized group of nefarious characters hacking your organization’s cyber–front door tomorrow. Almost all of public media’s digital infrastructure, including fundraising, is susceptible and underprepared for such acts. And this isn’t a matter of if or when; it has already happened.

7. Forget politeness. Consider realness. As I watched 2020 unfold across every media platform known to humankind, that last line from The Real World kept ringing in my head louder and louder: Stop being polite and start getting real. A long-held pretense of journalism is that it should be objective. It should be nonpartisan. It should hold people accountable. It should be professional.

I’m not here to argue with those beliefs. But politeness needs to go. There’s no question that we should all be self-respecting in the work that we do. But when the stakes are so high, when people’s lives hang in the balance, this is no time to be demure. If anyone needs help in this department, here’s a clip from a recent debate in which Arizona PBS’ Ted Simons asked then-Sen. Martha McSally about her support for President Trump.

8. Forget Quibi. Consider cheapy. As I said, much of the success seen in digital-focused businesses didn’t happen overnight. But one digital service that went to the grave in 2020 was Quibi. Insert your jokes here; Quibi should have been a platform that, given the pandemic, would have enough eyes to gaze on its content. But it was more concerned with its celebrity short-form vertical hype and abundance of capital, $1.7 billion, that it burned through in just its first year.

On the flip side, while one can dream, public media will never be as capitalized as Quibi. But its deeply undervalued and underleveraged infrastructure platforms like Passport and NPR One mean that local public organizations have a tremendous digital head start on the competition. You’re paying for it — why not fully leverage it?

9. Forget diversity. Consider MacKenzie Scott. Forgetting diversity has and will continue to come at a philanthropic cost to public media. Philanthropy is like the airline industry. When one giant titan does something, others usually will follow, not to be outdone.

In this case, the airline is MacKenzie Scott. In just the past four months, Scott has given away $4 billion, unrestricted. In a July 2020 post, she wrote that “91% of the racial equity organizations are run by leaders of color, 100% of the LGBTQ+ equity organizations are run by LGBTQ+ leaders, and 83% of the gender equity organizations are run by women.”

If Scott had sought similar representation within public media, she would have been hard-pressed to find enough organizations to fund. This trend is just the start of what is coming: accountability through representation and the business case for diversity.

10. Forget public media. Consider service media. Being romantic about public media is easy. And sadly, I hear too many waxing philosophically about it. But having an army of public media professionals sitting idle through this moment is a misappropriation of our mission.

The decline of local reporting, combined with the spread of misinformation, should push public media to stake out an ever-clear role and agenda. The bang of this drum isn’t new, yet news deserts continue to spread. Some stations have immense networks that they rarely tap, if ever. Blame the system’s lack of focus all you want on changing audience behaviors and shifts in funding and technology, but the problem ultimately comes down to leadership.

Ramsammy

Public media should adopt a corps model. A Coronavirus Corps has already popped up at the University of Oregon. Its mission: providing contact monitoring and case management support for positive COVID-19 cases or close contacts within the UO community, the greater Eugene/Springfield area, and throughout Lane County. Imagine if we were that corps, or at least partnered with it. At this moment, when we’re at the intersection of disaster, crisis, and misinformation, shouldn’t public media have a specific assignment? There should be a public media body similar to the Peace Corps that is engaged in immersive service-driven critical matters — like Report for America, which places talented emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities. 

Be of service to your public. Many problems that seem unsolvable will begin to disappear in 2021 because the opportunities that come with them will also abound. I guarantee it.

Andrew Ramsammy is director of digital content for Global Sport Matters, a media enterprise at Arizona State University. He previously was director of audience strategy at Arizona PBS, founder of United Public Strategies, director of content projects and initiatives at PRI, and executive producer of The Daytripper.

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