The Need for New Economic Models in the Public Media

    by Tony Shawcross
    June 10, 2009

    For most of us, it’s clear that there are a few social costs that we can’t rely on the market to cover. Most of us, for example, want to ensure that a child born into poverty has access to a good education, even though that child and his/her family could not afford to pay for it. It’s only a bit more of a stretch to argue for equal access to the media, and traditionally, our communities and our government have refrained from taking a pure, free-market approach to funding our media systems. In regards to TV, Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress established PBS in the 60’s, and went a step further in the 70’s and 80’s with the FCC and Congress establishing channel space and funding for Public Access, Educational, and Government programming on cable.

    In those days, there was a clear push to ensure that the most powerful medium in social communication would not be entirely dominated by commercial interests. It was common to assume media organizations had a responsibility to serve the public interest. That assumption was institutionalized with government regulations and franchise agreements with steep public service requirements. In the years since, however, there has been a shift to reducing those “burdens” on corporate media, and a move towards bringing a more free market-driven approach into our media system.

    Corporate Media exists for profit

    Somehow today, the assumption remains that corporate media institutions have some responsibility to serve more than their shareholders, and that assumption does more damage than it does good . Like any corporation, media corporations are designed to make money. Simply put, they sell eyeballs to advertisers, and their institutions are not designed to provide a public service. They are designed to maximize profits and none of us should fault them for doing that job as best they can. If we truly want a media system that provides for the public good, we need to recognize corporate media for what it is and start looking at alternatives.


    If we want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be engaged in the dominant social conversation that reflects and shapes our collective values and awareness, the market will not provide for that. Unfortunately, while a pure market approach does not work, it’s also true that traditional government support has failed as well. Across the PBS and Public Access TV sphere, the funding structure includes no incentives to innovate or excel. As opportunities in new media arose over the past decade, publicly-funded institutions had no incentive to pursue those opportunities and most have fallen behind.

    In California, the recent Digital Infrastructure & Video Competition Act (DIVCA) has reduced the public interest “burden” on corporate media, and the fallout is the closure of over a dozen public access TV stations; most recently AccesSF. Their situation is similar to the one we faced in Denver, when the city removed operational support, and our station, Denver Community Television, was shut down by the City Council. In both cases, the cable providers contribute funds for capital equipment needs, but the organization must develop a model to sustain operations on their own.

    Alternative models

    As was the case in Denver, survival under DIVCA will require a new financial model for California stations. The upheaval they are facing can serve as the perfect opportunity for a funding evolution for public-interest media. The suggestion that all Public Media institutions operate as nonprofits is a good start, but these institutions can no longer depend 100% on government funds, franchise, or PEG fees for their operations. Like other media institutions, we have to explore some of the emerging financial models that can sustain media organizations today.


    * Grants & Donations: There are several examples of news outlets funded primarily through private grants and individual donations. For example, ProPublica 28 journalists produce stories and give them away for publication to other media outlets, including newspapers and web sites, funded primarily through a $10million annual donation from a private couple.

    * Earned-Income Nonprofit Model: Several 501©(3) organizations generate the majority of their budget from earned-income. For example, over half of Denver Open Media budget comes from earned-income web development and video production services provided to government and nonprofit clients from their CivicPixel (web) and Deproduction (video) departments.

    * Subscription-Based: Some nonprofit websites and publications use a traditional subscription model. From websites to magazines, nonprofit media organizations like Adbusters derive a large percentage of their budget through subscriptions.

    * Audience supported: Like public radio, this model depends on a membership model where the audience is asked to opt-in to financially support the content. Free Speech TV saw its budget increase nearly 25% when it developed a strong pledge-drive program in the late 90’s.

    * Crowd Funding: Similar to audience-supported media, some media sites ask for donations from readers for the content they want to see up-front. Spot.us is one of the best examples, where journalists pitch stories and members donate to fund the specific content they want to see.

    * Volunteer: While most nonprofit media organizations use volunteers to some extent, few realize the true potential that exists in “powering the edges” and exploring a truly distributed workforce. Wikipedia is an obvious example, and nearly all of the Independent media centers across the global Indymedia.org network operate with a pure volunteer model. Furthermore, there are numerous examples of Pro-Am media organizations using professional staffers to filter, edit, and fact-check user-generated content provided by their community.

    In public access TV, some of these more self-sufficient funding models have been criticized for letting cable providers or municipal and state governments off the hook for their duty in supporting free speech. But, this need not be an either/or proposition anymore. Developing a diverse funding model can be a strong tool in lobbying for increased government support, and can help ensure that those organizations which do receive public dollars have an incentive to innovate and progress.

    The U.S. government spends less than $450 million annually subsidizing public media. Other democracies outspend the United States by huge margins per capita: Canada 16 times more; Germany 20 times more; Japan 43 times more; Britain 60 times more; Finland and Denmark 75 times more. Even as we work to become more self-sufficient, we need to be raising awareness that a truly democratic media system requires more public support. When new communities are engaged in the collective conversation that happens in the media, that is the first step in engaging and participating on a whole new level in society.

    Tagged: business models funding public access public media television

    One response to “The Need for New Economic Models in the Public Media”

    1. Can’t believe it took me this long to find this post. We at the Public Press in SF are exploring every which way possible to keep and sustain good journalism. (In fact we’re using Spot.Us right now to fund a city government beat.)

      Thanks for the list. I’m passing this along.

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