Where Citizens Gather: An Interview with The Future of Public Media Project’s Jessica Clark (Part One)

    by Henry Jenkins
    March 31, 2009

    Amidst all of the dire talk these days about the fate of the American newspaper, the Center for Social Media at American University has issued an important white paper exploring the future of public media more generally. When most of us think about “public media” these days, we are most likely to be talking about Public Broadcasting, where the Public refers as much to Public Funding as it refers to any conception of the Public Sphere. The report, Public Media 2.0, embraces the affordances and practices of an era of participatory culture and social networks to identify strategies for public media which emphasize its capacity to attract and mobilize publics. This reframing of the issues shows ways that we can expand who produces and who consumes public media, taking advantage of new stakeholders — independent media producers, engaged online communities — who have not always felt well served by the increasingly conservative fair on offer from public broadcasting.

    After several decades of getting caught in the crossfire of culture war politics, PBS and NPR sometimes seem a bit gun shy. The new report suggests ways that we can use emerging technologies and practices to enable a more rigorous discussion of public policy, one which bridges across generational gaps and racial divides a like. Public Media 2.0 imagines ways that civic discussions can engage people like my students who are much more likely to seek out information via The Daily Show than Washington Week in Review.

    My hope is that this report will spark informed discussion across a range of different publics and in that spirit, I am presenting over the next two installments an interview with Jessica Clark, the director of the Future of Public Media Project and one of the two primary authors (along with Pat Aufderheide) of the report.


    Can you share your definition of Public Media 2.0? How does it differ from what you are calling “legacy media”? What are the biggest factors shaping this change?

    “Legacy media” is top-down, one-to-many media: print, television, radio, even static web pages. We’re advancing a more dynamic, relevant definition of public media—one that’s participatory, focused on informing and mobilizing publics around shared issues.

    “Publics” can be a slippery term: we don’t simply mean audiences, or the general populace (i.e. “the public interest”). Instead, it’s a term based on the work of theorists like John Dewey and JÃrgen Habermas, who suggest that media are intrinsic to democracy itself. Publics are what keep the powers-that-be accountable—government, corporate or other—by investigating them, discussing them, and deliberating about how to deal with them. Publics are networks of people—often ad hoc, sometimes organized—with a shared civic purpose. Media content, tools and platforms are needed for publics to form, because face-to-face communication is too inefficient—especially now that we all operate within a global economy.

    Typically, legacy public media have been contained in noncommercial zones within the commercially defined media system: public broadcasting, cable access, satellite TV set-asides. But in our white paper, we note, “The open digital environment holds out the promise of a new framework for creating and supporting public media—one that prioritizes the creation of publics, moving beyond representation and into direct participation.This is the kind of media that political philosophers have longed for.” In other words, Web 2.0 platforms are fantastic vehicles for democratic communication and action. Voila: public media 2.0.

    If you think of public broadcasting as the Pachelbel canon (again), Wayne’s World and Antiques Road Show, then the concept of public media as an active process of forming, informing and organizing publics may seem like a completely different animal. But really, our definition isn’t that far from the original goals for public broadcasting.

    When he signed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, Lyndon Johnson said “At its best, public television would help make our Nation a replica of the old Greek marketplace, where public affairs took place in view of all the citizens.” We’re seeing glimmers of that with the promises that the new administration has made about government transparency, but also in the work that bloggers and open government activists do to haul controversial documents out into the open and debate them online. (See the Sunlight Labs for examples).

    Johnson also said “I think we must consider new ways to build a great network for knowledge—not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and storing information that the individual can use.” We’ve got that capacity now, and are continually adding both old and new content. The challenge is making sure that

    citizens can retain access to that network, and learn how to use it creatively and responsibly.

    What lessons can we take from the 2008 election in terms of understanding the public’s desire for new forms of information and new modes of participation?

    This election demonstrated both the power and the appeal of participatory, digital communication. A campaign is a very instrumental way to use Web 2.0 technology. Its goals are simple—get users to identify with the candidate, pony up cash, and turn out voters. Having such focused goals makes it easier to measure outcomes: dollars raised, districts won. But the campaign’s outreach strategy had a qualitative impact too: an increased sense of hope and connection that’s still translating now into widespread trust that Barack Obama can get us out of the fix we’re in. For a number of reasons, Obama is very easy for people to relate to—he’s equable, not entirely white or black, Midwestern (recently at least), he doesn’t come from a privileged background, he’s got a family that he clearly loves, and a sense of humor. But what’s more, Web 2.0 tools allowed voters to relate to one another. Participatory platforms facilitate identification; as Kurt Vonnegut noted, “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.’”

    Public media 2.0 will allow for even richer, more complex interactions around a variety of issues and events—from the financial crisis to environmental issues to gay marriage and well beyond. Users are already crazy about participatory platforms—in the white paper we identify five rising habits around media: choice, curation, conversation, collaboration and creation. Applying those habits to the issues that they care about creates new possibilities for connection, coproduction and investigation. My hope is that the election served as training wheels; that we’ll all learn to go faster and farther with participatory practices.

    Under the Bush administration, several FCC chairmen have argued that the diversification of the media environment has rendered many traditional notions of public service media obsolete. Why do we need PBS when we have the History Channel, Discovery Channel, BBC America, Nickelodeon, etc? You seem to be making the case, though, that there are urgent needs for public media in this new media environment. How might you counter the diversity and plenitude arguments? What functions should public media play in this era of exploding media options?


    The primary goal for public media should be to support the formation of publics around issues. Given the radically disruptive ways our familiar economic and information regimes are shifting, it’s more important than ever that people have reliable sources for learning, communicating and innovating around shared problems. Traditional forms of public media—educational content, journalism, documentary films, current affairs commentary, performing arts—can all play a role in this process, whether they are produced by commercial or noncommercial outlets.

    Scarcity of information is no longer the central problem. The pressing need now is for content and contexts that allow users to make sense of the multiple inputs. High-quality public media 2.0 projects set standards that make it clear where information is coming from, provide contexts for users to engage in civil discourse, and connect users with other relevant sources. They engage users directly in issues via interaction, problem solving, creation and imagination. Take World Without Oil, a multiplayer alternative reality game produced by the Independent Television Service (ITVS) that attracted almost 2,000 gamers from 40-plus countries. This is an example of the hybrid nature of public 2.0, in which content moves fluidly across noncommercial and commercial sites, across boundaries of professional and amateur producers, and from online to off. Participants submitted reactions to an eight-month energy crisis via privately owned social media sites, such as YouTube and Flickr—and made corresponding real-life changes, chronicled at the WWO Lives blog. As it turns out, many of the real-world reactions to the spike in oil prices mirrored the in-game reactions.

    Wikipedia provides another model for public media 2.0. It sets a context for interaction—a familiar form, the encyclopedia article. It sets standards for participation—the “neutral point of view” policy, which states “All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopedic content must be written from a neutral point of view, representing fairly, and as far as possible without bias, all significant views that have been published by reliable sources.” Within those parameters, users debate the truths about contested issues. In the white paper, we write about the furor that erupted around Sarah Palin’s entry when it was announced that she’d be John McCain’s running mate. Someone involved with the campaign made a number of flattering changes to the Palin entry, and then others came in to correct them, setting off a firestorm of editing. In the past, this sort of debate would have been mediated by reporters and pundits. In this instance, it was hashed out by Wikipedia users directly, creating a coherent, crowdsourced entry and forming a public in the process.

    What’s the government’s role in ensuring that public media 2.0 can continue to evolve and flourish? We argue that there are two clear needs: support for content, and national coordination that will ensure stable, robust platforms for engagement around media. This doesn’t mean that there will be some Big Brother overseeing users’ conversations around issues, or that the national platform will be controlled from inside the Beltway. What it means is that we can’t depend on commercial sites like YouTube and Twitter to indefinitely provide platforms for public engagement. We see the current system of public broadcasting stations as a possible scaffolding for a national network that has deep local roots and inputs from a variety of media sources outside of traditional public broadcasting, including citizen media makers. But they would need to transform their agenda, which currently is focused on delivering a broadcasting signal filled mostly with syndicated content, into an agenda focused on engaging people where they live, work and meet around issues of public importance. Decoupling content creation from engagement gives publics more power to dynamically form around issues that they identify as important, rather than being forced to respond to the agendas set by reporters, editors and newsmakers. We think this will help to increase the diversity of content and conversations, and to make public media 2.0 vital.

    Much research suggests that there’s an age gap in terms of who consumes current public media (skewing older and older) but also in terms of who participates in the online world (skews younger). How might Public Media 2.0 be used to close the gap between these two demographics?

    Younger people are already creating many forms of public media 2.0— they just don’t call it that yet. We’re hoping that giving this constellation of practices a name and a focus will help to create pipelines, networks and hubs for future generations of public media makers. One good example of this is the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), which provides an interface between independent and citizen radio producers and traditional public stations. They recently convinced the FCC that the public deserved a stake in satellite radio, given the merger of XM and Sirius. Now, PRX is starting to program a 24-hour satellite channel with content that moves well beyond the stereotypical NPR sound that many of us have grown up with and often like to mock. (See the NPR Dancers).

    Another recent project that provides a segue between the old and new media worlds is Mojoco.org, a project of the National Black Programming Consortium, which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “Mojoco” is a short name for “Mobile Journalism Collective,” and the project is designed to provide resources, tools and coproduction opportunities for “Mojos” interested in making new forms of public media.

    Add these sorts of projects—explicitly tied to legacy public media forms—to the new kinds of content being created by citizen makers such as those working with The Uptake, Global Voices or Current. Each of these media projects has produced content that made its way onto legacy print or broadcast platforms. Soon these distinctions will become meaningless, as more and more viewers of all generations are consuming converged content on mobile devices. Public media 2.0 will be one of the many choices a media consumer has, and will become particularly relevant in times of crisis, or moments of local/national/ global decisionmaking.

    Jessica Clark is the research director of the Center for Social Media at American University, where she heads up the Future of Public Media project. She is currently working on a book about the evolution of the progressive media sector with Tracy Van Slyke of The Media Consortium. Together they edit a related blog, Build the Echo. She is also the editor-at-large for In These Times, an award-winning monthly magazine of progressive news, analysis and cultural reporting.

    Tagged: american university center for social media civic media jessica clark public media

    2 responses to “Where Citizens Gather: An Interview with The Future of Public Media Project’s Jessica Clark (Part One)”

    1. David James says:

      I would not dismiss this research but at the same time old style grooming and smoozing still counts in politics, media, image management and influence. Ironically people who could not influence President Obama or candidate Palin have got great access to both since the election.
      Ironically with President Obama it is in London. See:

    2. Jim Russell says:

      I have very mixed feelings about the piece. On the one hand, I am fascinated and very open to new media. But. I am not a proponent of throwing out traditional journalism values or traditional journalism. And, while I reserve the right to be critical of NPR and PBS, I do so from a position of enormous fondness and respect for what they represents and have become. I am sick and tired of academics and “citizen journalists” telling us they do a better job of journalism when it is absolutely clear they do not.

      Democracy is great. Citizen engagement is good. Inclusion is fine. But, excellence is not the result of democracy where, as a print reporter friend once said, anybody with a nickel can play at being a journalist.

      I realize this is impolitic, so those of you who disagree — fire away!

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