Today’s Public Media Fight Misses The Point
Melody Kramer
17916

Re: the question of why ProPublica is/is not Public Media (capital P, capital M)…

I would agree with you that they 100% are public media. As are the hundreds of other non-broadcast non-profit news organizations in the U.S. and I might even argue that some for-profit public benefit corporations should also be included in this group.

Full disclosure: many of these organizations are members of the organization I work for, the Institute for Nonprofit News (12o or so listed here: http://inn.org/members/). In the following I’m not speaking for them or for INN but just thinking out loud a bit.

The problem (I think) is that there was a rush a number of years ago to rebrand Public Broadcasting as Public Media. Which is totally fine, and, in fact, I was there shouting just as loudly as the next person that this was the Right Thing To Do. But in hindsight…it did have the unfortunate side effect of limiting the use of the term Public Media, in some circles, to refer exclusively to Public Broadcasting organizations.

This use of Public Media, as a result, came to refer to organizations who hold some share of the available broadcast airwaves as a sort of public trust AND that these are organizations that receive a subsidy from the federal government via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Essentially, the group of organizations that were formerly known as public broadcasters.

But does any of this really matter?

The public we aim to serve would read those preceding paragraphs and respond with: “…huh?”

And they would not be wrong. This distinction is super confusing, and (for the most part) not particularly relevant.

The mission is what matters. And in that, our interests are aligned.

In fact, there are (dare I say it) some organizations who are better at serving the public interest than many Public Media organizations (and by that, again, I mean organizations formerly known as public broadcasters). I would certainly put ProPublica in this group, but there are many other nonprofits I’ve worked with in my time at INN, many community media organizations, etc. who would also fit this bill.

I have argued before that we should broaden the definition of public media to include these other organizations, but those efforts have mostly fallen flat because it just perpetuates the confusion (try explaining how public broadcasting works to someone who hasn’t worked in public broadcasting, I wish you luck). I am also now convinced that widening that definition to include non-broadcasting organizations might do more harm than good, piling legacy concerns on new, upstart organizations who don’t need or want that baggage).

So instead, perhaps we need a new, more inclusive term, something like “public service media,” to pitch this larger tent for all organizations who put the public at the center of everything they do regardless of their legacy concerns, business model, etc.

I say this because I believe we DO need SOME kind of term to encompass that idea and, for organizations who share this mission, there’s a lot we can learn from each other. And a lot of duplicated effort that can be avoided if we work together toward a common goal: a more inclusive media that better serves the public.

…but I’d be curious to hear your take on it. If you’d rather respond privately, I’m aschweigert@gmail.com or @aschweig on twitter.