Building the Public Media Stack

An incomplete list of projects already doing things that could be part of a Public Media Stack

This is the second of a two part essay, originally published on Storythings.com. The first part is here.

If you’ve read the first part of this essay describing why we need a Public Media Stack, you probably already know lots of examples of projects that could be part of this stack. Here’s an incomplete set of my thoughts and examples of how the Public Media Stack currently looks. I’m sure I’m missing lots of examples of projects, so please email me or leave a note in the comments if you have any suggestions.

The Public Media Stack

ETHICAL

CONTENT ARCHIVES — Storing content in sustainable archives with human and machine readable URLs so that it can used for research and analysis by the public after it’s initial publication window, and even after the lifetime of the publisher itself. This is by no means a trivial challenge — I was involved in the BBC’s Creative Archive, a project aimed at digitising the BBC’s TV and Radio archives, but the issue of archiving digital native content is even more acute. Nearly all the digital public media projects I commissioned at the BBC and Channel 4 in the 2000s are no longer available online.

CONTENT METADATA — Storing content metadata in similar human/machine readable archives so that it can be used for research and analysis by the public after it’s initial publication. This should at least include data about the creators/publishers, versions and corrections, and ideally structured data about subjects and themes.

AUDIENCE DATA — Storing audience data, including core metrics, audience funnels, and CRM systems for tracking how audiences access, use and pay for public media content. This is a huge challenge, especially in a post-GDPR world, but there is a real opportunity to create ethical systems for holding personal data. I commissioned a bunch of work about this when I was at the BBC around 2006, and this work is even more necessary now than it was back then, before Facebook showed us all how not to do it. Tim Berners-Lee’s Inrupt/Solid project is pretty much exactly what I was hoping the BBC would build ten years ago.

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT — The Correspondent and other engaged journalism projects are leading the way in showing how public media can work with communities to tell stories, not just publish stories to them. There are even more radical models for this kind of engagement from the history of broadcast television. When Channel 4 launched in the UK in 1982, community film workshops lobbied for the ACTT Workshop Declaration — a commitment for the new broadcast TV channel to not only commission individual programmes from diverse communities, but to actively funded ‘integrative practise’ — workshops, education and access to equipment to enable community film & video workshops to make their own programmes. Many of the TV companies that emerged in the 80s and 90s independent TV boom came from these workshops, so imagine what similar workshops (or even accelerators, as we might call them now) could do in the next few decades.

Existing projects — Ethical OS, Po.et, Wikidata, Internet Archive, Engaged Journalism Accelerator, The Correspondent, Hearken, Coral Project, The Membership Puzzle Project, Inrupt/Solid


STRATEGIC

CONTENT PUBLISHING — Alongside industry leading publishing platforms like Wordpress, we’re seeing publications like Vox and the Washington Post making their CMS technologies available to other publications, alongside open source platforms like Ghost.org. The fact that the Bezos-owned Washington Post are rolling out their publishing platform as a service is no surprise — Amazon has long recognised the competitive advantage of owning infrastructure as a way of getting a foothold in new industry sectors, from book depots to AWS and their Lumberyard game engine. It’s almost impossible to build on the web without using Amazon infrastructure for part of your stack these days. I don’t think this is a good thing.

AUDIO/VIDEO SERVICES — This is an area where existing public media organisations did lead the way, with the BBC iPlayer and similar services pioneering online video at scale in the mid 2000s. But since then the game has been raised by Netflix and Amazon Prime, both in terms of commissioning and product development. There is a very real risk that public media video and audio content will suffer because of the sheer complexity of products, apps and subscriptions that users need to watch the content they love. Plans for UK broadcasters to collaborate on a shared service were nixed by regulators in 2009, but a decade later, the same regulators are calling for a rethink.

The challenge is that content, product and brand are being tightly knitted into offers for consumers, so asking existing services to host public media content risks diluting their brand in a very competitive market. Also, a lot of public media video is currently being commissioned for social sharing on mobile streams, rather than the kind of ambitious, immersive storytelling that audiences are bingeing on VOD services. As well as opening up access to players, there needs to be investment in ambitious content that is attractive to premium VOD services. Podcast networks like Gimlet are starting to see results from developing IP in audio before transferring to video, so this could be a model for other public media projects. This is something we’re *very* interested in at Storythings, BTW.

SUBSCRIPTION/PAYWALLS — The Reuters Institute Digital News Report has shown for the last few years that media businesses are moving from advertising based revenue to more complex strategies with subscriptions or donations at the core. A decade of giving away audience data and monetisation to third party platforms like Facebook clearly didn’t work, so this is an area where there has been huge amounts of innovation in the last few years. Audiences’ willingness to commit to subscriptions has grown at both end of the scale, with products like Substack, Patreon and Drip building on the advances in crowdfunding for niche media projects in the last decade, and Netflix, Prime, Hulu et al at the premium end.

We might be reaching peak subscription soon, though, as there is likely to be a very hard ceiling on how many subscriptions users are willing to commit to. Bundling subscriptions is very likely to happen soon, and this will more than likely be led by the FAANG platforms again, as they already have payment infrastructure baked into their products. If public media projects want to avoid another decade of disintermediation, we should start exploring bundling subscription models asap.

AUDIENCE/NETWORK /IMPACT — This is a bit of a bucket for a range of issues, some specific to public media projects, some not. At the heart of it is the question of impact — what it is, how to measure it, and how to increase it. I’ve been working around this question of impact for pretty much all my career, from the early years of BBC New Media in the 2000s, through our experiments with digital commissioning at Channel 4 Education, to our work with clients like Omidyar Network, Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at Storythings.

Pretty much every organisation has a slightly different approach to measuring audiences and reporting impact, but for the sake of this post, I want to split them into three activities — audience metrics, network development and impact reporting. The technologies and conceptual models we use to measure public media projects combine all three, but I think it will really help to think of them as three different activities.

The first — audience metrics — is usually dealt with at the level of the individual project/publication, but there are huge advantages in sharing knowledge and models between projects. I’ve been involved in a project doing this in the UK museum and heritage sector called , in which large and small organisations worked together to make their audience measurement and insight projects more effective. A similar project working with public media projects globally would be hugely valuable — The Audience Agency in the UK is an example of how publicly funded technology and consultancy can help raise the skills of an entire sector (disclaimer — I’m on their board).

The second — networks — is sorely underdeveloped in public media content. Building technology to grow audiences by cross promoting content between networks has been proven effective in the early years of nearly every digital network, from the maker networks on Youtube to podcast networks like Radiotopia and Shoutout (this is something we’re developing at Storythings with Diffusion Network). There are thousands of individual public media projects that are all struggling with the same problems of how to grow audiences, and often publishing similar content. Why aren’t we working together to build more examples like the Solutions Journalism Network?

The third — impact — tends to be driven by funders, and their theories of change, rather than public media publishers themselves. The most interesting work happening here are the moves away from retrospective impact models to real-time, iterative impact models. The Center for Investigative Reporting’s open-source Impact Tracker tool is a simple, but very effective tool to help monitor real-time impact, but the really interesting developments are in the research and evidence-led approaches that the Wellcome Trust are experimenting with. This brings impact much closer to engaged journalism, in that both want more involved, complex relationships with audiences, not just measuring them.

Existing Projects — Ghost, Chorus, Arc, Substack, Patreon, Drip, PRX, BBC iPlayer, BBC Sounds, Solutions Journalism Network, Let’s Get Real, The Audience Agency, Radiotopia, Shoutout, Diffusion Network, Center for Investigative Reporting Impact Tracker, Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Team

TACTICAL

CONTENT SYNDICATION — We’ve been running Diffusion Network, a pilot project on content syndication at Storythings over the last two years, with partners around the globe. There are huge opportunities for public media publishers to increase reach and impact through syndication, as Project Syndicate has proven. But there are real costs to the original publisher, as host publishers are very inconsistent in how they attribute and share user metrics with the original publisher.

One of the most interesting challenges we’re dealing with in Diffusion is translation — we’ve syndicated content in Spain, France, South America and China through our partners at HuffPo, El Pais and Guokr. Syndication and translation are good examples of the kind of issue that can be solved much more effectively by a network — it’s almost impossible for small projects to fund the staff and workflows needed for syndication and translation, whilst host publishers would much rather deal with a credible network than field requests from hundreds of individual publications. Another good reason why we need to be funding more network initiatives in public media.

BUSINESS MODEL INNOVATION — The last few years has seen online publishers pivot their business models in an attempt to reach sustainability, from display advertising to sponsored content, native publishing on third party platforms and most recently subscription and membership models. The Non-Profit News Index shows that most of their members rely on Foundation income and individual giving for 90% of their income. To be truly sustainable, publications should have a more diverse mix, including more earned income. Projects like The Information Accelerator and Matter.vc show how a more commercial model can help media projects diversify their income sources — it would be more projects like the Engaged Journalism Accelerator and The Membership Puzzle Project that actively help public media projects diversify their business models and become more sustainable. More importantly, we need to develop open technologies that can support diverse income models, from ad serving to membership and events.

FORMAT INNOVATION — This feels like the area where there is the most investment from public media funders at the moment. I’ve worked in media innovation for most of my career, and it still annoys me that funders are more interesting in funding unsustainable experiments instead of helping to build genuinely sustainable ecosystems for public media. Format innovation is important work, but I’d like to see a shift in funding towards the other areas of the public media stack, not just format innovation. This is why I’ve put format innovation in the ‘tactical’ layer — it’s a the kind of experiment you should do only when you know your fundamental ethical and strategic layers are well established. Without that, there is no long term benefit for these experiments other than helping to showcase the emerging tech of the FAANG companies.

THIRD PARTY PARTNERSHIPS — Which brings us to the final element, partnering with the major FAANG platforms like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google and Netflix. Bruce Sterling coined the terms ‘stacks’ to describe the integrated strategies of these dominant companies in 2012, as he felt the dominance of these platforms meant it was no longer possible to talk about ‘the internet’ as a cohesive technology platform or public realm. Since 2012, this has only become more true.

Public media projects have relied on these platforms to reach audiences increasingly over the last decade — I’d love to know how much public media investment in the last five years has gone on promoting Facebook posts, for example. This might not change in the next few years, but it will over the next couple of decades. This is why I’ve put partnerships with the other ‘stacks’ as a tactical decision — it’s often not the right choice to make ethically, and we know it’s a poor choice strategically. Working together to negotiate these partnerships, with a long term goal of creating a sustainable independent ecosystem for public media, would feel like a much stronger position.

Existing Projects — Matter.vc, The Information Accelerator, Google Digital News Initative, Diffusion Network, European Journalism Centre


We’ve got a few resources at Storythings to organise a summit on the Public Media Stack, and I’d suggest that doing it in the US (possibly NYC?) in late spring would be a good idea. If you’re interested in taking part or supporting a summit like this, email me or message me on twitter and we’ll get cracking.