The landscape of public media is shifting to accommodate an evolving, always-on digital media landscape shaped significantly by users as well as media-makers. Such a shift demands a remapping of the public media field, a project addressed by the Center for Social Media’s Future of Public Media project. This new territory, which comprises online, film, print and user-generated elements, demands new and interdisciplinary research approaches. This paper examines efforts to examine three public media projects—defined as projects that engage publics for the purpose of informing them and moving them to action—through two contrasting analytical approaches. Case studies by Center for Social Media researchers, with interviews and elements of market and online research, present an “inside” look at the projects under examination, while network and issue mapping tools designed by the Amsterdam-based Govcom.org provide a more distant “outside” assessment of the impact and reach of these projects.

Comparison of the case studies of the three projects—independent documentary film The War Tapes, PBS documentary and outreach project A Lion in the House, and international blogging site Global Voices—revealed commonalities among these projects, and more generally among contemporary media projects attempting to survive and thrive in the volatile online environment. Emerging public media projects are mission-driven, designed to engage multiple publics, enriched by strategic partnerships and forging new pathways and routines. They also share a number of challenges with both commercial and independent media-makers: spanning multiple platforms, navigating evolving roles for editors and producers, planning for multiple moments of connection and outreach with audiences, staying abreast of ever-shifting technologies and tactics, and grappling with questions of content ownership.

While the case studies provided a wealth of data—from media-makers’ personal anecdotes to audience statistics to accounts of complex outreach partnerships—the online analysis and mapping tools developed by Govcom.org provided a more quantitative analysis of the online reach of these media projects. The research team, led by University of Amsterdam’s Richard Rogers, has developed a method that “scrapes” data from Google and other online sources, analyzes that data to reveal networks of sites related to particular issues or projects, and then, after content analysis by researchers, displays the data as a series of network maps using a program called ReseauLu. The evolution and use of these tools is discussed below.

A very different picture of the publics served by the three media projects under examination emerged when the case study accounts were contrasted to the Govcom.org visualizations. This paper examines the differences in approach and results, conflicting accounts of how publics might be understood and quantified, and further directions for research that examines public media.

Authored by Jessica Clark

To read the report.