Katie Donnelly 

Last year at the Center for Social Media, we researched trends in community engagement in journalism and public media projects. We created a spectrum of engagement for journalism producers, ranging from traditional, content-focused approaches to completely user-driven approaches. It goes without saying that engagement is rising rapidly across the board, but there are still plenty of persistent challenges.

The Center for Social Media wasn’t the only organization looking at these issues last year. In December, the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation released a report called  Rethinking Public Media: More Local, More Inclusive, More Interactive[PDF]. Written by Barbara Cochran, the report provides a comprehensive series of proposals for pubic media reform. The report includes many of the recommendations we’ve made to public media makers in the past, including: increase local news coverage, reach out to underserved audiences, develop appropriate metrics, facilitate sharing content, and promote digital literacy. The paper also advocates for a major structural overhaul within the public broadcasting system, including increased collaboration between radio and television outlets (helped by turning the Corporation for Public Broadcasting into the Corporation for Public Media), easing the process of station consolidation and merging, increased financial support from both within and outside of government, and improved community governance for public media stations. Cochran also advocates for keeping digital content free, arguing that “content produced on behalf of the public belongs to the public. That conclusion is in keeping with the history and mission of this country’s public media.”

The report stirred up a host of issues for discussion. In December, Center for Social Media Research Director Jessica Clark participated in a related Aspen Institute roundtable, offering suggestions for fostering and accelerating innovation in the sector. Participants were excited by the report’s release but, as Amy Garmer of the Aspen Institute observed, ranged from “pessimistic to hyper-pessimistic” when it came to the issue of funding. (Unfortunately, it looks like their predictions were pretty much on target.)

Other public media organizations took time to reflect on the future of media for public knowledge and action last year as well. The Media Consortium‘s annual reportFrom Prediction to Practice: A Year of Journalism InnovationCollaboration and Expansion, described many developments in the field of public interest journalism. Most notably, The Media Consortium conducted a media landscape analysis that outlined the following four distinct models for journalism producers:

  • Pure Play Journalism: This model produces high quality journalism and analysis, potentially integrates multi-media/platforms and social networking tools for distribution, but is generally one-way communication to users. Such projects avoid citizen engagement in journalism production as well as any advocacy/action opportunities.
  • Journalism and Community: This model builds on the Pure Play Journalism model, but strategically integrates community into media making and/or distribution processes. Such projects also create ongoing and productive spaces for communities/networks to communicate with each other and with media organization around stories, issues, etc.
  • Journalism and Action: The next level up from Journalism and Community, in this model a media producer creates or integrates strategies/tools for its community to take action because of the journalism it produces. Those actions can be supported/organized on the media organization’s website, social networking site, or where those communities already exist. It could also include strategic partnerships with outside advocacy or non-profit organizations.
  • Hybrid Media Makers and Action: This model combines great acts of journalism, media production, advocacy, and/or messaging. Hybrid Media Makers generally include individuals, media organizations and/or non-profits/advocacy groups who produce quality content, emphasize community involvement and put out regular calls to action. 

After asking members to self-identify within these four categories and project their organizations’ plans both for 2010 and 2015, the Media Consortium found that not a single organization wanted to identify as “Pure Play Journalism” for 2015. This closely aligns with what we’ve been finding in our own engagement research. Producers are moving toward more user-driven projects, although many have strong reasons for wanting to maintain some degree of editorial control. Participants in a session we hosted at the Public Media Camp in November expressed caution about valuing participatory strategies over traditional editorial production, noting that both have value and can be productively combined.

Many news organizations have found tremendous value in creating projects that are user-informed, but not entirely user-driven. For example, the Public Insight Network incorporates a vast network of users as sources for news reports. Earlier last year, the Public Insight Network (PIN) released a report, The Source Advisory Panel Project, which incorporated feedback from 27 PIN sources in 13 states. The report found that people had a variety of motivations for participating in the network as news sources, including passion for the subject matter, a connection to the larger community, a sense of civic duty and the desire to correct misinformation in order to balance the current “opinion-driven” media landscape.

Another key finding in this report was a “sense of growing dissatisfaction with email” as a mode of communication. While some users would prefer being contacted through mobile technologies, others expressed a preference for old-fashioned telephone communication, which provides a personal touch as well as an increased likelihood of an immediate response. The report also found that “you don’t have to understand the machine to like the product” — many participants didn’t understand how the Public Insight Network worked, but that didn’t stop them from enjoying participating in the process. As Joellen Easton reports here, the Public Insight Network is currently involved in a major evaluation effort funded by the Knight Foundation in order to understand the motivations and value of sources in a rapidly changing news environment.

As these reports demonstrate, there has been a tremendous amount of momentum in the field over the last year. We at the Future of Public Media Project are energized by all of the exciting work coming from our partners in the field. This year in the Public Media 2.0 Showcase, we’ll be exploring another series of public media projects, taking a closer look at engagement strategies, impact measurement, and emerging models for mission-driven media production, such as the evolution of mobile and augmented reality. We’ll also be checking back in with some of the projects we’ve profiled in the past and seeing how they are incorporating new tools for engagement and impact measurement into their work, and providing an occasional review of useful books and online resources. Check back here for new profiles beginning next week!