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Media Re:public Manifesto

This is an early draft of the principles that eventually became the Media Re:public suite of papers, available at Media Re:public Comments welcome please email pmiel [at] cyber [dot] law [dot] harvard [dot] edu or comment on the blog at

Growing Challenges Facing All Media

The digital media age has brought fundamental changes to the ways news and information is created, disseminated and consumed. The availability of new tools and platforms has fueled a decade of explosive growth in non-professional online media that has irrevocably changed the news and information landscape. Ordinary people, though far from a representative group, are able to share their comments, writings and, increasingly, their photos, audio and video, with a global audience, in formats sometimes indistinguishable from well-funded professional media. The changes are felt in political life, as public figures learn that with reporting no longer limited to professional journalists, nothing is really “off the record.”

Even as new media technologies reduce the costs of production and distribution, which might be expected to enrich the media environment, financial pressures are instead pushing traditional media organizations to cut back on reporting. The most profound shift in the economics of the media business is the ability to distribute content -- both original and copied – instantaneously, globally, and essentially for free, challenging the dominance of large media enterprises. The business model based on that dominance, which once provided a close—though hardly perfect—link between news outlets and communities has fractured. All traditional media, including public broadcasters, are re-examining the fundamental structure of their work.

In the short term, it is general interest newspapers, especially in mid-sized and smaller markets, that are hit hardest. A wave of cost-cutting and layoffs in the newspaper industry across the country is having serious consequences for the scope and depth of news coverage.

In their focus on survival, newspapers and other traditional media are struggling to maintain their public service mission. The consequences are seen primarily in the most resource-intensive kinds of journalism. In the US, newspapers and other traditional media are failing to educate citizens on world events in a time of increasing globalization. Cutbacks in investigative journalism and other in-depth reporting have weakened the traditional media’s role as watchdog and their ability to cover serious social policy issues such as education, health care, and poverty. As newsrooms shrink, some local media can no longer guarantee comprehensive coverage of local issues and events. And editors are struggling to insulate editorial decisions from commercial imperatives to retain and attract advertisers. Many hoped that the rich new participatory media world would address these shortcomings, providing neighborhood level reporting, engaging hundreds of volunteers in journalistic investigations, and linking audiences easily to global perspectives. In addition to the interactivity, more personal perspectives, immediacy and focus on niche topics that new media forms are known for, there are also examples of nontraditional media providing accurate and timely reporting of issues from the local to the international. But they are the exception rather than the rule. While online discourse is flooded with criticism of the traditional media’s failings, much of it valid, there is increasing evidence that the combined efforts of blogs, community news sites, citizen journalism aggregators and professionally staffed online-only media are not filling the gaps left by the changes in traditional media structures:

  • community news sites studied are less participatory than expected, and both individual sites and aggregators focused on citizen journalism are falling short of their own targets for serious original reporting;
  • most new online media are based on organizational and editorial models that are structurally unable to address the specific areas where traditional media is falling short, namely international reporting, in-depth journalism and comprehensive coverage; and
  • both the volunteer energy and the commercial money fueling the growth of new media is overwhelmingly skewed towards coverage of politics and technology, leaving numerous issues, geographic areas and populations all but ignored.

These parallel but unrelated trends have led to significant gaps in the news and information environment and the tendency is increasing. The demands and pressures on traditional commercial media drive cost-cutting and increased attention to new forms of advertising. American public broadcasting is searching for a path forward in this new environment, faced with the dual challenge of adapting to new technology and reaching beyond their traditionally narrow demographic among adults. The new online media do many things well, but there are no mechanisms driving them to provide comprehensive coverage based on original reporting. The ability of individual audience members to comment on, select, and even author their own news media is not adequate to represent the public’s interest.

A Way Forward

We believe that the combination of new and emerging digital media technologies with the deep expertise of the best of the traditional journalism community has the potential to create a news and information environment in the United States and other countries that is richer, more engaging, and more representative than anything that existed previously even while ensuring the accuracy, balance and completeness that is key to an informed population. But evidence is mounting that neither the free market nor the wisdom of the crowds on their own will make this happen; it will require resources and coordinated efforts by civil society.

Like the members of the Commission on the Role of the Press in a Democracy convened by the Annenberg Foundation in 2005 (see their manifesto) and many others, we believe that entities not driven by the need for profits are destined to play a much larger role in the support of quality news media going forward than they have previously. This is particularly critical in United States, which relies more heavily on commercial media for news than most countries. These new nonprofit media entities will likely be funded by a mix of models, from crowdfunding and community and national philanthropy to advertising to using related businesses to cross-subsidize expensive reporting. The best models will harness the energy of professional competition and effective management while ensuring that decisions are not driven by the need to increase profits quarter after quarter. We propose that the following principles should guide those interested in working towards the media the public deserves:

  • Start with the public

Understanding and meeting the needs of the audience and supporting the creation of high-quality, original content that meets those needs should be the top priority. The value and availability of the content to its target public(s) should drive design, not a predisposition toward any specific media, technologies or business models or the interests or the existing capabilities of producers or organizations. New structures need to reinvent the indispensable roles of the editor as guarantor of coverage, continuity and quality.

  • Technology is (relatively) easy, people are hard

There has been tremendous energy dedicated to new modes of dissemination and organization of existing information as well as to the development of systems to enable individuals to function as content producers. The next step is to focus on enhancing the practice of journalism by providing professionals and amateurs alike with multimedia, networked reporting tools and skills. Flexible, cost-effective networks, tools and services are needed to give groups of individuals and organizations of any size and type the ability to undertake and fund complex reporting tasks. These may be developed as separate entities or by media outlets who share them with the community. Business and editorial models may need to be developed separately. Far more important than technical training, reporters of all types must understand and embrace the underlying concepts of working in fundamentally new ways.

  • Integration IS innovation

The ability to combine and collaborate with people, technology and institutions with different skills and perspectives is key to moving beyond the limitations of today’s models. The best projects will build on and combine experience and expertise from many sources: professional media organizations, community groups, technologists, freelancers, and ordinary people. People and institutions that are able to bridge the worlds of technology, journalism, activism. management and revenue-generation of various kinds will be incredibly valuable, and should be brought in to support practical projects. Transnational, cross-disciplinary projects that bring different academic and non-academic perspectives from the US and other countries are key.

  • Work on the global-local continuum

The US media system is unique in the world; in this period of upheaval there is much to be learned from the experience of both advanced and developing countries. All projects should aim to incorporate the perspectives and experiences of other countries. Expanding the public’s access to global experience is no longer the exclusive province of foreign correspondents; it requires tapping into and making sense of a wealth of local expression. In research as well as in media practice, multinational partnerships should be the rule rather than the exception.

  • Don’t let money change everything

There is widespread agreement that new business models to support news media in the digital age are needed and there are many paths that deserve exploration. With billions of dollars of commercial money and thousands of person-hours already being devoted to understanding how to convert literally every second of online audience attention into advertising and/or marketing revenue in the digital environment what needs attention is development and testing of funding models that aren’t about selling "eyeballs":

-- organizations or mechanisms to produce high-quality content that can be supported by ad-based platforms/outlets/networks while remaining independent of the commercial imperatives;

-- mechanisms to harness individual willingness to pay for media content (subscription, micropayments, donations, etc.) that are freely available to support any and all media production; and

-- mechanisms to funnel non-commercial money of all kinds (individual, foundation, government at all levels) towards the support of public interest journalism that may not be commercially viable in ways that maintain editorial independence, including from the whims of individual large donors, government officials, or activist agendas.

Commercial and public news media organizations, both alone and through their associations, as well as a vast array of native-online media, from individual to activist to commercial, all claim to be working hard on at least the first two of these and several high-profile nonprofit initiatives are dedicated to the third, especially with respect to investigative reporting. However significant efforts that take the public interest as their starting point, that effectively cut across the silos of specific industries or communities of interest and that are scalable are rare and desperately needed.

  • Come back to the public (all of them)

Concerted efforts are needed to ensure that new media efforts serve the needs of diverse populations, not only the active, educated and wired. This means supporting new policy approaches to digital access and education, use of mobile and other accessible technologies, including traditional print and broadcast and addressing credibility issues through news literacy education that helps the public become more sophisticated and demanding consumers of news, including the vast majority who will remain essentially passive. Representatives of under-served communities should be designed into all projects both as consumers and as producers of content.

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Comments welcome please email pmiel [at] cyber [dot] law [dot] harvard [dot] edu