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What’s Public Media These Days?

The latest Media Impact Funders (MIF) event, “Remaking Public Media,” showcased the evolution of what we called “Public Media 2.0” in the 2009 white paper that launched a field-wide discussion. In a user-centric environment, legacy public media institutions are key collaborators, and they also depend on many other institutions and relationships to make and distribute media. It’s not about institutions any more, but the “ecosystem,” to use a word of MIF head Vince Stehle. 

“Can Vice be public media these days?” It was a question from the floor to the Center for Public Integrity’s (CPI) Bill Buzenberg. Vice sure doesn’t look like your father’s or even your older brother’s public media, and probably never will. The answer seems to be that public media is media that matters, and connects with people about what’s important for our shared lives in a democracy. Public media makers don’t need to police the boundaries; CPI sees its high-quality investigative journalism variously on HuffPo, Vice, and Fox News. But they do need to guarantee quality, integrity, and value. The trust of the general public in public media is still its key asset. 


Collaboration in a user-centric environment is critical to impact. Outfits like CPI and Kaiser Health News—both examples of foundation-funded investigative journalism--depend on elaborate networks in which public broadcasters figure prominently, built by carefully cultivating relationships, to get their work done and out. Kaiser Health News, an independent journalistic service of the Kaiser Family Foundation, works closely with, among others, NPR, and not in any cookie-cutter way. The relationship between Kaiser and public broadcasters is deep and intimate, with plenty of input from both sides shaping story and delivery. The result is not only national but also local stories that help people understand their healthcare options better in a time of transition and confusion. New York Public Radio has a dazzlingly complex set of relationships in accomplishing its many projects. To generate more and more relevant regional news, it has partnered with a variety of public radio entities and independent producers. 

Is “public broadcasting” becoming “public broadband,” as one speaker suggested? That’s a far stretch, since the legacy institutions have a lot of real estate, equipment and terrestrial broadcasting obligations to run and pay for, which comes with a lot of parochial territorializing. But one thing’s for sure: public media is flourishing, and it is often not initiated within the walls of those buildings. 

Beyond Broadcast

Some initiatives are born and thrive far beyond the existing ecology of public media, and they are developing gravitas as public media in themselves. The Center for Public Integrity is functioning not only as a generator of news to a wide range of media outlets, but also as a legitimator of others’ independent investigative work. (Not that grant-funded investigative projects are resting easily about their business models; no one sees a way out of continued subsidy, which is always at risk.)  And look at, among others, Pivot, Participant Production’s new TV service; some threads in Medium; and Atlantic Media, a relentless innovator in digital journalism.

Collaboration and partnership make legacy public media more valuable, especially to people who don’t already value it and may come to it through other avenues. Collaboration with legacy public media enhances the legitimacy and reach of much independently-produced public media, especially projects subsidized by foundations that want the synergy and stability of public institutions. Overall, public media is clearly morphing into something more participatory and decentralized than legacy public media has been.

Read more about MIF's “Remaking Public Media" here.