It may seem odd to some of our viewers that a relatively small online community news weekly like Open Media Boston helped organize an event at WGBH like last Saturday's Public Media Camp Boston. But it shouldn't. Times are changing. As ever. The once mighty American mass media - including both its commercial and public wings - is in trouble to some extent. Commercial media, especially news media, isn't able to sell as many ads as it could prior to the rise of the internet; so there is less money around for them. This has badly hurt the bottom line of traditional print news publications and broadcast news shows. It has also impacted other the non-news media to varying degrees. The most important blow to democracy, however, is definitely being felt on the news side of media. Major newspapers like the Rocky Mountain News have gone out of business entirely. Other commercial news outlets have seen their editorial and production staffs cut repeatedly - until they produce only a trickle of content compared to 20 years ago, and seek to fill their emptying news holes with "citizen journalism" ... produced for free by earnest amateurs. This development has hurt both the ability of journalists and other creators to make a living, and it has also hurt the quality of news. More critically, though, it has created a news vacuum that new entrants like Open Media Boston are working to help fill with only a fraction of the resources of the large established media outlets - even in their current weakened state.
Public media, meanwhile, has suffered through federal budget cuts in recent years - which the Obama administration has reversed for at least the next two years - and has never been properly funded since the inception of U.S. public broadcasting in 1967. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created that year - shortly after the release of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television report that same year - without the tax on television sales that would have provided it with independent funding. PBS and later NPR - and other publicly funded media (with the notable exception of local cable access stations that won the ability to levy local taxes on cable companies in the early 1970s) - have always suffered from a lack of resources because of this omission. They also lost a good deal of independence from Beltway politics - reliant on Congress as they are for about one-fifth of their budget at this time. The reason they are only dependent on the federal government for a much-diminished (but still considerable) percentage of their operating expenses at this point is because they've been forced to rely more and more heavily on individual donations, foundations and corporate sponsorship ever since.
As a result, their programming (as pointed out by many commentators) has tended to shy away from strong critiques of the rich and powerful for most of their history - a few hard-won bright spots excepted. And very few public media outlets have news shows at the present time. Since news shows, and most especially urban metro news shows, are hard to sell to a donor base that consists in no small part of upper middle class and wealthy white suburbanites. Not to mention large corporations - like our good friends at ExxonMobil. Or billionaires like the conservative Koch family.
With this history in the background, I saw a tweet in mid-June from a group of local media mavens that were interested to hold a Public Media Camp here in Boston. Upon further research, I discovered that the Public Media Camp concept had been created last year by my friend Andy Carvin at NPR, and that it was basically a way of using techniques developed over the last 20 years by open culture techies to hold a one-day "BarCamp"-style "un-conference" where the agenda was determined by its participants. Andy and his DC-based crew invited public-spirited technologists, public media enthusiasts, public media staffers, and community media makers to their Public Media Camp last fall, and were thrilled when over 400 people showed up and held workshops on everything from useful code for public media websites to discussions about collaborations between public media and community media.
This DC NPR crew then got some money together to hold PubMediaCamps in 10 cities this year. And for various reasons Boston wasn't meant to be one of them. This didn't please WGBH techies Chris Beer and Noah Xu, and they started networking with local media people back in June - reeling in Annie Shreffler (now with OMB in addition to many other projects she has going) who had recently been working at WNYC - and other folks from WBUR and Cambridge Community Television. It was at that point that I noticed this chatter on Twitter just before their first planning meeting. And so I got on board and ended up being one of the event planners along with Chris, Noah, Annie, Andy and Heather Kapplow from WGBH.
By early August, WGBH had agreed to provide very nice conference facilities in their building, cash to cover catering and sundries, plus an experienced volunteer captain and several of their own volunteers to run registration, food tables, and (amusingly) elevators. Emily Corwin, Rekha Murthy and Jake Shapiro from PRX put together a great party at their office the night before our camp. And a good number of our organizing crew - plus several of the 30 or so people on our email list - ran or plugged into sessions at the event itself.
I mention this level of detail for historical purposes, but also to explain the convergence of forces involved. So we had public media staffers, community media staff, and independent producers involved in planning PubMediaCamp Boston from the get-go. We had the open culture model provided by Andy Carvin (and the tech community going back to the 1960s). Which all pointed at a overarching goal of holding an event that would help network people from all these communities and encourage collaboration.
What kind of collaboration? Well, we didn't prefigure that. When Andy started this thing he was angling at getting public-spirited techies to help create new ways for the public to interact with public media. But by opening the first PubMediaCamp to basically all comers that vision expanded to more generally opening up public broadcasting to better interact with all kinds of other media folks, plus interested members of the general public.
In that spirit, different participants at PubMediaCamp Boston did different things. David Goodman of the Independent Broadcast Information Service and OMB did a workshop on forming an "Indy News Service" in Boston. Randall Warniers did a session on "The Photographer of the Future." You can check out the whole schedule here.
For me, the big thing was finding ways to bring community media closer together with public media. At my session, "Will Public Media 2.0 Help Grow Community Media?" I actually made the argument (inspired by my colleague and mentor Fred Johnson of Media Working Group) that community media IS public media. Community media - be it cable access stations or online metro news outlets like Open Media Boston - serves a definable slice of the public. Community media like cable access already gets some public money. Why then can't Open Media Boston and the whole wave of sibling online news publications also be brought into the public media family in some way?
And why isn't public media properly funded in a similar fashion to the vision laid out in the 1967 Carnegie Commission report? Other countries spend much more per capita on public media every year than we do. And public media in those countries is more politically independent than ours is.
So, can all media creators that serve the public interest join together into a new reform movement and build a broad, independent public media that serves the interests of all Americans (and our growing immigrant communities) better than ever before? And can the legion of creators left unemployed by downsizing of the news media find gainful employment in this newly expanded public media?
Well, that's what I wanted to start talking about at PubMediaCamp Boston. And I got to do that. And out of that discussion I formed a FuturePublicMedia email list where all kinds of public media supporters from the communities represented at PubMediaCamp Boston can talk about the public media system we want to build, and how we might advocate for it. Nilagia McCoy of CCTV did a similar session called "Setting the Stage for Collaboration Between Public Community and Public Access." Heather Kapplow started a group out of her "Cross-Institutional Production" session to start direct production collaborations between community and public media folks far sooner than the rather grand vision I focused on could possibly be put into play. And other folks did their various things and had the space to do so.
All this, in a nutshell, is why Open Media Boston helped organize Public Media Camp Boston. And I'm quite proud that we did. I'm honored to get to work with so many cool media people from so many different outlets. I'm pleased to be part of a national movement of PubMediaCamps. And I'm excited to work with new friends and old on another PubMediaCamp Boston next spring.
Where will all this cross-pollination go? No one is entirely sure. But I think these efforts will bear some nice fruit in the months and years to come that will help improve and democratize public media in a period when this country really needs that to happen. That's reason enough for me to have involved Open Media Boston in this worthy effort. And for this publication to stay involved over the long haul.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston
Check out the session notes from PubMediaCamp Boston here.