The Public Media Stack

Metal stacks in book room, Pequot Library, Southport, Connecticut. Credit —  Public Domain

Metal stacks in book room, Pequot Library, Southport, Connecticut. Credit — Public Domain

This is the first of a two part essay, The second part is here.

Why we need a Public Media Stack

As someone who is an eternal optimist, and who loves tracing the complex arcs of history, this is my favourite proverb:

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

I’ve worked in digital public media projects for over 20 years. In that time, I’ve seen many attempts to imagine and build new ways to make public media effective, relevant and sustainable in a digital landscape. They haven’t succeeded. Instead, we’ve seen a growing monopoly of platforms emerge that prioritised the harvesting and monetisation of user data, and public media projects have had to dance to their tune, constantly pivoting their strategies in a quest for reach and financial sustainability.

For the last decade in particular, as the FAANG platforms tightened their grip on discovery, reach and advertising, this fight has felt un-winnable. But right now, at the beginning of 2019, there are signs of hope. The dominant platforms are facing calls for regulation or even breaking them up into smaller companies. Native digital publications like Buzzfeed, facing decreasing advertising revenues, are floating the idea of merging with their competitors, and there are other calls for publishers to share their publishing infrastructure to help them fight Facebook. New public media projects like The Correspondent are raising money directly from readers, rather than venture capital investors who demand the kind of growth that traps media companies into endless, disruptive pivots. And the founder of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, has announced a new startup to “restore the power and agency of individuals on the web”.

During the last decade, the unimaginable scale of income and investment at the FAANG companies has meant that most public media projects have focused on funding for editorial rather than tech development, and have become increasingly reliant on those monopoly platforms as a result. The Institute for Non-Profit News’ 2018 report showed that their 180 members spent only 6% on tech development, compared to 67% on editorial.

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But despite this lack of investment, there are signs of a ‘public media stack’ emerging, with a wide number of projects focused on the specific problems that public media face. It feels like there is a perfect storm right now that might make these projects more sustainable than similar initiatives over the last few decades, and there is the potential to co-ordinate them into something that could grow into a sustainable ecosystem that could survive in parallel to the FAANG monopolies for the next twenty years.

Firstly, we now have well over a decade of experience and data about how audiences want to consume digital media, and these behaviours are mature and widespread across nearly all demographics. Secondly, the underlying technologies for creating, storing and distributing media are mature and well understood — Wordpress, one of the most popular publishing platforms, is now over 15 years old. Thirdly, there are strong signals that media companies are shifting strategies to build more direct relationships with their audiences, rather than relying on the FAANG platforms as intermediaries. And finally, there is a much-needed conversation about how to build ethical technologiesthat see users as stakeholders, not resources.

As Benedict Evans has put it, we are at the ‘End of the Beginning’ — we’ve given access to digital networks to the majority of the Earth’s population, but the potential uses and benefits of this access are still only emerging. If we want to build institutions to ensure public media is a benefit that everyone can access in the next two decades, we need to do something about it now.


What is the Public Media Stack?

I think we have an opportunity now to co-ordinate investment and development efforts to create a sustainable public media stack, and by sustainable, I mean a project that can last at least two decades, as that is about how long it takes for digital ecosystems to reach maturity.

To be absolutely clear, I’m not saying we need to create a ‘digital BBC’ or a ‘publicly owned Facebook’. A 21st century public media ecosystem can’t be developed from within the public media institutions of the 20th century (believe me, a lot of us spent the last two decades trying), and we should stop confusing the infrastructure needed to own and monetise personal data with the infrastructure needed to produce and distribute independent public media (despite the current dominance of social streams, this is not the only means of reaching audiences). Instead, we can learn from projects like Government Digital ServiceCode for AmericaDoteveryone and others about how to build communities and ecosystems that work across institutions.

The public media stack should be an open community of projects, funders and partners, built around three layers — EthicalStrategic and Tactical. I’ve suggested these layers as they address very specific concerns facing public media network, but are broad enough to create a strong structure for planning and investing in for decades to come. Individual elements might shift up or down the layers over the years, depending on broader commercial and social contexts. For example, audience engagement has been treated as a tactical issue, outsourced to social networks like Facebook and Twitter. But as engaged journalism changes our perception of audiences from customers to stakeholders, I think we need to see audience engagement as an ethical issue, fundamental to the trust and transparency of public media.

The Public media Stack

The Public media Stack

The ETHICAL layer deals with the elements that are essential to the values of public media — transparency, trust and creating permanent archives for public analysis. These elements should be fundamental to all public media projects, and need business models and infrastructure that make them sustainable for decades to come. If you’re starting a public media project in 2019 you have to think about the ethical consequences of how you manage your content archives and audience data, for example. This layer includes content metadata and audience data as these drive the content algorithms and AI that decide what content audiences actually see in their personalised streams. This is probably the biggest challenge facing public media projects right now. The work Omidyar Network and Doteveryone are doing with their Ethical OS and Responsible Tech projects are leading the way on how to create ethical frameworks for tech in these areas.

The STRATEGIC layer deals with the elements that are critical to public media projects’ core activities. There are huge opportunities here to share infrastructure and business models between projects, and to create common services that can help grow audiences and networks. Creating networks to share infrastructure and build audiences has been a fundamental strategy in media from the days or early radio to Youtube, so I find it remarkable that this isn’t more common in public media projects.

The TACTICAL layer deals with experiments in new formats, distribution or syndication. This includes partnerships with third party platforms like the FAANG platforms. These have been the focus of a lot of investment in public media over the last decade, including Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund. But these should really be a small part of the work of public media projects — innovation is vital, but it should not come at the expense of investing in the fundamental ethical and strategic issues that make public media projects sustainable and healthy.

A really important feature of the Public Media Stack is that any individual public media project should be able to start building from the first layer, but also fall back to it if needed. The difference between building public institutions in the 20th and 21st Century is that sustainability and relevance are not gifts, but challenges. Whereas public media projects used to be given competitive advantages like access to limited spectrum or due prominence on listings, this is no longer the case. Digital public media projects need structures that enable quick launches, on-demand scaling, flexible business models, and the ability to scale back based on spiky patterns of attention.

A 21st Century public media ecosystem needs to be a platform that enables many different projects to face the challenges of sustainability and relevance, and if they fail, to let others build on their work. Public media projects that fail should degrade gracefully back into the ecosystem, creating archives and tools that can be shared and developed by partners, rather than having their legacy locked into third party platforms.

How can we start building the Public Media Stack?

I think supporting and developing a Public Media Stack over the next twenty years is not something that has an easy solution. I don’t think its the right time to start a new organisation or institution — there’s already a very broad and diverse range of projects working in this space.

Instead, I’d like to suggest instead organising a summit/workshop to explore the structure and elements of a Public Media Stack. I’d love to bring together some of the incredibly smart people working in this space, and flesh out some of the specific challenges and opportunities at each layer in the stack. Out of that could come a roadmap for building the Public Media Stack out of the loose network of projects and organisations I’ve linked to in this post, as well as the many posts I’ve forgotten to include, or haven’t yet heard about.

We’ve got a few resources at Storythings to organise a summit on the Public Media Stack, and I’d suggest that doing it in the US (possibly NYC?) in late spring would be a good idea. If you’re interested in taking part or supporting a summit like this, email me or message me on twitter and we’ll get cracking.

To go back to the proverb at the beginning of this post — we’ve seen the kind of trees that have grown over the last twenty years. It’s time to start planting the seeds for new kinds of trees now.