But the argument that the US compares poorly in its state and public investment in media is not one that gets much traction in the US. And many Americans do not think that the decentralized system operated here is necessarily a disadvantage. Even some of those involved in public broadcasting see decentralization as a plus. “The fact that NPR has zero control or authority over affiliate stations is not necessarily a bad thing,” says Schiller, the former NPR chief, now the chief digital officer of NBC News. “Independence of ownership is often a strength as these stations are closest to their audiences.”
Schiller is skeptical that there will ever be more public support for funding for public media than there is at the moment. “I just don’t see it,” she says. “Even journalists who work inside public media are conflicted about taking public dollars.”
Yet while public media may struggle for funding, it is having no trouble finding audiences. Schiller’s time at NPR might have ended with a series of controversies, but her two-year tenure saw a continuing growth in audiences and a focus on digital innovation. And at a time when the normal trajectory for ‘legacy media’ has been at best static, NPR’s figures have increased to around 27 million people listening to at least one NPR show a week, up from around 13 million in the late 1990s. Similarly, PBS claims a monthly reach of 117 million and an online monthly reach of 20 million.
Bill Clinton set public-media-advocate hearts aflutter in May, when he suggested an American or international entity, similar to “NPR or the BBC,” that would put out unspun truth and debunk Internet rumors. But privately, even those at the top levels of public broadcasting feel that this is unlikely.
What may be more likely is that a new ecosystem could spring out of current networks of professional and amateur news organizations, using the cheap or free infrastructure of the Internet to create traction.
Tom Glaisyer, a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, for example, envisions the emergence of a connected world of public service publishing based around libraries, community groups, and journalism schools, many of whom are already active participants in publishing to local communities. Such a vision relies on the idea that the majority of newsgathering will fall to more dispersed sources, some of them professional journalists and many of them not. “These will be new information institutions, and look very different from what we had in the past,” says Glaisyer. Context and analysis might as easily come from experts in the field publishing their own material as from news organizations.
We certainly got a glimpse of the ability of the Internet to facilitate and integrate news sources, and maybe of a new news ecosystem, during the Arab Spring and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami this year. Whether it was NPR’s own head of social media strategy, Andy Carvin, ceaselessly tweeting links of disparate sources and coverage of the Middle East for months on end, or MIT’s nuclear science and engineering students blogging the post-earthquake problems with the Fukushima power plant (mitnse.com), we could begin to see how such an ecosystem might work. Investment in professional journalists—to follow sources and subjects even when they are not in the public eye, to investigate and stand up to governmental and corporate pressure, to help sort the fake from the real—will still be needed, but the money currently spent on maintaining bureaus and infrastructure is almost certain to shrink—at least in America.
This need was made clear in the recent FCC report, “The Information Needs of Communities,” published in June. But meanwhile, the increased and rapid investments by many other governments into centralized media will continue to be a challenge to the US. The “soft power” struggle in the world has begun a new and more political phase, and globalized news has increasing relevance to domestic markets. People and money move ever more fluidly across borders, so information about an earthquake in Japan, an explosion in Russia, or a riot in Tehran becomes directly relevant to a viewer in the US or a listener in Europe.
In this new world, the US is undoubtedly a leader at least in one way. The US has a more powerful media platform than any of its rivals, through technology companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter.