The push for a “PBS for the Internet”

The concept of a new technology-infused, publicly funded, not-for-profit media ecosystem is attracting interest in political circles as a way to change the power dynamics in today’s information wars.

Why it matters: Renewing the structure and role of public media could be part of the solution to strengthen local media, decentralize the distribution of quality news, and limit the amplification of harmful or false information by Big Tech platforms.

Retrospective scene: Congress in 1967 authorized federal operating money to broadcast stations through a new agency, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and what is now PBS launched mid-tier national news programming and hit kids’ shows like “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street “. NPR was born in 1971.

  • Despite disputes over political interference of national programming and funding, hundreds of local community broadcasting stations mostly received grants directly to choose which national programs to support.

Driving the news: a new political document of the German Marshall Fund proposes a complete revamp of the CPB to fund not only broadcast stations, but also a wide range of digital platforms and potential content producers, including freelance journalists, local governments, non-profit organizations and educational institutions.

  • The idea is to increase the diversity of local civic information, relying on anchor institutions such as libraries and universities that communities trust.
  • Beyond content, the plan calls for open protocol standards and APIs to allow consumers to mix and match the content they want from a wide variety of sources, instead of being at the mercy of the algorithms of Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.
  • Data would be another crucial component. To operate, entities in the ecosystem would have to commit to basic data ethics and rules about how personal information is used.

“It’s about power. We don’t want the government telling the platforms what to do, but we don’t want the platforms to have the power to take the platform down” and decide whose voices are heard, said report co-author Ellen Goodman, a professor of Rutgers Law School and founder and director of the Rutgers Institute for Information Law and Policy.

  • “Nobody thinks that the most efficient way to do things was to have thousands of broadcast stations, but it was to decentralize power. So what would that look like on the Internet?”

Reality check: Allowing people to “adjust” their own content preference dials could exacerbate filter bubbles.

  • Still, the authors say engaging trusted local institutions in creating and amplifying civic information, from public health updates to local election news, could improve people’s diet and overall media exposure “so it’s not just a battle between the government and the platform, Goodman said.

The panorama: More generally, new nonprofit media models are gaining traction.

  • The Local Journalism Sustainability Act takes a different approach than the government grant model. The bill, for example, would give a tax credit to people who donate to nonprofit newsrooms, or to small businesses that buy nonprofit point-of-sale advertising.

What they are saying: “There absolutely has to be a much bigger role for nonprofit media, with public media as a subset of that, than there has been in the past,” said Steve Waldman, president of Report for America.

  • While today’s public media leans predominantly toward streaming, which requires FCC licenses, the modern version can use a variety of funding sources and digital tools that don’t rely on the same rigid infrastructure.
  • “Right now, a disproportionate amount of CPB money goes to television,” Waldman said. “From a local news standpoint, we may need to loosen that up and have the money go wherever it can strengthen local programming.”

in a 2020 Article, Waldman also called for “thousands of mini-SPANs,” using broadcast technologies to broadcast public meetings in the same way that C-SPAN does for congressional hearings.

Be smart: The misinformation and misinformation debate is largely about who decides whether content is good or bad, an unwinnable battle.

  • Revamping the underlying infrastructure that amplifies quality content, by tapping into trusted local institutions and independent content producers, could give citizens a new source of news that doesn’t rely solely on platform algorithms or polarized commercial outlets.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to note that Steve Waldman is president, not CEO, of Report for America.

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