Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Urgency & Verve: Powering Public Media's Digital Presence

I was recently reading an interview with Michael Edson, the Director of Web and New Media Strategy for the Smithsonian Institution and came upon this fantastic line:

I think the issue of "how we grab them" (the audience) is both practical and a philosophical. I am content, as a U.S. taxpayer and global citizen, with a spectrum of approaches as long as organizations pursue their missions with urgency and verve. I am not content when our public institutions posture about their own importance but neglect to use the tools, logic, and culture of digital technology when those tools could be profoundly helpful. No director should allow this: no board of directors should tolerate it.
This is a perfect challenge to public purpose and noncommercial media and the way that we utilize our digital tools to advance our own missions of public service. We need to renew our sense of how to use the full spectrum of digital tools to breath new life into the way we interact with our audiences and produce value for our country.

My ongoing definition for public purpose media is "Using media to solve problems worth solving."

Fundamentally this means for public service media has the purpose of improving the lives of individual citizens, improving our community institutions and the civic infrastructure of America. The public purpose media sector does this by producing high-quality journalism, educational and arts & cultural content. For Public Media this has earned public media's high levels of trust, appreciation and loyalty.

We now have greater opportunities to extend this focus on quality, engagement and value into the digital space. However, borrowing again from Michael Edson of a rhetorical method there are some old constructs to overcome:

Old Construct
The web is another broadcast channel that reaches a broad-based audience.

Current Thinking
The web is a space where people of similar interest and aims connect to work together and create value for themselves and similar communities. The web is much a process of information creation as it is a distribution method.

Old Construct
The web is accessed by the computer on my desk.

Current Thinking
The web is accessed by an array of devices situated all over my home, my work and myself.

Old Construct
As a professional, I create high-quality content. My audience is there to consume it.

Current Thinking
As a professional, I have the judgement and skills to often seed the raw feedstock that can be enhanced, extended and applied to create value for individuals and communities.

Old Construct
My (public media station) schedule page is my most valuable online asset.

Current Thinking
That's because you have not yet offered anything more interesting to 99% of your audience!

If we are to fulfill our DIGITAL public service mission we need to first step back and ask ourselves what do we want to accomplish? What is the specific value we are producing and for what audience? What is the improvement we are bringing to the world that has not been seen before?

It is that last question that starts to address the challenge that Michael Edson laid before us. He challenged public institutions to bring public solutions that have URGENCY and VERVE. Where should we establish our public service media online boldness? What are the great challenges we could be addressing in the lives of our users that have show us so much trust, loyalty and enthusiasm? Are we going to be incrementalists?

How can we capture the art and vision that we put into our documentaries and journalism and turn that to the digital spaces that our country is rapidly inhabiting?

The digital tools of today are so plentiful, so affordable and so powerful that we cannot help ourselves to reach out and turn them from a commercial purpose to something more noble; with a deeper purpose that speaks the the needs and wants of our country.

Perhaps it was best said by Theodore Roosevelt:

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

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