The Secrets of Public Media Embracing Change in the Digital Age

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Sep 07, 2011



In addition to using new technologies to deliver content, public radio is using them to acquire it. The PRI co-produced program The Takeway was given the 2010 Knight-Batten Award for Innovations in Journalism for its Sourcing Through Texting project, an initiative that encouraged local community members to text journalists information in response to specific questions. Miller explains, "As a texter myself, it became very clear to me that it was, from a communication technology standpoint, one of the most ubiquitous ways that we could actually engage people as a part of our content."

After an agreement with Mobile Commons, a mobile messaging platform producer, and with the help of the WDET radio station, community members in southwest Detroit texted tips regarding illegal truck traffic in neighborhoods.This information that was later used in WDET reports and national stories. For Miller, this was "an example of how literally you could ascertain a story because of having a different conversation with people. Many people really want to help and want to be a part of the solution, and I think part of the opportunity with technology is that you just have to let people ask."

APM is using its Public Insight Network (PIN), a platform for people to share their knowledge and insights with journalists, to further engage users in the news-gathering process. Launched in 2003, the network currently has more than 45 participating newsrooms nationwide, many of which joined in the last 18 months. It provides APM and member newsroom journalists a searchable database of 107,000 sources who submit information through web queries. APM uses PIN "to reach into the community and grab people out so their voices are not just represented but our reporting is a lot better," says
APM's Alvarado.

Initiatives such as Texting Through Sourcing and PIN are influencing the way content is attained. These projects are "definitely, if not changing the journalism, just changing the breadth of possible stories and journalists' access. There's a power in technology now to just blindly ask the crowd a question without necessarily knowing what you are going to get out of it," says Phelps.


As Schiller warned, the future will likely bring many more technological challenges to every media sector, but public radio, especially, is prepared. At NPR, "we're paying a lot of attention to the evolution of connected devices. A number of car manufacturers are now rolling out cars that are connected to the internet, so we're paying a lot of attention to these spaces that previously didn't exist," says Yoch. Media enthusiasts agree that in-car internet is the most imminent threat to public radio. PEJ's Rosenstiel notes that "the introduction of internet radio into cars certainly poses a new challenge that erodes that stability of AM/FM listening," but it may not be the end-all for public radio the way some suggest. "The car has long been the last bastion of public radio. I think that a lot of the people who say that it is doomsday for public radio might be overstating it, but I would agree that this is a pretty big challenge that public media has ahead of it," explains Phelps.

Though new means of distribution will have media outlets vying for audience attention more than ever, radio as a medium is something that PRI's Miller feels will never lose its place in the media culture. "Audio has a way of really engaging the mind, but it is ultimately a multitasking medium, and that's powerful. So the boxes may shift over time, the exact technologies may shift over time, but the ultimate core storytelling of hearing somebody's voice expressing an idea or story that is compelling will remain part of the lexicon forever."

The future is unclear, but there is no doubt on the part of public media organizations that these technologies will certainly be a part of it. "I don't think there is any way to imagine a public media without these tools," explains Alvarado. "Public broadcasting, now that it moves into this super-connected phase, has an opportunity to provide a service across the board in ways that are very powerful and important."

American Public Media


Jacobs Media

Mobile Commons

National Public Radio

Nieman Journalism Lab

Pew Research Center

Project for Excellence in Journalism

Public Broadcasting Service

Public Insight Network

Public Radio International



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