Hurley Symposium Highlights Public Media Innovations to Connect Communities
Having survived the most serious threat to federal funding in public broadcasting’s 44-year history, the heads of public broadcasting’s leading organizations aren’t quite ready to celebrate. The 2012 federal budget debate lies ahead and, along with it, the need to continue defending the federal dollars that support the operations of so many local public stations across the country. As if this isn’t enough, public media also face an array of additional challenges, notably the need to raise additional money to invest in building capacity for more serious, in-depth journalism, reach out to new segments of the community and expand to new digital platforms.
The chief executive officers of PBS, NPR, American Public Media and the Association of Public Television Stations came together this week to discuss how they are dealing with these issues as part of the University of Missouri School of Journalism’s Curtis B. Hurley Symposium — “The Future of Public Broadcasting: Innovating to Connect Communities” — at the National Press Club. The aim of the Symposium was to gain a better understanding of the transition that needs to take place for public broadcasting to meet its mission to serve communities. This transition is the subject of Rethinking Public Media: More Local, More Inclusive, More Interactive, a recent white paper by Barbara Cochran, the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Missouri, who moderated the symposium.
Opening the symposium, PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer called for greater investment in serious journalism across all public media outlets. He also emphasized the need to create new partnerships and collaborations to support high quality journalism, including partnering with commercial outlets. Lehrer’s remarks support the public media recommendation of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in Democracy.
Sustaining Support on the Long Road Ahead
The fierce rhetoric surrounding the debate over federal funding for the current fiscal year (FY 2011) gave the appearance that public broadcasting is a partisan issue. Indeed, when the House voted in March on a bill to eliminate federal funding for NPR, members voted along party lines, with only seven Republicans crossing the aisle to join Democrats who overwhelmingly voted against the measure. So, with the Republican-controlled House on record to eliminate federal funding and the President’s own bipartisan budget commission having recommended that funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting be zeroed out, how did funding get restored in the final budget resolution passed by Congress? And what does this mean for the funding battles yet to come?
Public broadcasting clearly enjoys more support across the country than the recent debates and media coverage over the funding battle and the controversies swirling around NPR would suggest. Patrick Butler, CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations, whose extensive experience includes working in the commercial media sector and government service in two Republican administrations, said, “it’s not a partisan issue.” He noted the extent to which local stations rely on federal funding to sustain their operations, and he described the strategic alliance that has developed which ultimately led to a successful outcome this spring. The forces opposed to public broadcasting were outnumbered, he pointed out, although there’s much more work ahead. “This is going to be a continuing battle for us for quite some time,” said Butler.
Looking ahead, Caryn Mathes, general manager of Washington-based public radio station WAMU, expressed concern over the differences she sees between the recent attempts to defund and past efforts. “The sustained nature of the attack is different,” she said, pointing out the random bills introduced in Congress that specifically target CPB or NPR funding, the continuing resolution for FY 2011, the 2012 budget debate and proposals to eliminate the tax deduction for contributions to public stations amounting to a sustained assault that public media have scarcely seen before. Her main worry, she said, is keeping public broadcasting’s constituency mobilized over a long period of time.
Recent surveys show that this constituency is not the narrow slice of high-income liberals that populist-stoking conservatives have caricatured in recent months. Bill Kling, CEO of Minnesota-based American Public Media, cited research showing that over half the American public accesses public media content every month. Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, cited a recent bipartisan survey(http://www.pbs.org/about/media/about/cms_page_media/319/PBS%20Survey%20Toplines.pdf) which found overwhelming public support for continued federal funding for public broadcasting.
These figures are certainly reassuring to the leaders of public media, although there are other numbers out recently that are cause for cautious concern: a new CNN/Opinion Research poll shows that a majority of Americans believe that public broadcasting receives a much larger share of the federal budget than it actually does. Most Americans think that CPB accounts for 1% of the total federal budget, when in reality it receives a much smaller percentage, about .00014 percent. Politico has good coverage of the survey findings at http://www.politico.com/blogs/onmedia/0411/Poll_Americans_way_off_on_public_broadcasting_funding.html.
Innovations in the Digital Realm
The second half of the symposium featured 11 innovators in public broadcasting who are developing new types of content, experimenting with new digital methods and outlets for delivery and engaging new segments of the community and new communities of interest. Panelists included
- • Jessica Clark, Director of the Future of Public Media Project at American University
• Linda Fantin, Director of American Public Media’s Public Insight Network
• Elahe Izadi, blogger for DCentric.org
• Jacquie Jones, Executive Director of the National Black Programming Consortium which recently launched the Public Media Corps
• Dick Meyer, Executive Editor for News at NPR
• Hari Sreenivasan, Correspondent and Director of Digital Partnerships at PBS NewsHour
• Janet Saidi, News Director of KBIA-FM in Columbia, Missouri
• Mark Stencel, Managing Editor for Digital News at NPR
• Kay Summer, Director of Marketing and Communications at WAMU-FM
• Laura Van Straaten, Editor in Chief and Executive Producer of MetroFocus at WNET-TV in New York
• Linda Winslow, Executive Producer of PBS NewsHour
Watch the Symposium, which was recorded by C-Span, at http://www.c-span.org/Events/A-Look-at-The-Future-of-Public-Broadcasting/10737421113/.
Read the white paper, Rethinking Public Media: More Local, More Inclusive, More Interactive, at http://www.knightcomm.org/rethinking-public-media/.