Knight Silicon Valley: Local Media Fault Lines

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Editor’s note: This is being posted for Josh Wilson, who is one of the guest bloggers today at the Knight Commission’s community forum at Google.

I want more from this panel. The fault lines and fragmentation of the
Bay Area’s media ecology have been made clear, but I’m not sure the
gaps can be bridged.

Linjun Fan of the Albany Today blog, and Raj Jayadev of Silicon Valley
De-Bug (a marvelous, youth-focused labor organizing project) — they
both did a marvelous job of defining and describing how new media has
radically empowered disadvantaged or undercapitalized communities.

In the former case, Fan’s blog fills a vital community information
needs in a town where, she says, there isn’t even a local paper of
consequence.

I interviewed Jayadev myself many years ago on KUSF-FM, a San
Francisco community radio station, about the underground tactics his
group used to organize the janitors and assembly line workers in
Silicon Valley’s software mills.

Those stories were amazing — I still have the audio somewhere, and
will dig it up for the online archives — and his inclusion on the
Knight panel was astute, given his connection to the needs of the
starkly disenfranchised demographic of largely migrant laborers who do
the lowest-paid and least-fulfilling tasks of the information economy.

He represented those themes on the Knight panel — and like Fan, he
demonstrated how directly media empowerment can activate, engage and
even BUILD communities, particularly those that previously have been
cut off from the media circuitry.

At this point, however, the plate tectonics and fault lines come into play.

HOPING FOR A SHAKEUP

As Jim Bettinger of Stanford’s Knight Journalism Fellowship program
noted, fears about the decline of the professional, commercial news
industry remain acute.

And while new media is, clearly, a viable hope, its still hasn’t
overcome one major challenge: Its inability to support media economies
of the scale and comprehensiveness once expected of local daily papers.

Dave Satterfield, the managing editor of the San Jose Mercury News,
affirmed that dismal trend on the print side, by noting the ongoing
retreat of his paper’s reporting staff, as well as of the depth and
comprehensiveness of his local coverage.

He concluded his comments by essentially calling out for help,
restating the day’s oft-heard Dickens quotation that it is “the best
of times and the worst of times” for media and democracy in the Bay
Area.

His gloom was offset by George Sampson, the news and program director
of the local radio station KLIV, and quite bullish in that role.

Perhaps more at home in the lower-budget world of local information
radio, as opposed to the daily-print landscape of leveraged buyouts
and massive accompanying debt, Sampson spoke of hiring reporters who
grew up in the region, and who know all its quirks and crannies and
regional pronunciations.

Indeed, his take on “hyperlocal” journalism anchored the tradition of
extremely local coverage not in the still-emergent blogosphere, but in
the old-fashioned world of radio carrier frequencies, which is a damn
cheap medium that requires neither satellites nor fiber-optic and
cable infrastructure to effectively reach diverse communities within
very specific geographic regions.

MEDIA AND SOCIAL DIVISIONS

Now, an extraordinary contrast is revealed. It is the fascinating to
consider the wide disparity between KQED, the foremost public
broadcasting outlet for the entire Bay Area, and a small station such
as KLIV-AM.

Linda O’Bryon, chief content office at KQED, spoke broadly about unmet
information needs, about activating ad covering interest groups with
the Bay Area, such as scientists, to educate and inspire the populace.

During the Q&A section she also asserted a deep interest in more
effectively reaching broad cross-sections of the Bay Area community as
well as drilling down into those communities and their subgroups.

My question is — can KQED fulfill this role? As a massively
centralized and massively traditional public media outlet, KQED is
remarkable for its paucity of relevance to the breadth and depth of
the Bay Area’s communities.

A scan of the nighty lineup on the TV station reveals little that
could appeal beyond the stereotype of the public-media donor.

A spin through the radio dial to the KQED call letters reveals the
usual array of wonky talk shows, some compelling indeed, but many
simply recirculating a usual-suspect circuit of commentators,
announcers and issues — all anchored by the ubiquitous, authoritative
but definitively remote, non-local and unaccountable voices of that
NPR capital ship, All Things Considered.

It’s NOT that these programs are irredeemiably aloof, or stodgily
missing the boat all the time.

Quite the contrary — there are times when you absolutely have to tune
in Michael Krasny’s Forum, to get the most vital and urgent
conversation on local issues.

But despite this, there’s a lack of stickiness to KQED’s programming
that simply will not serve to pull in and keep around people who don’t
already match, again, the NPR/PBS archetype.

All the funding in the world, all the high profile initiatives and
astute strategic planning matters not a whit if the Bay Area’s biggest
public-media dinosaur refuses to evolve, and make itself as relevant
to underserved communities as Fan’s and Jayadev’s projects have.

BRIDGING THE GAPS

One of the panelists noted that new media is essentially
collaborative, and that the old, monopolist model of running a
commercial news operation may not be possible online, on the same
scale as the old print economy.

Bad news for the Merc!

And this may also be bad news for KQED. I’m told that of its $50
million annual budget, only $5 million is actually from donor pledges.

That funding gap is the embodiment of public media’s relevance
challenge. It speaks to me of a profound disconnect between the
organization and the bulk of the population it would serve.

It also represents a KQED’s opportunity — indeed, the opportunity for
any large-scale media outlet:

Make yourself relevant. Know your communities. Respect their needs.

Look across the informational schisms in your culture that separate
rich media from poor (or lower-budget anyway), and learn how the
communities represented by those media differ, and are similar.

Finally, there is the closing of the schism, which represents nothing
less than civic enfranchisement across communities.

The big media, the rich media, even as it struggles for profit and
relevance, needs to connect in meaningful ways to the producers of
local media — like Fan, like Jayadev, like Sampson — who have a
profound sense of place and demographic need.

As Jayadev noted, the Internet is a gateway drug for young people who
are hungry for relevant information about their lives — but the
technology itself is not the point. It’s just a tool.

The challenge before the Merc, before KQED, is to pay attention to
these needs, and respond to them in an an authentic fashion.

One audiencemember said that old media may need to simply absorb new
media, presumeably to make the most of what’s working online — video,
photo galleries, blogs, etc. — but it’s not just the tools and
widgets of new media that are succeeding.

It’s the simple, unadulterated relevance of messages delivered by
Albany Today, by Silicon Valley De-Bug, by the local commercial outlet
KLIV-AM.

You can’t do that with a focus group. Market research will only get
you so far.

To really make the connection, you have to live in the communities,
immerse yourself in this life on the ground, and respect the issues
that don’t appeal as readily to your advertisers and big-ticket donors.

I just don’t know traditional media as it exists today can do that.

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