A Sustainable Future for Public Media?

Here are some thoughts I've put together in preparation for a Beyond Broadcast panel discussion that I'll be participating on entitled "Mapping the Money."

Briefly share some observations and suggestions on funding streams/structures for public media. [The idea here is that traditional public media is trying to find its place on the Internet, and in so doing, needs to find a sustainable funding model.]

I probably approach this from a different perspective than those who are actively allocating funds towards this problem or are trying to generate revenue for broadcasters (I help generate community for public broadcasters through our community engagement platform, Public Action). They are seeking a sustainable monetization scheme first and foremost. While I think there are some untested funding models based on Public Media's existing online presence that have promise, I have a slightly different approach to building sustainability online.

In the online world, community and user participation is, in and of itself an asset to be cultivated and social production and interaction are, in a sense, the new online currency. There's a reason that Google and Yahoo! give away their content and applications for free. They are trying to attract people. 

This is not a new idea for "Web 2.0" companies who often don't initially try to monetize. They concentrate first on building up a base of users. For these new web applications and services, there is real value - sometimes in the millions or even billions of dollars - in merely getting users to interact with your product or media in some way. The objective here is to connect and relate to more people in a positive way, whether this means more downloads, more registered users, more redistribution of content, more comments about your product on Twitter, etc.

One of the reasons for focusing on users is the network effect that results from attracting a critical mass of individuals. If your product benefits from more users, which most do at least on the word-of-mouth sharing level, then more users means a better chance of attracting even MORE users. In essence, there is a cascade effect. With this increased number of participants, you ultimately have more choices in how you might eventually choose to monetize things. You certainly have more leverage in working with other organizations and potential partners.

Additionally, individuals have an increasing amount of control over your products, your visibility, your brand perception, and ultimately even how you make money. Traditionally, you made money only by being a centralized business entity - you invested in a means of production and then controlled the revenue stream. This is changing. Distributed individuals now can dictate not only if you succeed, but even how and why - in fact, the public media monetization scheme of the future may be entirely created and controlled by the public. Ultimately, the organizational entities that we know and love today may play little to no role in how public media is funded. An argument for attracting participation might be if only to position ourselves better and be more literate in this for this future.

It is important that public media institutions try to build their online user base before aggressively monetizing their media and services. The best chance of generating meaningful dollars is through increasing our visibility, reach, interactions and relationships. We must figure out how to relate positively to more people online - something that we're notoriously bad at doing. Success will increasingly be dictated by the number of users on the Internet, their opinions, their participation, their goodwill, their willingness to share – none of which are in our control, and the more we try to control, the worse off we'll be.

The problem with an initial focus on monetization is that issues arise when users are seen as something to be mined for cash. This is where you get into trouble. If monetization is an initial goal, it will create an unwelcome environment for engagement and deter the participation that is needed in the first place.

We need to be extremely cautious about monetizing public media – the competition here might just be free and open production, whether organized in a structured gift economy in places like Wikipedia, or truly distributed across blogs and bittorrent. If, like the New York Times, we try to enclose our assets to make money, we will be effectively losing out to those providers who chose to be open and free.