Talking US media policy with Tom Glaisyer and Jessica Clark

Tom Glaisyer (TG) and Jessica Clark (JC), from the public policy institute and think tank New America Foundation, were recently in the UK as part of their work for the Open Society Foundation’s Mapping Digital Media initiative. They spent a whirlwind day in the UK meeting representatives from the Department for Culture Media and Sport, NESTA, and the Ofcom English Advisory Committee. I interviewed them for a short piece to go on Ofcom’s Intranet, exploring some of the key media policy issues in the US at present. The text of this interview is below.

What interests you about the UK communications scene at present?

TG:  There are two interesting things going on in the UK right now. One is the push for greater broadband and the other is the proposal for local television. We’ve been reflecting on those proposals in the shadow of the US experience, both with low powered television, which is not a big player [in the US], and public access cable which has historically been an important bastion of free speech and community content. We have had some frank and interesting discussions with many people about the lessons that can be taken from the US experience. 

What are the main things the UK can learn from the US?

TG:  When we look at truly local stations they fall into two categories; one is the local public and commercial stations that are quite formal and professional and then the local community focused stations both in the low powered radio space and cable access realms.

The lesson is that when you get to the local level you replace dollars with community engagement. The success of the best of those community stations are as a result of tight community engagement, real leadership and multi platform approach spanning everything from media literacy programmes online and offline, through theatres, radio, television and internet platforms. 

JC:  I’ve been particularly interested to hear that there are very similar conversations happening around business models. There’s a lot of frustration and questions on how to generate enough support for local media, whether that’s broadcast, newspaper or online.

There are conversations around innovation and the discussions we had at NESTA were very resonant of several conversations that we have both led and participated in over the last few years. These explored how to identify what the new gaps are, given the surge of the different kinds of media and the new accessibility, and how people can be incentivised and supported in inventing new things when there’s not necessarily a clear business model in place.

Are these big policy issues being discussed widely in the States?

TG:  In the community media space, the recent passage of the Local Community Radio Act will open up additional low powered stations in areas that otherwise would not have been able to find spectrum given the prior rules. There’s lots of energy around that.

There is also a set of people thinking about what public access television is in a “YouTube” age and how that plays out given the challenges to the business model and the fees. The income they survive on is a franchise fee from cable operators and those are under pressure.

JC:  There’s also a broad ranging discussion around the so called “crisis in journalism” and there’s some real debate about whether journalism is healthy and more exciting than ever, and that the crisis is really an advertising issue.

Or whether the crisis is in newspapers rather than news per se? How are things changing in the US?

TG:  People are beginning to embrace that news is now as much about data as it is about narrative. It requires a different but overlapping set of skills from those journalists required in the past. Is journalism solely a formal profession or is it something that audiences can contribute to? 

JC:  There’s a generalised decoupling of various news functions and there’s a wholesale re-examination of whether those functions naturally belong together or whether they can be repackaged and performed in different ways.

The other thing interesting thing is thinking about relationships between policy and practice. People are trying to learn from experiments globally, and apply those models, even if they are not exactly parallel. 

TG:  In a moment where policy moves slower than technology, the opportunity is sometimes at the institutional level to hack the content and remake media. This is a glass half full take on what is a very unstable moment. 

Those things aside, are there any other big topics that dominate the US policy and regulatory space?

TG:  We’ve had the recent merger between NBC and Comcast. That went through with minimal public interest conditions being placed upon it. There’s been the recent push back on the AT&T and T-Mobile merger. 

The other perennial debate is around funding of Public Service Broadcasting by the federal government. This has been contentious from the moment the first dollar was spent. In an age of austerity it is under examination at present, and it is likely to be contentious for ever. 

JC:  There’s also a real fear that draconian copyright measures will threaten the most vibrant and promising social media platforms. There’s a very strong pushback right now on that issue.

We’re having the same debate here, even though our markets are very different and people consume things in a different ways. There was the Hargreaves Review very recently and a sense that unless we update our IP and copyright regime then we may be hindering economic growth.

JC:  In the US, we have various fair use laws that we’re hoping people will continue to use to their full extent to keep them being infringed upon by corporate interest.

In addition, there is a tremendous amount of attention being paid around the globe to social media. People are using social media to press back against governments that are keeping their media systems closed and even just for social movements in the US and elsewhere. 

TG:  It’s important to think about the balance between the rights of consumers and the rights of the creators of content. 

Tell me about it, that’s something we try and do every day!

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