Building Capacity for Social Justice in Web 2.0: How to Foster a Public Interest "Triple Play"

There is an important opportunity to take advantage of the significant changes transforming the U.S. (and global) media system. A ubiquitous digital environment will readily connect the majority of the public to interactive networks, via PC, TV, and phone. An investment in time and resources now can bring long-term public interest benefits, including the emergence of new and economically sustainable, independent sources of local and national news, civic and cultural content. Communities of interest would be created, also at the local and national levels, helping to create new vehicles supporting positive social change. Programming owned and controlled by both persons of color and women [and others], who have been marginalized by today’s media, would be a critical part of this landscape. Here are 10 areas for action and discussion designed to help create a more democratic media future for the U.S.

1. Media conglomerates, such as Comcast and Verizon, call their business model for our media future a “triple-play.” They and other media companies recognize that it will be necessary to reach the public wherever they are, especially via the “platforms” serving mobile devices (cell phones), interactive (digital) cable/satellite TV, and broadband-connected PCs. Those concerned about promoting a more democractic society should be encouraged to provide ongoing, sustainable content for the rapidly evolving U.S. digital media infrastructure. Proactive action is required at this important time of transition in the media market. Instead of looking back years from now and complaining about lack of access or attention–as we have done with broadcast radio and TV, for example–we should make early strategic entry to shape the market to better serve democratic goals.

2. The U.S. electronic media system has already had a profound impact on youth. They are engaged in new forms of media consumption, including participating in online “communities.” Commercial digital media systems will have a major impact on the psychological identities, social formation and values of young people as well as the general public (given the immersive, interactive and even “virtual” nature of the new media, much of it hyper-commercial). The public interest must be able to “compete” in this arena for attention if we are to effectively influence both young voters and future generations.

3. We will soon be living in a ubiquitous and connected electronic media environment. Mobile devices will connect the vast majority of the U.S. public to the Internet, where commerce, work, and politics will be transacted. It is essential that public interest advocates successfully stake out the mobile marketplace at this pivotal stage.

4. Many billions of dollars in revenues will be generated via this new media system, in the form of advertising, subscriptions, other services, etc. The new media landscape will be predominantly a commercial one. There is an opportunity to create business models for progressive, public interest content–at the community, state, and national market levels–that can generate ongoing revenues. Such sustainable business models are necessary to support the creation of serious digital content–news, culture, and advocacy. Profits are also needed to help pay for the organizing work promoting social change that must be done. The new system provides an opportunity to create the funding for a wide range of activities that doesn’t rely long-term on foundations and other donors.

5. A major area of online market growth will be local “social network” communities (a la a MySpace or Facebook that provide for information and connections among friends). There is a market opening for public interest voices to create services that provides community-focused political and social content. It can also make money through the selling of content and advertising. Why shouldn’t those concerned about the public interest in the U.S. financially benefit from the economic decisions of like-minded people? Otherwise, the revenues from this market will go elsewhere, outside of the public interest sphere.

6. Local community communications will be a major area of business growth. For example, online local “search” for neighborhood services, provided by a Google or Yahoo!, will generate huge revenues. Public interest-oriented services should act now to make sure they are visible and that their offerings are effective–via PC’s and the smaller mobile screens.

7. Interactive advertising will be a defining application of the new digital economy. It will generate huge profits, and be the basic business model when delivering content services. A data-collection and personalized marketing system has been developed for online communications that will only grow in effectiveness in the years to come. Issues related to both privacy and over-commercialization should be addressed. However, it is also important to be realistic and take advantage of such changes that are out of the public’s control. Public interest groups should consider embracing advertising, but do so in a way that respects privacy, as part of a socially responsible model for doing business. This can help set such content apart and give it a market advantage.

8. Only via a market intervention in our media system during this critical transition period can we hope to make progress in trying to change the attitude of the public about key issues. There are unlikely to be meaningful new public policies on media ownership. Even if so-called network neutrality passes Congress under the Democrats, it will not open up distribution of our content on cell phones or interactive cable TV’s, for example. We will likely also see more consolidation of ownership, with newspapers, TV stations, and major online properties in fewer hands. Consequently, we must employ a strategy that doesn’t depend primarily on public interest media policies to ensure the public has access to diverse, independent, and in-depth sources of information.

9. There is also a market opportunity–and political necessity–to foster the creation of content services owned by women and people of color. They have been largely left out of ownership of the current system of broadcast/cable. But there is no reason why we can’t have more equitable ownership of diverse content services over mobile, PC, and interactive TV networks.

10. Funders have an opportunity to pave the path to the future by seeding a variety of pilot projects designed to identify effective digital content formats and business models.

Some stats:
Interactive ad revenues around more than $16 billion in 2006, $26 billion in 2010.
Mobile ad revenues in U.S. are $100 million now, and will be $1 billion in 2010.
Local Internet ad spending in U.S. is now at $1.3 billion, and expected to be $2.8 billion by 2008.
Interactive TV revenues (now at $2 billion) are expected to be at $27 billion by 2010. The majority of revenues will come from subscriptions to content.
Broadband on-demand content market in U.S. ($2.4 billion at present), will be $9 billion by 2010.

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

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