The push for a "PBS for the internet"

·4 min read

The concept of a new media ecosystem that's non-profit, publicly funded and tech-infused is drawing interest in policy circles as a way to shift the power dynamics in today's information wars.

Why it matters: Revamping the structure and role of public media could be part of the solution to shoring up local media, decentralizing the distribution of quality news, and constraining Big Tech platforms' amplification of harmful or false information.

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Flashback: Congress in 1967 authorized federal operating money to broadcast stations through a new agency, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and what is now PBS launched down-the-middle national news programming and successful kids shows like "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" and "Sesame Street." NPR was born in 1971.

  • Despite dust-ups over political interference of national programming and funding, hundreds of local community broadcast stations primarily received grants directly to choose which national programs to support.

Driving the news: A new policy paper from the German Marshall Fund proposes a full revamp of the CPB to fund not just broadcast stations, but a wide range of digital platforms and potential content producers including independent journalists, local governments, nonprofits and educational institutions.

  • The idea is to increase the diversity of local civic information, leaning on anchor institutions like libraries and colleges that communities trust.

  • Beyond content, the plan calls for open protocol standards and APIs to let consumers mix and match the content they want from a wide variety of sources, rather than being at the mercy of Facebook, Twitter or YouTube algorithms.

  • Data would be another crucial component. In order to operate, entities in the ecosystem would have to commit to basic data ethics and rules about how personal information is used.

"It's about power. We don't want government to tell the platforms what to do, but we don't want the platforms to have the power to deplatform" and decide which voices get heard, said Ellen Goodman, co-author of the report, a professor at Rutgers Law School, and founder and director of the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy & Law.

  • "No one thinks the most efficient way to do things was to have a gazillion broadcast stations, but it was to decentralize power. So what would that look like on the internet?"

Reality check: Allowing people to "tune" their own content preference dials could exacerbate filter bubbles.

  • Still, the authors say the involvement of local trusted institutions in the creation and amplification of civic information — from public health updates to local election news — could improve people's overall media diet and exposure "so it's not just a battle of government vs. platform," Goodman said.

The big picture: More broadly, new models of non-profit media are gaining traction.

  • The Local Journalism Sustainability Act takes a different approach to the government grant model. The bill would, for example, give a tax credit to people who donate to nonprofit newsrooms, or to small businesses who buy advertising at a nonprofit outlet.

What they're saying: "There absolutely has to be a much bigger role for nonprofit media, with public media as a subset of that, than there has been in the past," said Steve Waldman, CEO of Report for America.

  • While today's public media predominantly skews toward broadcasting, which requires licenses from the FCC, the modern version can use a variety of funding sources and digital tools that don't rely on the same rigid infrastructure.

  • "Right now a disproportionate amount of CPB money goes to TV," Waldman said. "From a local news point of view, we may need to loosen that up and have the money go to wherever it can strengthen local programming."

In a 2020 article, Waldman also called for "thousands of mini-SPANs," by using streaming technologies to broadcast public meetings the way C-SPAN does for congressional hearings.

Be smart: The debate over misinformation and disinformation is primarily focused on who gets to decide whether content is good or bad — an unwinnable battle.

  • Revamping the underlying infrastructure that amplifies quality content — drawing on trusted local institutions and independent content producers — could give citizens a new source of news that doesn't rely solely on platform algorithms or polarized commercial outlets.

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