September 8, 2008

Knight Silicon Valley: Local Media Fault Lines

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 great 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’s colleagues Shana White and Edward Nieto myself many years ago on KUSF-FM, a San Francisco community radio station, about the underground tactics DeBug 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 bottom-rung work of the information economy.

He represented those themes on the Knight panel — and like Fan, he demonstrated how directly media can activate, engage and build communities for those previously cut off from the media circuitry.

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


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

And while new media is, clearly, a viable hope, its still hasn’t overcome one major challenge: Its inability to support journalism enterprises of the scale 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 enthusiastically of hiring reporters who grew up in the region, and who know all its quirks, 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.


Linda O’Bryon, chief content office at KQED, spoke broadly about unmet information needs, about tapping the interesting and vital elements of the Bay Area, such as the scientific community, 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 as well as drilling down into those communities and their subgroups.

But can KQED fulfill this role? As a centralized, traditional public-media outlet, KQED is remarkable for its lower level of relevance to the breadth and depth of the Bay Area populace.

A scan of the nighty lineup on the TV station reveals little that could appeal beyond the stereotype of the public-media donor — Pete Seeger, Pavaroti, John Denver, a Robert Kennedy retrospective and Charlie Rose at midnight.

A spin through the radio dial to the KQED call letters reveals the classic array of wonky talk shows, some compelling indeed, but many simply recirculating a usual-suspect circuit of commentators, announcers and issues — and 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 stodgy. You gotta have Michael Krasny on Forum, hosting vital conversation on local hot-button topics. You gotta admire a show like SPARK, with its focus on local arts.

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 in the vicinity of the NPR/PBS archetype.

What will it take to get the Bay Area’s biggest public-media dinosaur to evolve? To reach beyond its traditional base and safe programming boundaries, and make itself as relevant to underserved communities as Fan’s and Jayadev’s projects have become?

This is more than an issue of funding or strategic planning. It’s about the orientation of the media enterprise itself.

In fact, I don’t actually know if KQED can evolve, and that perhaps the time is ripe for some fresh ideas about what exactly is meant by “public media” in the first place.


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 and take chances on them.

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

The closing of that schism 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 authentic fashion.

One audience member said that old media may need to simply absorb new media, 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, by the savvy and enterprising vloggers and podcasters and suchlike.

You can’t get that with a focus group. Market research will only take 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/serve the information needs that don’t appeal as readily to your advertisers and big-ticket donors.

I just don’t know if traditional media can do that.