Digital Media Marketplace: The Next Frontier for Media Reform

On Friday, several thousand U.S. media activists will converge in Memphis to attend the Free Press group's "National Conference for Media Reform." Much of the conference is focused on current and upcoming public policy battles designed to help make this country's media system more democratic. Right now there is greater interest in media policy than we have seen since the 1960s.

Among the key concerns is fighting against the Federal Communications Commission's current plan to permit greater consolidation of our nation's newspapers and broadcast stations; battling Congress over the broadband Internet (network neutrality); and highlighting the lack of ownership of media outlets by women and people of color. These are important topics, but the real action it requires must take place outside of the D.C. beltway.

With network neutrality legislation now being introduced in the new Democratic-controlled Congress [VIDEO], it is likely that many attending the Free Press conference will leave Memphis feeling that fighting for its passage should be the progressive media movement's top priority. After all, hundreds of thousands of activists, bloggers and media makers just successfully fought to a standstill plans by the former Republican-controlled Congress to pass legislation giving phone and cable companies greater control over the future of the Net in the United States.

But our most urgent task is to proactively intervene to shape -- on behalf of progressive values -- the emerging commercial digital communications system. This will require a strategic intervention to create sustainable "new media" services that help harness the power of digital media to better promote social justice. Our digital media system will have the capability to help "define" political and social "reality" for the majority of Americans. Unless progressives can seriously "program" the new media -- in every community and across the nation -- we will face even greater obstacles promoting our agendas.

Critical moment of media transition

Urging that activists focus on a commercial communications strategy may sound strange coming from someone who has devoted much of his adult life to public interest media policy. But it's important to be strategic at this critical moment of media transition. A powerful and ubiquitous system delivering personalized and interactive content is emerging. Soon most of us will be connected to an "always-on" media system of communications -- via the principal "platforms" of PCs, cell phones and increasingly digital TV sets.

It's this new system we should be concerned about, as it will have the capability to influence the attitudes and behaviors of the majority of Americans. As Wall Street and the major media companies recognize, the distinctions between broadcast and cable TV channels and the Internet are beginning to disappear. The commercial media industry, fueled by the hundreds of billions spent each year by advertisers and marketers and also backed by Wall Street, is helping create what will be our new media reality.

They understand the power and the potential profits from this country's (and much of the world's) "converged" media system. They have strategically invested in this new system to help ensure they can play a leading role in the evolution of broadband (and reap the many billions in profits).

For example, there were more than $72 billion worth of entertainment and media mergers alone in 2006. That followed a spate of similar deals between 2004-2005 worth $244 billion, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (involving the content, distribution and technology sectors). The same study noted that there have also been 2,200 corporate alliances in the media, telecommunication, and technology sector since 2001. We all know that Rupert Murdoch's Fox acquired MySpace in 2005 for around $600 million (in a deal ultimately involving Google). Google itself spent more than $1 billion last year to scoop up YouTube (all of this to better serve the interests of advertisers, by the way).

But not much is known about the myriad corporate alliances designed to help determine our digital destiny, with giants such as Cisco, H-P, Microsoft, Disney/ABC, GE/NBC, Apple, Yahoo and Intel in various partnerships. Although the new media, including podcasts, broadband videos, and RSS feeds, now offer an explosion of alternatives, media diversity may really be on a short digital leash.

Ten companies earned nearly three-quarters of all Internet ad revenues in the U.S. in 2005, according to a November article in Advertising Age. "TV's Big Four environment has turned into the Big Four online, with Google, Yahoo, MSN and AOL dwarfing other online players," the trade publication reported. It explained that although "[t] here has been much talk of how the democratizing web has opened a brave new long tail, [the Internet] seems to be shaping up to look a lot more like the broadcast world, with a handful of players dominating marketers spending."

Perhaps the most revealing statistic for progressives is that more than $1.5 billion has also been invested by venture capitalists in Web 2.0 social network startup companies over the last two years. Such social network sites potentially pose both an opportunity and a challenge for the progressive agenda. Social networking sites are based on the notion of connecting users to a community, including the sharing of personal information, opinions, photos, videos, etc. Many will become key outlets for advertising and marketing, while also likely serving as important places for organizing and politics.

What will be the impact to the public interest if entrepreneurs and corporate investors who don't embrace a social change agenda operate the principal sites in a community and the nation? What will happen to the progressive agenda if it can't meaningfully reach out to young people, who view their own identities through a digital media prism. Advertisers will be focusing all their collective economic power to target young people to become passionate consumers. Without an alternative approach, much of the digital media I fear will further drive impulses fostering a narcissistic (and politically impotent) culture.

But should the profits from Web 2.0 and the like go to progressives, especially to networks of activists and media makers? Yes, they should and must. After all, the public will be buying products from these sites, many of whom are consumers who might support some part of the public interest agenda. We cannot afford to permit all of the revenues generated by digital media to leave our community. Progressive causes require a serious business model to help support what will be likely a very long effort to secure social and economic justice (let alone peace!). It cannot count on foundation handouts, donations from the well-to-do, or even personal support (such as viewer/user pledges).

Progressives will need a steady influx of cash to help pay for all the organizing that must be done and also to underwrite the costs for multimedia production. Ultimately our new media system is about the production and distribution of multimedia content. If we are going to change the hearts and minds of the public, the key 21st Century place to do so will be via digital media. That's why it's urgent now that we place ourselves squarely within the emerging digital enterprise to help harness its media and financial power for social change.

Imagine, a progressive Web 2.0 service owned and controlled by low-income residents of New Orleans. It could be a powerful independent media force serving as an agent for justice, while offering a variety of programming revealing what the mainstream media continues to ignore. Such a service would also be a place for community conversation, and a networking hub that could help generate revenues. It would help make more visible, especially through local online search services, the array of progressive voices.

At this point with U.S. media, the only way we can ensure that women, persons of color, and low-income Americans control electronic outlets is to encourage ownership of such new media content services. Public policy cannot, sadly, play a serious role here to enable such diverse ownership of broadband content.

There is another pressing need for a swift progressive response. Our present media system of broadcasting, cable and newspapers cannot be counted on to effectively inform the public. From its failure to criticize and expose the Bush administration's lies during the runup to the Iraq war, to its failure to cover the post-Katrina tragedy in the Gulf, to the overall absence of coverage on the plight of the poor, to ignoring recent plans to scrap habeas corpus protections -- our mainstream news system cannot be relied on to promote a civil society.

Yet the stakes for our country -- and the world -- have never been higher. If we are going to promote a society that is just, we will need to build a sustainable media infrastructure of local and national progressive multimedia programmers. The burden is now on us to create the kind of media system we want -- not through policy, but through a focused and strategic marketplace intervention.

I'm not saying to totally forsake public policy. Fighting for network neutrality is still important to ensure that the phone and cable companies won't have the total control they desire. Critical too, are policies that enable every low-income American to have free broadband access. Policies are also necessary to protect online privacy, support non-commercial communications, check advertising abuses, and protect community communications (such as public access and municipal wireless).

If progressives can successfully create programming for cell phones and digital cable and satellite TV, they will also likely need some policy help to pressure the gatekeepers to carry it. But achieving any or all of these goals will be a tough battle, given the corrupt nature of U.S. communications politics (especially with the golden revolving door between the FCC, Congress, and the media lobby).

The government -- even under the Democrats -- isn't going to intervene in the short-term to shape the media marketplace so it truly supports democracy. But it's exactly the short-term -- the next five to 10 years -- that we must be concerned about, as the digital media system fully matures into a serious force in our lives.

Much of media reform activism has been a rear guard action to hold back the growth of communications giants, attempting to provide some measure of diversity and accountability in programming. Activists such as myself knew we had to keep the major broadcast, cable companies, newspaper chains, and phone companies from buying up every media outlet in sight. We also recognized that without a fight -- including political pressure -- these media giants would ignore the public interest.

But the new digital media system is structured in a way where policy solutions are less likely to have the kind of impact that can make a real positive difference in our lives. Backed by Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Silicon Valley and Hollywood, much of our new media will be a digital version of Neal Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death" (or Mark Crispin Miller's aptly put "national entertainment state").

Unless we compete to offer the public meaningful alternatives, such attractions will occupy the public's attention. What we need is for progressive funders and others to invest in a sort of new media "Marshall Plan." Social network and new media pilot projects, especially at the community level, should be supported.

We need to explore all kinds of models, including private ownership, community control, co-operatives, etc., to see what may work best. Establishing services which respect consumer privacy and support a serious public interest agenda could give us a key advantage over more traditional consumerist approaches.

The new digital communications system will give the country more outlets and different business models, and help create new personal behaviors for using media. It's time to fashion out of this emerging marketplace a communications infrastructure that will help us leave a positive media legacy -- along with a more progressive political future for the next generation.


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