Yesterday, I wrote about Pay TV’s submission to the government review of the two national broadcasters, ABC and SBS. Today I want to look at another of the 2,400 submissions; this time a less self-interested but no less well argued one from four prominent Queensland academics. The submission is called “Social Innovation, User-Created Content and the Future of the ABC and SBS as Public Service Media” and was written by Terry Flew, Stuart Cunningham, Axel Bruns, and Jason Wilson.
The submission calls for both ABC and SBS to focus on user created content and redefine themselves as media organisations rather than broadcasters. The latter call is timely as The Inquisitr reveals that a 2:1 majority of Americans watched the Obama inauguration on the Internet rather than TV. The public service remit, argue the authors, should not be confined to specific technology like radio and television but to the services they provide – regardless of platform. They go even further and suggest that now is the ideal time for the ABC and SBS to change their emphasis and become participatory public media harnessing the power of citizen journalism.
The authors are making these recommendations from personal experience and research. Since 2007, all four have been intimately involved in an Australian Research Council Linkage Project called “Investigating Innovative Applications of Digital Media for Participatory Journalism and Citizen Engagement in Australian Public Communication”. The title is a mouthful but in a nutshell it is an investigation into the possibilities of citizen journalism using established industry partners such as SBS and Cisco. The project’s aim was to devise prototypes for “emergent forms of political citizenship and public communication in 21st century Australia".
The project began by creating an aggregated citizen journalism site called youdecide2007.org for the 2007 federal election. They provided tools and resources to enable hyper-local citizen participation in partnership with national organisations and then set to work documenting their findings in the wider international context of citizen journalism and web 2.0 developments. The project also researched attitudes (see attached pdf) within SBS about user-created content, a subject the authors saw as a crucial development for both national broadcasters.
According to the submission, the question of how SBS and ABC respond to changes in the media environment due to technological and cultural reasons is a matter of ‘social innovation’. By this they mean the application of a new idea (or a new application of an existing idea) that delivers lasting social value. The two areas driving social innovation are the technological revolution (as exemplified by the Internet) and cultural activity (increasing the number of voices in a democracy). The two areas are blurring as innovation increasingly comes from the margins and a network economy emerges that is both distributed and co-ordinated in a many-to-many fashion. The often non-commercial aspects of these activities deliver social, cultural, and public value and are mirrored by the public service aspects of the charters of ABC and SBS.
The challenge for the public broadcasters in the 21st century, say the authors, is to continue delivering unique and compelling content while also being conduits for user-led social innovation. To that end, the charters need to redefine the organisations as media rather than broadcasters, providing media services. They should then make the leap to become ‘participatory public service media’ to harness and encourage social content creation. In effect, they want to see ABC and SBS become an Australian digital commons.
Both ABC and SBS already have a strong digital presence and bring considerable strengths to a web 2.0 environment. They are trusted brands with informed audiences, they have access to large networks of media professionals, have good reputations as innovators, and large archives that could be digitised. ABC has already taken some small steps in collaborative culture with its Pool initiative which allows users to share and remix content. ABC has also allowed public feedback in long form in forums such as Opinion and Unleashed. But the authors say they could do more to encourage participation without harming their traditional public broadcasting function.
On the contrary, the authors say that enabling citizen journalism will allow organisational resources to be harnessed better in the traditional functions. The benefits will be in the areas of expanding direct participation in democratic processes and providing local communities, particularly remote ones, with a means of communication. The authors say the ABC should transform its national network of local bureaux into hyperlocal hubs for content created by local communities. As the experience with youdecide2007 showed the researchers, citizen media provided an outlet for the stories of remote communities, disadvantaged groups, and minority political opinion in a way “more traditional media sources could not match”. Flew, Cunningham, Bruns and Wilson’s submission is one of the more radical, imaginative and exciting visions for Australian public media among the 2,400 voices and deserves some serious merit. If ABC and SBS won’t provide the platform, it will simply go elsewhere. But if it does, the nation will be the loser.