Creating a public square in a challenging media age


Article Highlights

  • 4 challenges of the current era of #media and communications technologies

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  • New delivery modes for newspapers would reduce or eliminate expenses

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  • Citizens need more access to government information

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Executive Summary

Much has changed in media and communications technologies over the past fifty years. Today we face the dual problems of an increasing gap in access to these technologies between the "haves" and "have nots" and fragmentation of the once-common set of facts that Americans shared through similar experiences with the media. This white paper lays out four major challenges that the current era poses and proposes ways to meet these challenges and boost civic participation.

Challenge One: Keeping Newspapers Alive Until They Are Well

A large part of the average newspaper budget comprises costs related to printing, bundling, and delivery. The development of new delivery models could greatly reduce (or perhaps eliminate) these expenses. Potential new models use screen technology advancement (using new tools like the iPad) and raise subscription revenue online. To ensure the continuation of newspapers, we make the following recommendations:

1. Alter antitrust laws to make it easier for newspapers to make the transition to new models. Rigidity in industry operations has raised costs. Newspapers would benefit from looser rules and more flexibility. News organizations should be able to work together to collect payment for content access.

"One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in getting quality information to citizens is producing and disseminating information relevant to the community."

2. Implement government subsidies. With high costs of operation, the newspaper industry should be eligible for lower postal rates and exemptions from sales taxes.

3. Change the tax status of papers, making them tax-exempt in some fashion. This could involve categorizing newspapers as "benefit" or "flexible purpose" corporations, or treating them as for-profit businesses that have a charitable or educational purpose.

Challenge Two: Universal Access and Adequate Spectrum

The Obama administration wants to provide universal broadband and expand fiber-optic networks. Given the costs associated with these two goals, how do we make this happen?

1. Find public-private partnerships. Graham Richard, former mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana, was at the forefront of government leaders in the expansion of broadband and fiber optics. He partnered with Verizon to implement a FiOS network in Fort Wayne that lowered government costs, while simultaneously improving services. Verizon paid the costs of putting up the network while the city expedited the permits and process. Both benefited. This should serve as an example for future public-private partnerships.

2. Use ongoing construction projects in communities to add fiber-optic cable and expand wiring. The "dig once" bill would require all federally funded transportation projects to add underground broadband conduit. This bill should be amended to include sewers and passed as soon as possible.

3. Hold an overlay auction using modern spectrum-management tools to bring all the relevant actors into the process and best use the broadcast spectrum. According to Tom Hazlett of George Mason University, 83 percent of the broadcast spectrum is currently unused, and much of it could be applied-- to Internet access and cell-phone coverage, for instance--without any disruption to existing services. Splitting the digital television spectrum into overlay licenses and then auctioning them off would raise significant revenue, which could fund the expansion of broadband capability and provide subsidies to poor Americans to enable them to harness this communications system.

Challenge Three: Providing Quality Information to Citizens in Communities

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in getting quality information to citizens is producing and disseminating information relevant to the community (such as election and budget information, garbage and leaf pickup schedules, property taxes and assessments, bus and subway schedules, and parking restrictions). Government can play an important role here, as our recommendations indicate.

1. State governments should facilitate the standardization of information across various municipalities. Some local jurisdictions do not have the ability to manipulate and produce information, so states need to step in. States could produce data that is standardized and easily accessible across communities, perhaps resulting in more innovative manipulation and use of the information by outside sources.

"Encourage social networking sites, as well as partnerships between social networking and traditional media."

2. Find additional avenues to encourage the use of imaginative but less commercially driven applications for smartphones and other devices. To produce information that citizens can use, we should harness the American entrepreneurial spirit. Contests should be held by government on the national and state levels to develop useful applications that facilitate greater access to information.

3. Build portals to enhance citizen access to information. Sites like THOMAS and perform the important service of increasing transparency and access to government data. Portals should be built in each state, operated by state governments and using local government data.

4. Design and expand e-voter guides as a tool for civic education. Oregon and Washington State, both largely vote-by-mail states, send guides with candidate and voting information to voters along with their ballots. These guides should also be posted online and made available at polling places.

Challenge Four: Creating a Vibrant Public Square

Media fragmentation has made it very difficult--if not impossible--to create the common set of facts that Americans shared in the early years of television. Developing a public-square channel, the likes of which public television envisioned back in the mid-1990s, might help restore some of the lost commonality. Here are some suggestions to make a vibrant public square a reality.

1. Replace broadcasters' public-interest obligations with a rental fee for the use of public airwaves and use this fee to fund programming in the public interest. The existing broadcasters' obligations currently cost around $10 billion, while a rental fee (assessed on broadcasters by a small tax on gross revenues) would result in about $2 billion of funding. The bulk of this money could go toward funding a public-square channel, which would also be financed by revenue from the overlay auctions mentioned above. But not all the funds would have to be used for public media; other media outlets could receive monies to enhance the public interest as well.

2. Create a public-private foundation to allocate money for public-interest purposes. Rather than giving money directly to public media, creating a foundation to allocate funds would allow not just public television and radio to get funding, but also other media. This would potentially enable more innovation and flexibility, as new media sources emerge. It would also provide an incentive for existing media outlets to pursue projects that are not commercially feasible but that would enhance the public interest.

3. Encourage social networking sites, as well as partnerships between social networking and traditional media. Facebook just surpassed 500 million users; clearly, social networking is important to our communications future. Traditional media sources should develop partnerships with sites like Facebook and Twitter, enabling greater exposure for their own websites and news items.

Improving the current state of democracy--by increasing access to government information, providing the tools and technologies that enable us to communicate with each other, and creating a public square that will keep us informed about our own communities, geographical and otherwise--is obviously a daunting task, but these recommendations would bring us much closer to achieving that goal.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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