Feature Article from the March 2013 AIRblast
Now You See It, Now You Don't: Tracking Trends Via AIR's Public Media Scan
by Jessica Clark
Since 2010, AIR has been keeping an eagle eye on the transformation of public media with the Public Media Scan, an exclusive email bulletin that goes out each week to our "new network" of influential makers, funders, and change mavens interested in understanding how the newest technology is being blended with traditional craft to tell and distribute stories. In this AIRblast Spotlight, AIR Media Strategist Jessica Clark shares another new tool — the Pubmedia Nexus Index — to track the latest projects and ideas.
We've converted more than 550 of the projects collected over the last two and a half years into a searchable index. Scan subscribers can use it to hunt down that one link that tickled their brains, and those of you who haven't signed up yet can get caught up and jump aboard.
Although the index spans less than three years, that's a lo-o-o-ong time online. Scrolling from the oldest scan items at the bottom to the newest at the top offers a recent history of news innovation trends: the rise of maps as a now-routine form of reporting, the proliferation of "labs" to rethink every aspect of how journalism is made, the simultaneous homing in on both super-short and long-form content as hot areas of invention and investment. Promising tools emerge — Tumblr! Instagram! Pinterest! Storify! — only to become too routine to note months later. The techniques of groundbreaking producers such as NPR's Andy Carvin or documentarian Pete Nicks move from first concept to proof-of-concept to canon.
Some questions haven't changed: "Can we make news experiments sustainable?" Other questions such as "What would happen if we used crowd funding to support news experiments?" have been resolved (or at least evolved) as makers, developers, and investors work together to build new tools and share best practices.
Like a good dinner party, the scan is designed to serve up tidbits that entice a variety of palates. In the index, you'll find some indication of what's on the menu by searching the five categories we've created: "hear," "see," "interact," "play," and "background." But many of the projects and makers resist easy categorization. In fact, that's what makes them so delectable.
With true multimedia projects finally beginning to materialize, I find myself asking, "What's the next frontier?" As I dig into a new smorgasbord of material each week, I'm struck time and again by projects that don't just combine or cross media platforms, but also jump beyond them to involve audiences in the reporting or storytelling. Over the past few years, AIR has been deploying producers to lead just such news transformation projects, which engage audiences on-air, via screens, and on the street — first through MQ2, and more recently through Localore.
In an article for PBS MediaShift, AIR Executive Director Sue Schardt describes this rising craft as "full-spectrum public media," noting that:
"The 'street' platform is especially key, since it represents public media makers moving beyond the traditional approach of going out into the community with a microphone or camera to capture a story, edit it into shape, and send it into distribution. This is where [Localore] producers are providing new, often intimate points of access for public media in the physical space of the community — portable booths, installations, moving onto porches and into backyards and haunts familiar to people living in a neighborhood — as a way of extending our base of operations beyond broadcast and allowing citizens to become documentarians of their own lives."
Take a look at Delaney Hall's Austin Music Map, or Anayansi Diaz-Cortes's La Burbuja, or the video that Todd Melby features in Rough Ride, his interactive documentary of an oil worker walking us through a "mancamp" to understand exactly what she means.
Of course, Schardt continues, "few things are truly new." Earlier public radio pioneers, including David Isay and Bill Siemering, made their way out into communities, handing the mic off to let listeners relate their own experiences, and setting up shop in the midst of neighborhoods often sidelined by mainstream news. First digital, then social, and now mobile tools and platforms have made it progressively easier, quicker, and more natural for public media producers to incorporate full-spectrum techniques into their creations. In this, they are joined by a groundswell of makers from adjacent fields — print reporters, filmmakers, artists and designers, educators, librarians, urban planners, hackers, activists, scientists, and myriad others — who are working collaboratively with one another and with participants to reimagine storytelling and reinvigorate civic conversation.
The scan has shed light on many such adventurous projects, like these that follow:
Executive produced for KCET by Juan Devis — a longtime maker and leader in LA's media arts scene — Artbound democratizes cultural reporting by inviting participants to vote on articles about local artists, exhibits, or performances. His team then makes a short video documentary about the winning story and, every other month, bundles them together to create a TV episode. Artbound contributors include "authors, writers, curators, rebels, dreamers, musicians, academics, poets, and more" who span the 11 counties of Southern and Central California — an interactive map offers more context on the art scenes in each region. In addition, Artbound Special Projects invite audience members to join contributors at "offline happenings," such as musical performances in the locations that inspired a song, "performance crafting," a self-guided audio car tour, and more.
A participatory documentary combining audio, stills, and text, Sandy Storyline provides a space for those affected by the hurricane to share their reflections and visions for rebuilding. Built in partnership with online storytelling platform Cowbird, the project is designed to support quick and visually striking mobile reports, narrowing the distance between the street and the audience. Users who are moved to help with recovery efforts can explore a map of affected locations and sign up to volunteer.
A beautifully executed interactive multimedia documentary directed by Poppy Stockell and designed by Matt Smith for Australian public broadcaster SBS answers a question that haunts many documentarians: How do you capture the history of a place that's about to disappear? This "virtual time capsule" was produced in partnership with the Redfern Indigenous community, which owned "the Block" — a housing precinct that was closed down just as the production began. Unlike other full-spectrum productions that focus on continued physical engagement, this project front-loaded the process, capturing archival materials for a timeline, an immersive map illustrated with interactive panoramic photos, and interviews with residents and activists. The site is a bandwidth hog — give it a few moments to load.
Part art project, part civic engagement prompt, this community bucket list from Candy Chang's creative studio Civic Center is designed to help neighbors share their dreams in a public space. Participants in cities from Liberty, New York, in the USA, to Rio de Janeiro to Hyderabad, India, have built and documented their own public wall spaces using the project's handy toolkit, logging hopes to bake bread, go skydiving, "see this storefront become a YMCA," "inspire my peers," and more. Located in New Orleans, Civic Center's team of writers, designers, and digital artists collaborate with creative partners locally and across the country — including Todd Melby, who worked with the studio's James Reeves to develop digital- and community-based engagement tools for Black Gold Boom.
Take the next step into a fictional future created by a team of alums from McSweeney's. A serialized interactive novel for iPad/iPhone traces the fate of a generation of children born without the ability to comprehend language. The Silent History also involves place-based "field reports" from volunteer contributors across five continents. What distinguishes these is that the GPS coordinates of the reader's phone must match those of the story in order to access it. As the project FAQ explains, the reports "are deeply entwined with the particularities of their specific physical environments — the stains on the sidewalk, the view between the branches, a strangely ornate bannister, etc. — so that the text and the actual setting support and enhance each other." This eerie experience of standing in real space while mentally inhabiting a fictional future has piqued involvement from public radio producers such as Starlee Kine, who is serving as the story's "recapper."
I hope that these brief examples whet your curiosity and inspire you to keep an eye on the scan to see what's next for public media reinvention. Sign up here (it's free!), or let me know how the scan has inspired your own next generation creations: Jessica@airmedia.org.
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