Continuing the conversation with John Profitt at Gravity Medium re The IMA Impasse:
If you were going to start a locally-focused public media company today — without the overhead of gear, people or ideas from the old public broadcasting world — what would that look like? Is that one person and a web service? Is that a community site organized by one person but handled by volunteers? Or are geographically-centric community services passe, and we should instead focus on topical verticals, like the HoS model?
The way you pose this question is revealing. Correct me if I'm assuming too much, but saying you want to 'start' a 'locally-focused' 'public media company' implies you want to stay in Anchorage, and that some part of you is an entrepreneur as well as a public service media professional.
Perhaps it's because of your local radio background, but to use a photographic metaphor, you seem to be zooming in and focusing your attention on a geographically limited area as the target of a web service. Turn the camera around and open up the lens to wide angle, and consider the media, services, communications networks and technical infrastructure environment that surrounds your geographic area. Even though you may want to create a locally focused service, this is the underlying digital ecosystem that defines the set of possibilities and limitations you have to operate within.
One thing that struck me from the very beginning when I started to go to Internet music conferences in 1999, was that absolutely everyone was talking about business models that could "scale." This almost always meant free services.
Success was defined by an innovation that could be virally transmitted and grow to large numbers of users in "Internet time." This ability to scale rapidly would fuel and enable advertising-based business models. These prejudices are no less true today in the era of social networking, as several commentators have pointed out recently in articles like Kevin Kelly's "Better Than Free."
The problem is that mass usage paradigms do not translate into viable business models for niche services.
All of public broadcasting with the exception of the big NPR news shows and a few others is a niche in the media world. Geographically defined, locally focused services are also another niche in Internet logic.
A locally-focused service like Craig's List, for example, can only scale via duplication and syndication to multiple geo-niches. So if you find a solution to a local need, it may have application on a larger, more extended scale.
The other end of the geographical scale is to use the tools and resources of the digital ecosystem to build a what you call a "topical vertical" as we have done with Hearts of Space. This approach provides the same service to users world-wide. Theoretically this is the best way to build out a "global niche."
[In fact, HoS now has customers on every continent, though they are still few in number because we do not have a corresponding history and broadcast presence on those continents, and we still charge a subscription fee for full use of our service. We are too small to be viable with advertising.]
The question you pose of whether to pursue a local vs. topical service is one to be decided by personal preference of the service creators, along with a realistic assessment of resources and funding potentials, not any yardstick for measuring either absolute value or opportunity cost.
The one point I would make (the same one I was trying to make to the public media establishment at the previous IMA conferences) — is that imagining and building larger scale aggregated services for public service audio and video programming (and related multi-media and text content) presents literally a "once in a lifetime" opportunity to secure and expand the potential public service and the financial base of the entire public media network.
To see this opportunity languish, be ignored or not even recognized, is to me a shocking failure of this generation of public media professionals. When compared to the generation that created PBS and NPR, the network of local affiliates, the distribution infrastructure, programs and policies that built the existing system during the decades from the early 1960s to the 1990s — it is a very sad performance indeed.
The brilliance, the courage, the insight and the sheer ambition of the creators of the Internet and the services that have grown and flourished there — the ones like Wikipedia that we admire and cite for inspiration and guidance at public media conferences — is nowhere to be found these days in public media. This despite seven years of effort by the IMA, and dozens of articulate spokespersons for systemwide cooperation to seize the opportunities presented by the Internet to broaden, deepen and secure the core mission of public media.
So in my opinion, you won't find the answer to your question by tinkering with local vs. topical service model distinctions. The answers are discovered over time by those who plunge into digital media and web application development, understand deeply the nature of networks and the potentials of programming languages, communication protocols and IP technologies — and then reconcile them with an insightful understanding of public needs and the public good, by creating innovative new applications and services.
If you read the origin stories of successful web sites, applications and services, you will find that the creators and designers of these innovations were almost always "skilled mavericks." They understand the nature of networks, the wisdom of crowds, the longing of individuals for better, more efficient, more enjoyable online experiences. They are dissatisfied with the status quo. They find a need and design and build a solution using the tools available.
From what I know about you, you are adequately steeped in the values of public broadcasting, and reasonably up to date on the state of Internet technologies and culture. So my advice is not to worry about what you are going to do for public media in Anchorage or elsewhere, but to jump into the new game and onto the field in play. That field is online. It's a magic place where new things are possible and even welcomed. Imagine that! Compare.
Pack light. Just bring your public media values with you, and the answers will present themselves.