Can a culture of disruption save public media?
When a media organization’s business model is based on pledge drives, it’s almost cruel to suggest that it is ripe for “disruption.” Public media is supposed to be a civic service unbeholden to economic interests, resistant to capitalistic zealotry that can undermine a news organization’s integrity. After all, those are the forces responsible for Fox News.
And yet, just because it can get by on donations and a little bit of government support, that doesn’t mean that public media can afford not to evolve.
“Innovation” and public media are not obvious bedfellows. Public broadcasting organs in the US such as NPR and PBS are weighty, old-fashioned institutions capable of producing some slick apps and boundary-pushing programming – “RadioLab” and “This American Life” spring to mind – but otherwise prone to the forces of ossification and inertia that make it hard for fierce reinvention to take hold.
We’d like to say that an aggressive, Silicon Valley-style assault on the public media status quo was inevitable. The truth is, it probably wasn’t. Public media isn’t burnished with the allure of money. What economic incentive does an entrepreneur have to revolutionize “Prairie Home Companion”? Democratic ideals and an informed public are nice ideas, but they won’t get you into Y Combinator.
That’s what makes Corey Ford a little unusual. In the early part of the century, he was a producer for PBS’s “Frontline,” but in 2005 he realized that the world was changing dramatically while the documentary show wasn’t. After pulling himself away from PBS and moving to Silicon Valley in search of the essential ingredients of innovation, he enrolled at Stanford Business School, joined the university’s Institute of Design – d.school – and eventually went on to start a “pre-team, pre-idea” accelerator for Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s early stage venture capital firm, Innovation Endeavors. It was called Runway.
Public media, Ford says, isn’t exactly a bubbling cauldron of innovation. “What you have are pockets of innovators, potential innovators, pent-up innovators, throughout public media who really want to do new and interesting things,” he says. “Most cultures within public media probably are frustrating to those innovators.”
Now, Ford is returning to the mission that took him to Stanford in the first place: To bring disruptive thinking to the fusty corners of the public media mindset. He’s CEO of a new accelerator called Matter Ventures, which will open its doors to its first class of aspiring media entrepreneurs in February. Based in San Francisco, Matter is a joint project between Northern California-based public TV and radio operator KQED, the Knight Foundation, and the Public Radio Exchange, PRX. KQED and the Knight Foundation are each investing $1.25 million into the initial fund, and PRX is providing strategic support. Over the course of two years, four rounds of five teams will each get $50,000 to pursue their entrepreneurial ideas.
Ford didn't create Matter to act in the service of public media, or even journalism, per se. What ultimately comes out of Matter might seem totally alien to the concept of public media. In fact, that’s kind of the point.
“I’m looking to support entrepreneurs who are making a more informed, connected, or empowered society through their venture,” says Ford. “I expect that is going to look completely different than what you would expect when you use the term ‘public media.’”
So, more than innovations that could fit comfortably within existing media organizations, Ford is looking for paradigm-breaking ideas along the lines of Twitter, Kickstarter, Storify, and Neighborland, or at least the people who might come up with them. These are the types of communications-oriented startups that at least share a “for the civic good” ethos with public media.
Although the accelerator has the backing of media organizations, Ford is adamant that Matter will sit outside the overarching journalistic institution. “The only way that this is going to be successful if it’s a standalone entity operating from a point of view where the entrepreneurs matter above all else and they can think about the world from a blank slate,” he says.
That’s a large part of the reason why Matter is based in San Francisco, and not media hub New York. Silicon Valley (including San Francisco) has the culture and networks that not only embrace failure but also encourage it, Ford says. It’s the place where people come to change the world and are unburdened from thinking about business from an institutional perspective.
For those very reasons, however, Matter is going to face some serious challenges. The wannabe entrepreneurs who have been attracted to the Valley and want to disrupt media aren’t necessarily going to want to go to an accelerator to achieve that goal, especially if that accelerator is closely associated with public broadcasters that, fairly or not, they may perceive as representative of the old guard. Evan Williams and Biz Stone didn’t need an accelerator or an incubator to create Blogger, Twitter, or Medium. Neither did the Kickstarter guys, nor the team behind Neighborland, which started in New Orleans. Other media startups, such as Stitcher, Flipboard, and Summly are not the products of such coordinated creativity, either.
And the entrepreneurs who are looking for a boost from an accelerator or an incubator are likely to try Y Combinator and TechStars first, meaning by definition Matter will be getting the cast-offs. However, Matter is likely to be content with startups whose ideas are not necessarily going to lead to the next billion-dollar company but are at least economically sustainable. Matter wants to enable entrepreneurs to try things that might not otherwise get the chance to be tested on the market or among a real audience. Those entrepreneurs may want to make money, but they also have to have a social mission, something akin to a sense of civic responsibility.
The time, he concludes, has never been riper for some healthy disruption, and Matter hopes to be there to help it on its way. Let’s just hope the likes of NPR and PBS are not innovated out of existence.