“What do you do?” It’s a stumper every time I meet someone. How to describe a career that has taken me from professional journalism, through academic and policy research, and into powering networks for media innovation?
Here’s one answer: In late 2013, I launched a media strategy and production firm called Dot Connector Studio, which ties together this past decade of experience. I’m the director, and am having a great time collaborating with my long-time associates to build high-impact transmedia productions and produce research that catalyzes the field of social impact media.
How did I get here?
At each transition, I’ve published work that influences the conversation about news futures. The thread that runs through my career is a gut conviction that media is central to how we run our democracy and construct—or destroy—our culture.
As an editor in the mid-2000s working to revamp national political magazine In These Times, I recognized the radical changes facing the industry. My articles on the topic grew into the book I co-authored with Tracy Van Slyke, Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (New Press, 2010). We used the book’s release as a platform to organize a series of “impact summits,” bringing national producers, leading editors and media funders together to interrogate networked news practices.
To deepen my research, I left In These Times in 2007 for American University’s Center for Social Media. There, noted communications scholar Patricia Aufderheide put me in charge of the center’s Future of Public Media project—a multimillion-dollar Ford Foundation inquiry into how “public media” might evolve in a participatory era. Together, we co-authored a series of high-profile reports, including the much-cited Public Media 2.0, and an examination of emerging journalism trends for the Media Re:public project at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Our research and policy interventions helped to expand the possibilities for more dynamic and democratic public media. “Jessica Clark and Pat Aufderheide have written the best current analysis of how we can pursue the core values underlying support for public media in the new, networked environment,” wrote Yochai Benkler in a piece for The American Prospect. The authors of both the 2009 Knight Commission report, Informing Communities, and the FCC’s unprecedented 2011 inquiry into the shifting media landscape, The Information Needs of Communities, noted our work as influential. With NYU’s Barbara Abrash, I co-authored another report—Designing for Impact—which has been used by makers, funders and academic researchers to inform and dissect the creation of multiplatform public interest productions.
As a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, I further grappled with questions of how policy could best bolster strong journalism and open media on a global scale. My colleagues and I shared our recommendations in the U.S. report for the Open Society Foundations’ 56-country Mapping Digital Media project. (Read conclusions from this epic research project here.)
Throughout this period, I stayed rooted in my craft as an independent journalist. Writing for PBS MediaShift allowed me to translate arcane academic and policy debates for a wired and inventive community of readers. As an editorial advisor to Symbolia—an iPad-based periodical showcasing illustrated journalism—I’ve kept an eye on magazines’ metamorphoses. I also co-produced several conferences to foster open news practices—including the Beyond Broadcast events first launched in 2006 by the Berkman Center, and the PubCamp unconferences co-organized with NPR and PBS.
In 2010, with support from the Center for Social Media, I decided to move from theory and policy back into practice. We began to incubate public media projects more in tune with the times: participatory, cross-platform, and engaging citizens as co-producers.
In the largest of these efforts, I led the advisory team and evaluation process for the Public Media Corps—a project of the Black Public Media Network designed to support fellows in developing fresh models for providing low-income and minority community members with the skills to become digital creators. This vibrant multi-year demonstration project spun off a successful training program for student producers, the Digital Media Arts Club, produced a short-run half-hour teen issues program on DC station WHUT, and led to the production of PBS documentary 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School.
In 2011, I left the Center for the launch of a new public media transformation project, Localore, produced by AIR. As AIR’s media strategist, I helped to design the Localore competition that matched 10 public radio/TV stations with inventive lead producers, and challenged them to invent new forms of storytelling combining broadcast, digital and face-to-face engagement. My role was to report on, amplify, and track the accomplishments of the producer-station teams. At the same time, I have been tracking the broader evolution of interactive and “full spectrum” public media, through AIR’s blog, social media channels, and sessions I’ve organized at events such as SXSW, MIT’s Futures of Entertainment conference, and elsewhere.
Most recently, I’ve been working with Media Impact Funders—a network of foundations committed to supporting news, documentaries and other forms of public interest media. As a program consultant, I helped them launch their redesigned site, and organize a high-profile day-long examination of media impact methods at The Paley Center. Media Impact Funders is the first client for Dot Connector Studio—in 2014, I’m now working as the organization’s research director, reporting on emerging methods for analyzing media that makes change, and helping to develop events that showcase powerful productions, such as the Media Impact Festival.
Whether I’m making, researching or evaluating media, my work always circles back to this question of impact—not just how users’ digital points of connection to news are changing, but what the very point of those connections should be. So, while there may not be one term to describe what I do—straddling old and new media worlds, translating between them, and fostering new media forms—my guiding question ends up being not “What?” but “So what?”
What’s the “so what?” of your media project? Contact me if you’d like to talk it through.