Insights into six public media tech stacks: an introduction 

By Kilian Schalk

Wherever it exists in the world, public media has a fairly simple objective: deliver content that serves the public interest. The GAFAM tech giants, by contrast, leverage content to grow audiences, collect behavioral data to attract advertisers, and turn a profit to serve shareholders. The two have fundamentally different purposes and their tech stacks serve very different needs, yet the tech giants now stand between public media and its audience.  Put simply, there must be another way. At the Public Media Stack Summit in New York last May, 50+ public media experts convened to think about what this might be, and brainstorm what it might look like. This first Public Media Stack report is just the beginning of that quest. 

These six interviews, conducted to gain some insight into the current state of public media tech stacks, took place before COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill. This state has now shifted, but the need for public media is more urgent than ever.

Sarah Alverez, Michael Morisy, and Mitchel Kotler share how Detroit’s Outlier Media, and its use of text messaging to inform and empower disadvantaged communities, combined forces with Muck Rock earlier this year. Theirs is a fascinating story of how to raise revenue with a combined tech stack without compromising their mission or their non-GAFAM connection with their audience.

São Paulo’s digital news organization, Nexo Jornal, is also focused on that direct connection. Renatta Rizzi and Ibrahim Souza share how they identify users in this “post-cookie” world, work through what GAFAM say vs. what they implement, and talk about how Nexo has used server-side processing to speed up their website as well as improve SEO to gain and retain readers.

Raising income from web audiences is one of the main challenges for the Austin-based digital non-profit Texas Tribune. Rodney Gibbs and Liam Andrew share how they moved to a new CRM platform to manage user fundraising, explain how they broke down editorial and tech silos to support new editorial content tools, and lament how current public media CMS practices create a situation they would rather avoid with their journalist network partners.

Fostering a UK network of journalists, technologists and other collaborators is the mission behind London’s The Bureau Local. Its director, Megan Lucero, describes the home-grown and off-the-shelf tools they use to collect and sift through large troves of data to create “reporting recipes”; information and stories that British journalists can quickly turn into narratives for specific audiences.  She also shares her organization’s experience of Slack and explores the endless question of build or buy.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is an international version of The Bureau Local; its 270+ journalists collect and sift large data sets related to stories that individual reporters couldn’t handle on their own. CTO Pierre Romera explains how their search and data tools, organization-wide PGP encryption, and PGP onboarding help them securely sort, analyze, and distill the millions of documents that backed, among others, Pulitzer-winning stories like the Panama Papers.

WGBH, the Boston-based public radio and television media organization, has also had to focus on security. Shane Miner and Bob Kempf give an overview of how the KQED radio ransomware incident affected their efforts to enable remote working and detail the strategic as well as tactical challenges that come with managing the technical needs of a 900+ person organization. They also share their endeavors to develop a coordinated tech infrastructure, available to public media outlets across the United States, which includes single sign-on (SSO), CMS, and marketing automation.

Read together, these interviews are a window into the technology decisions that every public media organization has to make every day. The creative thinking, breadth of ideas, and commitment they display make it possible to imagine a future where a Public Media Stack serves the sector as a whole.

We see glimmers of a possible Public Media Stack in the WGBH’s description of the Digital Infrastructure Group, despite its huge variety of organizations; within them we find the technical skills and collaborative instinct needed to pull off a joint Stack. What seems to be missing is the commitment to pay for that joint effort and to use the tools that result.  

Instead, we see that each organization is spending money to buy or build software for itself. The impetus for a sustainable Stack could be a shift in  the ethos from ‘Build or Buy” to “Build, Buy, or Share”.  A small pilot program, established to build a tool for wide use within the Public Media community, could demonstrate the scale of possible financial savings and the potential growth in technical capability that could come from  relying on each other rather than GAFAM or SAS partners.

Kilian Schalk

Workflow consultant for the Public Media Stack