Implementation of democratic mass media

February 4, 2009

The aim of this post is to provide some particulars for the proposal for democratic media which I made:

Using public funds, “media sections” (TV and radio channels, newspapers, book publishers, etc.) are created and sustained. The media sections are controlled by citizen-editor boards, a role that would rotate within the entire population. Each citizen-editor board has a budget and complete control over a section – i.e., over a certain part of the public media – in the same way that present-day editors and media outlet owners have today.

The main features that I suggest are:

  1. People interested in assuming the role of a citizen-editor (CE) will put their names in a pool of candidates. CEs will be chosen at random, and serve for a period of, say, 4 years, during which they will function as editors one day a week. They will be paid for their work at, say, the 75% percentile of the national income distribution (with possible adjustments for geographical and other circumstances). The law will mandate that employers accommodate the arrangement. CE-duty terms will be staggered (25% are replaced each year) to provide institutional continuity.
  2. The role of the CE is similar to that of the various decision makers in current mass media channels: movie producers, newspaper and book editors, etc.
  3. Each CE will have a certain amount of financial resources allocated to him or her. The CE can dispense with those funds in any way that he or she sees fit, as long as it is a legitimate expenditure for the production of communication through the democratic media channels.
  4. Each CE will have a certain fraction of media exposure unit allocated. A media exposure unit may be embodied as, for example, a certain weekly column space in a newspaper, a certain monthly air-time on a TV channel or a mass distributed book. The allocation to each CE is fractional in the sense that it can only be used when combined with other fractional allocations (say, 10 fractional allocations make one whole unit of media exposure). Thus, although editors can make individual decisions as to how to spend their financial resources, they need to cooperate with other editors in order to actually put communications through the media channels.
  5. Editors, working in mostly in groups – it is expected – will contact and contract with people who will produce “content” (i.e., communications of various types). The content producers may be anyone, but it is expected that there would be a fair amount of professionals among them – people who devote a large part of their time to producing content and who therefore have certain expertise in certain aspects of content production. These would include reporters, technical teams of various types, actors, entertainers, screenplay writers, authors, etc.
  6. All the content produced will be in the public domain, and, although it will be made public through widely circulated channels at certain times, it will be available at any time on demand.
  7. Raising additional funds for the production of content for the democratic media will be considered corruption.
  8. Any additional decision making roles that are necessary for running the media (e.g., setting up new media channels, funds allocation to the various channels, setting general rules or making broad policy decisions that are not directly content related) will also be distributed by lottery.
  9. Regular monitoring of the level of interest of the public in various content units will take place. The data collected will be publicly available.
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10 Responses to “Implementation of democratic mass media”

  1. Michael Sappir Says:

    At last I am replying, as promised.

    The biggest thing I see as difficult here is competing with capitalist Big Media; the institutionalized democratic media would have to receive an enormous budget in order to ensure its productions and marketing can compete with the private media. And marketing would indeed need to be taken into account as well as production, or the private industries will eventually manage to look much better than the democratic channels (the private media industries are designed around competition, adding new sources of content won’t automatically make anybody watch them). Essentially, a lot of energy (and money) would have to go into simply making the democratic media attractive and capable of creating lasting effect in a world where anyone is allowed to use their own money to create and distribute content… So the only way this kind of system would make any sense is if it’s extremely well-funded – and in a world where government spending is unpopular, that seems a bad foundation to lay ideas on.

    What I’m afraid would happen in reality is that the democratic media would become a kind of equivalent to today’s independent media scene… It would be known for quality, originality, creative use of limited funding, and independence, but would not have the kind of mass-popularity gloss of the more censored private media. Mind you, it would still be a great step towards democratic society, because it would create an uncensored outlet for information that might otherwise not get out there, but the Internet already pretty much does the same (see Wikileaks, Twitter and the blogosphere in general) so it might not be necessary to go so far for merely that effect.

    Instead perhaps a model must be found that leverages capitalism to ensure the democratic media’s competitive fitness. The first thing that comes to mind is to somehow tax private media in such a way that the more harder they compete, the more money the dem.media has to compete, but that solution has, pragmatically, a big flaw in that Big Media would throw everything it has into lobbying against it, making it a purely theoretical proposal for the foreseeable future… But then, that would probably apply to any mechanism that could promise financial competitive fitness to a democratic media system.

  2. yoramgat Says:

    Hi Michael,

    I agree that significant funding should be provided, although I think “enormous budget” is overstating the matter. In the U.S., the entire media sector currently employs a few hundreds of thousands workers. If, on average, the cost of each employee is $100,000 per year, then we are talking about a few tens of billions of dollars per year – not much compared to the government budget – the military alone costs over 500 billion per year.

    Of course, the program can start on a much smaller scale, and build up as public interest builds up. Public interest could be measured by circulation (or ratings), and by the number of people who put themselves into the pool of candidates of citizen-editors.

    The crucial difference between independent media and organized democratic media is the concentration of resources. Most people can easily spend a few minutes a day producing some communication, but a few minutes a day can only produce certain types of communications (trivia, news commentary, etc.). Many interesting and valuable types of communications require concentrating resources – time and material resources. Concentration of resources – together with concentration of attention, which generates motivation for effort – is the distinctive function of mass media.

    As you write, commercial media would surely fight any attempt to democratize the media, much as the nobility fought to keep hereditary power. Of course, the fact that an idea has powerful opposition should not be considered a reason to give it up.

  3. Michael Sappir Says:

    It’s not so much the fact that there’s opposition, as it is the fact that I believe citizens should have a right to compete even with the most democratic of state-sponsored institutions. Right now, motivated by greed, the entertainment media manages to captivate the attention of an enormous portion of society. Because the content is produced with the purpose of captivating people’s attention and making money off of it, it’s tailored to attract attention, without necessarily paying much attention to the actual value of the communication (examples such as “reality tv” and the sensationalist tendencies of today’s news media come to mind.)

    What I would worry about is that the impact of the democratic media would be curtailed by the continued success of the private media, making the effort to democratize mass media a lot of wasted energy – which is only the case because the Internet (itself a form of democratic media) already allows the free publication of information without necessarily reaching all too many people. In a world without the Internet, the creation of *any* democratic media would be a tremendous blessing, because it would allow information to be broadcast that would otherwise remain unavailable to most.

    But since we are lucky enough to still have a free Web (a fact not to be taken for granted), democratic mass media could only make a novel contribution by surpassing the impact of existing free methods of communication – and surpassing the impact of such free media as viral videos is not necessarily easy to do. This is where the competition becomes a problem – achieving impact has to come at the cost of the attention paid to other media, and independent content would be fighting an uphill battle against the popular entertainment of the private media (and when I say “entertainment” I certainly include the “news” you get on TV and in most printed news sources.)

    Nonetheless, the idea is a good one, albeit one that would require a big push from Us, The People, to make quite a change.

  4. yoramgat Says:

    Michael,

    You write:

    Right now, motivated by greed, the entertainment media manages to captivate the attention of an enormous portion of society. […] What I would worry about is that the impact of the democratic media would be curtailed by the continued success of the private media, making the effort to democratize mass media a lot of wasted energy[.]

    I think that the main reason commercial mass media has the audience it has is not the sleek marketing and flashy formats but the fact that mass media (commercial or not) has inherent advantages over intimate media (namely, concentration of resources and concentration of attention). Since commercial mass media is the only type of mass media available, it reaps the fruits of those advantages.

    To a large extent the public does not fall for the marketing tricks, it simply has no alternative. See, for example, the steady erosion in the trust the public has in mass media news. I think any substitute would be tried enthusiastically. Of course, to the extent that the marketing techniques do make a difference, those tools would be available to the democratic media, if citizen-editors decide to employ them.

    As for the impact of the internet and the lessons that can be drawn from it: The internet provides a relatively cheap channel for disseminating communications but resources for producing the communications and for attracting attention to them are still necessary. The technology itself, therefore, even assuming “net neutrality”, is not inherently democratizing. Some types of communication – opinion pieces – are cheap to produce. This explains the growth of political blogs. While these are read quite widely, opinion pieces in mass media channels probably remain more popular due to the effect of the concentration of attention (people prefer to pay attention to things that other people are paying attention to).

    A secondary phenomenon, I think, is that the reach of the internet is limited. Radio, for example, reaches the captive audience of people in their cars. The growth of the talk radio audience may be due in a large part to the increase in commute times and reduced cost of car radios.

  5. Yoram Gat Says:

    Much later: information about the cost of news media and the numbers of journalists are available at The State of the news media report.


  6. […] so, it may be time for considering a lottery based system for media production (again, the analogy to a similar system of government could be […]


  7. […] March 15, 2010 I posted on Equality-by-Lot a short critique of the proposal by McChesney and Nichols of financing public news media by distributing “media vouchers”. My message in a nutshell is that vouchers are like elections while what would be useful would be a sortition-like system. […]

  8. peterstone Says:

    Re: “To a large extent the public does not fall for the marketing tricks, it simply has no alternative.” I think it’s important to add that many people would like there to be better news sources out there, but they wouldn’t necessarily want to read it/watch it on a daily basis. McChesney and Nichols point out that according to the public opinion polls, lots of people (especially people of color) who don’t watch public TV or listen to NPR strongly support public media, and opposing funding cuts for them. And that makes a lot of sense; I may not want to read a book on impressionist art any time soon, but I’d want my public library to have lots of good books on the subject. The media are an important public good, and public goods have benefits that go way beyond individual-level consumption.

  9. Yoram Gat Says:

    lots of people (especially people of color) who don’t watch public TV or listen to NPR strongly support public media, and opposing funding cuts for them.

    Maybe the reason they support those outlets is that they do not follow them. If they did they would sooner or later realize (as I did, although it took me years to do so) that they are just as vacuous as the fully commercial channels. (I write “fully” since the reliance on “corporate sponsorships” means that commercial interests have a lot of influence in the “public” channels as well.)

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