When MacArthur began its media program 22 years ago, most Americans relied on the broadcast media. With that in mind, we decided to support high-quality non-fiction programming for television, documentary films, and the infrastructure of public radio. Our underlying assumption was that the public needs reliable information in order to make good judgments as individuals and as citizens. We still believe on this news. But news gathering, reporting, and broadcasting are being fundamentally changed by digital technologies. Sources of information have become far more plentiful and the methods of access have proliferated. 90 percent of American homes choose from hundreds of television and radio channels on cable and satellite. An explosion of Internet video and audio has added thousands of programming choices, accessible from around the world. Video-ready cell phones, audio and video iPods, digital video recorders, satellite radio, and – of course – personal computers allow audiences to craft more individualized news and entertainment experiences, choosing what they want to see or hear and when they want it.
These technologies have not only made accessing diverse kinds of information more convenient. They have also made it easier to produce and distribute creative content, with a far larger potential audience. The barriers to entry for potential producers have been greatly reduced: anyone with a computer can establish a website, start a blog, or record a podcast. The costs of shooting and editing a film or video have also declined, and professional-quality equipment is far more available than in the past. As a result, new creators and commentators — often amateurs — are distributing material on the Internet and reaching a wide audience more directly. “Citizen journalists” around the globe are taking advantage of these tools to complement, correct, and even compete with professional journalists and investigative reporters. 3 This participatory journalism allows citizens to play an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating news and information.
With these changes, the challenge of providing individuals with diverse perspectives and reliable information is more complex than in the past, precisely because the tools available are so much more powerful. We enjoy unprecedented access to data, analysis, and opinion from around the world, but this also requires greater effort to filter, choose, and process such information. In light of these developments, MacArthur’s long-standing programs supporting documentary film and public radio and television are in transition. We still want to help ensure that reliable information on important topics is available and that it finds the audience it deserves. And we want to help bring fresh sources of information to bear on the debate of important issues.
MacArthur will continue to support the creation of exceptional documentary films and high-quality non-fiction programming for public radio and television. But to take full advantage of new technologies, the Foundation is challenging content-producers to tell their stories through more than one medium — radio and podcasting, for example; or documentary film and streaming video. We are especially interested in projects that invite significant participation from their audiences.