What's Your Digital Strategy: Illinois Public Media Pt.1
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We all too often think the digital media landscape has already gone through its most important evolutionary phases and has grown stagnate by reaching its apex of expansion. This couldn't be further from the truth in a lot of respects. The SPI blog is starting a new series, called What's Your Digital Strategy, aimed at growing strategic knowledge within the digital space by leveraging the experiences of your Digital peers. We've asked a few station standouts to share and reflect on their station's formal and informal digital strategies and best practices. The first post comes from Jack Brighton, Director of New Media and Innovation at Illinois Public Media (WILL) who is also a new member to the PBS Station Digital Advisory Council. In this two-part post, Jack discusses not only his station's digital strategy, but also the philosophies and tips that led WILL into a unique and ever-growing digital space where innovation, transformation, and "new stuff" are not only welcome, but required.


Digital strategy at Illinois Public Media 
One night in 1993, I was playing guitar in the blues jam at the Blind Pig in Champaign, Illinois. There was a table of animated geeks in the back eating pizza and drinking beer. I’m sure they weren’t listening, but I hope they at least got some ambience from the music. Months later, those geeks released the Mosaic web browser and changed our lives forever.

Twenty years later, that moment feels like the Big Bang of the Internet universe. Digital media now flows like gravity waves through every facet of our lives. Internet physics has reshaped our economy and culture. And the expansion of the online universe continues to accelerate.

Metaphors aside, our media system is changing faster than our institutions can easily adjust. How do we respond strategically within Public Media while running to catch up?

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Marshall McLuhan wrote about our reluctance in the face of transformative media innovations: “Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today's job with yesterday's tools and yesterday's concepts.” We know what we’re doing with yesterday’s technology, and too often assume the same approach will work with the new. “We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror.”

Digital strategy at Illinois Public Media is predicated upon embracing our historical strengths, while moving beyond our historical methods. This is both conservative and radical: It requires stewardship of the things that made us a great partner for our community, while calling for whole new ways of working. To guide us through this thicket, we have a formal digital strategy statement, composed in the voice of an institution. Outlined below are some tips and overarching themes, presented in the voice of a guitar-player-turned-web-geek.

Maintain a solid foundation 
Excellent IT is no longer optional. We run everything on virtual servers, but even they have a physical existence and require human effort and high-level SysAdmin skills. We’re blessed with a world-class network and free bandwidth as part of an R1 university. Which is great, because everything we do now depends on servers, applications, and connectivity. This is stuff most people don’t want to know about. But management has to know enough to maintain it as a strategic concern.

Keep our public trust
As President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, he said “the time has come to enlist the computer and the satellite, as well as radio and television…in the cause of education.” Invoking the promise of public TV and radio, he envisioned a “great network for knowledge - not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and of storing information that the individual can use."

That’s a pretty good mandate and, interestingly, we now have the tools to do it. Our digital strategy must be faithful to the mission of public broadcasting, which from the very beginning included digital media.  

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Provide an excellent experience for all users
The first question is “Can people use our stuff?” This is a major challenge given the proliferation of platforms, bandwidths, bugs, and mobile in massive ascendance. We must be readable, listenable, and viewable for any user on any device. We can then attend to aesthetics and design on the basis of progressive enhancement. Accessibility for all users, including those with physical or perceptual impairments, is a moral and strategic concern. We must be a leader in digital accessibility.

Build and leverage audiences across all platforms
The Internet is a many-to-many platform. We have new opportunities to build communities of interest, knowledge, and passion; to create healthy relationships in social media spaces; to leverage all our channels to deepen our connections and impact. We’re also under some time pressure to develop new support relationships and sources of funding. This is a macro-economic dilemma playing out across the Internet economy, and we need to be in the thicket of solving it.

Learn more about Illinois Public Media's digital strategy in part two of this post which will be available soon.

Share your station's digital strategy by contacting your SPI Rep, or pbsi_spi@pbs.org for more information.

By Jack Brighton | Director of New Media and Innovation | Illinois Public Media

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Jack manages web development, digital media, and information technology for WILL-AM-FM-TV-Online. He also teaches digital media preservation and metadata at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library & Information Science, and online journalism at the College of Media. Jack is interested in media work that supports education, arts, culture, and democracy.