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CHAPTER I - Introduction

The pace of change in the American media landscape has accelerated in the past few years. New technology is profoundly changing the way people consume content, which in turn challenges a media ecosystem already buffeted by long-term challenges to business models. This is unfolding at a time when the stakes surrounding media—the obligations of industry, the role of public policy—seem greater than at any time in recent history. Americans are divided politically, making public discourse often heated and sometimes deeply disturbing. Trust in government is at historic lows, with 20% of Americans saying they trust government to do the right thing always or most of time, less than half the level (44%) recorded in 1984. Policymaking at the federal level is hamstrung and the new media marketplace, to some observers at least, makes it harder for people to find common ground on important issues of the day.

This context framed the 32nd Annual Aspen Institute Conference on Communications Policy, “Developing Policies for the New Media Landscape.” Although a settled definition of “new media” is hard to come by, the term generally refers to the digital tools that allow people and organizations to create and exchange images, text or audio. What makes new media “new” and constantly evolving is the nature of the digital tools at people’s disposal. These tools are more portable and powerful than ever before and the networks that connect them are faster and more pervasive. New media is bringing, and has the potential to bring even more, new participants to the worlds of entertainment, news and information-exchange. Similarly, new media offers a platform for wider participation in public debate.

Such optimism, though, is tempered by some difficult economic and social realities in new media. Economically, even though it is easier and less costly than ever before to create media content, reaching an audience for new content creators still has significant challenges. Socially, even though digital technologies offer on-ramps for more (and more diverse) voices to participate in the marketplace of ideas and culture, new media platforms and better social discourse do not always go hand-in-hand.

The upshot is that the new media environment is brimming with potential, yet is accompanied with a strong sense of foreboding. This gives an urgency for stakeholders in the public and private sectors to take action that, on the one hand, does not upset the apple cart of dynamism while, on the other, steers the output of new media away from degrading the public square. Striking the right balance in devising policy approaches that balance these two imperatives is not easy. Participants approached the task by proposing policy ideas aimed at improving the environment for new media while also asking more from leaders and citizens who participate in media-enabled public debate.

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