Funding for digital content, too? New law would DOIT

by Steve Behrens, Current

If some level of broadband Internet hookup becomes the federal government’s next goal for universal service, will Washington help assure that there’s educational and public-interest content flowing in those big, fat pipes?

Last July, Congress authorized creation of a new nonprofit to research and produce digital media content, though it’s awaiting appropriation and startup.

Lawrence Grossman and Newton Minow, who were PBS president and chair, respectively, in the late ’70s, and compatriot Anne G. Murphy have been on the case for eight years, though the advocates’ digital platform of choice would not always be linear video. These grayheads are into computer simulation and learning games.

Grossman and Minow’s Digital Promise Project proposed the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DOIT) in 2001 and lobbied persistently, joined by organizations of scientists, librarians and other nonprofits, and by Murphy, their co-chair and former director of the American Arts Alliance.

The MacArthur and Knight foundations and the Carnegie Corp. of New York backed the long lobbying campaign. The Federation of American Scientists provides a base of operations. (More at

What the project achieved as Section 802 of last year’s higher education bill is the framework for a new National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies. To help Americans compete in the global economy, it would do R&D “to harness the increasing capacity of advanced information and digital technologies to improve all levels of learning and education, formal and informal.”

Advocates seek a first-year appropriation of $50 million for next fiscal year, and are developing a management plan to get the center going soon after it wins funding. This is not the $18 billion DOIT endowment for digital content creation that Minow and Grossman originally sought, funded by FCC auctions of the analog TV channels, but the learning curve is so steep that Grossman says starting at $50 million could be “a more effective way to go.”

The new nonprofit would create and test digital learning products but its focus would be R&D venturing beyond what the private sector will do. “What we’re hearing is that business won’t invest in this until we prove there is some way to make money,” says Murphy.

Her favorite example of that content: a virtual-reality recreation of the U.S. Constitutional Convention that could cost more than $20 million to produce.

Nonprofit and for-profit organizations and public institutions could compete for project grants under the authorizing law. Public broadcasters will be eligible to apply, Grossman said, though their mention as an example of eligible groups was edited out of the bill by an unidentified hand in the House-Senate conference.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey