We Make the Media conference

Yesterday, approximately 130 journalists and media professionals gathered in downtown Portland to discuss the current, declining state of the media — and what we intend to do about it.

I have to say I was excited about the conference. I wanted to be part of a grassroots movement to revitalize and re-envision media moving forward.

But then I sat down in the front row and found myself being lectured to by a handful of graying — but well-meaning — seasoned newspapermen.

I’d brought my laptop, but hadn’t yet been granted Wifi access, so the only in input I had for the first couple of hours was from those holding microphones. It was pretty disheartening.

As the focus was spiraling around non-profit investigative reporting, I had to sit on my hands listening to traditional newspapermen going on about “Don’t count out commercial journalism.” At least one of those guys was the same top-dog who eliminated the jobs of many of my fellow writers and editors, and then systematically froze-out freelancers — sorry, “entrepreneurial journalists” — like myself. Sure, times are tough and papers and media outlets are being forced to trim down and streamline, but I’ve not seen too many instances of local/community papers doing much to try to preserve and support the very communities that keep them in business.

The for-profit model doesn’t guarantee that writers and other content producers are earning close to a living wage — but it can mean that advertisers are crafting headlines.

Once I got online and dove head-first into the Twitter stream, I discovered an entirely different side to the conference that was thriving and snarking right under the organizers’ noses. The online discussion was very different from what was happening at the podium. Even in our break-out sessions — I was in one about smaller, online networking groups — the ideas and comments floated in Twitter were often better, more focused and more forward-thinking than what was happening “verbally.”

(Which begs the questions, Are we more open and ingenious when we’re typing on our computers than we are talking face-to-face? Why is that? Does the barrier — or the seeming intimacy — of the keyboard and screen allow us to be more honest and courageous in our assessments and ideas? Or, as journalists, are we really that much better expressing ourselves through the written/digital word than we are with our mouths? But that’s another discussion.)

Another conference attendee offered the idea of having the Twitter stream projected on a wall — in real time — during the conference. I like this idea for future gatherings. In the afternoon, as I sat in the back of the room — near the electrical outlets, but also surrounded by other Tweeters and snark machines — I began to wonder if the older white men at the front of the room even had any interest in what the digitally-connected and -communicating crowd had to say.

Traditional print media needs to think beyond just adding an online component in order to satisfy the throngs who increasingly get their news and information in digital format. Ron Buel himself cited the statistics indicating that print-and-ink readers are dying off. Not everyone’s connected, to be sure — there still is a digital divide between the haves and the have-nots of the internet– but perhaps it’s time to turn the paradigm on its head: An occasional print paper as a hard-copy afterthought for a digitally driven channel?

Not too long ago, I took a look at where I get my own information. I’d been spending the majority of my time pitching stories to newspapers and magazines, when I myself am more likely to turn to websites and books. So I’m switching focus. I do still read newspapers and magazines, but it might not be a bad idea to pitch those markets more proportionally to my own reading/consuming habits.

There was a huge, and surprising, “digital divide” between the front and the back of the room at yesterday’s “We Make the Media” conference, but it’s reflective of the struggle that continues to rage in early 21st century journalism: Should we try to save ink-and-paper newspapers and magazines in order to preserve tradition and honor what has worked for many years, or should we acknowledge what hasn’t worked in traditional media and embrace the opportunities and challenges of emerging and evolving technologies in order to reach and serve an increasingly digital-based population?

There are many subtopics for exploration and discussion here: technological access, content ownership, privacy, revenue models, fact-checking and accuracy, citizen journalism, bias and objectivity, slow vs. fast journalism, ethics, cultural differences and sensitivity — and more. Only a small fraction of these hurdles and sticking points were even mentioned in our day-long conference, much less discussed.

But the day as a whole, I believe, was a success. We came together as professionals interested not only in creating content, but in helping to craft and guide how that content is delivered. I’d like to think we showed up because we’re proactive and optimistic, and because we honestly give a damn about what’s happening (and not happening) in the media today.

I’m most looking forward to working on one of the conference’s take-aways: the formation of a media/journalism incubator, both as an outlet for social connections and as a physical and non-physical co-working space for sharing ideas and skills, and to encourage and support one another and our larger profession.

I can report that working solo as an entrepreneurial journalist can often be a lonely exercise. Apart from interviewing sources and working out details with editors, many of us are isolated in our one-person home offices.

Just sitting in the “Twitter corner” at the conference yesterday, I felt bolstered in my own Tweeting. I gave voice to ideas and opinions that I otherwise might have kept to myself, too shy to share. That reticence — whether stemming from fear, isolation or other factors entirely — has been my biggest hurdle as a professional communicator. If just a couple of hours in a conference room surrounded by my professional peers had such an effect on me — I mean, look at what I’m writing here, now — I have high hopes for the profound impact of a journalism-specific co-working space.

So, that’s my report. I’m looking forward to nurturing the contacts I made yesterday, and to growing this network into something ongoing and truly productive.

(Although, I still think I may be the last journalist on the planet without a smartphone.)

Posted in thoughts from the spiral, writing & publishing.

12 Comments

  1. You said:
    "Which begs the questions, Are we more open and ingenious when we're typing on our computers than we are talking face-to-face?"

    First, the conference itself was a model of the old-new divide. The conference was set up as a traditional presentation based event with a strict agenda. This is highly centralized and hierarchal, just as legacy media is. Meanwhile, the Twitter Corner was modeling the decentralized exchange structure of the Internet. The latter is, structurally, oriented to exchange, while the former is structurally a one way model with limited openings to talk back. Times when Joe Smith allowed the audience to make comments are analogous to a Letters to the Editor feature.

    Lastly, given that the organizers used a centralized structure and a hierarchy, they also invested themselves with power, placing those who did not feel the same in a low power position.

    In short, your observation and the Twitter Corner backchannel discussion's greater honesty were spot on. This kind of disfunction happens in government meetings all the time, just that at We Make The Media it was easier to see because the disaffected had Twitter to express themselves with.

    The real irony is that I see a lot of energy from the Twitter Corner folks, and I don't mean jeering and cynicism, but burning energy to do something positive. I'm excited to see what might come of this.

  2. Curious outcome that many felt isolated and unheard, yet undeterred that something good can be created from the event. I felt bogged down in process while ideas zoomed by untouched. Seemed the younger you were the less voice you had, be nice if we could change that, too.

    You are not alone, I didn't even bring a phone to the conference!

  3. You're right about the retention/investment of power via how the conference was modeled. We had a very active — and I think productive — un-conference going on with the Twitter stream.

    I agree with you about the drive of the Tweeters to make something real happen, beyond the talk and the brainstorming and general BS. I think even Joe Smith — during the voting — commented, "You can tell where the activists are sitting."

    Next time, definitely bring your laptop — though you're welcome to read over my shoulder again.

  4. You're right, Joe Smith did, and I want to be clear here that even through some of my snarky comments and my bristling at some of the facilitation methods he employed, he's not a dumb post. He didn't do something stupid and ask everyone to settle down in the back corner, for example.

  5. Curious to note that despite the flawed format, the glossing over of anything new, and the excuse to stay on time-track used to quiet anything slightly disruptive, the disenfranchised corner voices walked away drained but not deterred to attack the issues and create something new.

    And Jen, you are not alone, I didn't even bring a phone to the conference!

  6. "Drained by not deterred" is certainly on-target. I was so brain-friend and exhausted by the end of that conference that I spent the next several hours — at a hockey game and then at a pub with the team — being largely incoherent and more clueless than usual. I slept 10 hours straight when I finally got to bed.

    This morning, though, I'm fired up again. I want to be productive, I want to network and make things happen. I'm hoping others are feeling the same way, and that we'll be able to sustain this level of passion and motivation — coupled with constructive productivity — to really make a dent in the ideas and problems we identified during yesterday's conference.

  7. RE Joe Smith…. Excellent point. He could have taken the role of the disciplinarian school master and put a huge damper on what was happening in the Twitter Corner — not that that would have stopped the tweeting.

    Still, I wonder whether he'll pull up those backchannel Twitter conversations for review, or if that's a stream that will be lost on the organizers moving forward. I hope they do take a look at those comments….

  8. After a day to myself (and close friends and family) in Portland and a day traveling I've taken some time today to read many of the reflections posted so far about the conference. I'm hoping to add my own thoughts by the evening, if not sooner.

    I did, though, want to note quickly that I, too, shared "The Classic Carol's" sensation of being "drained, but not deterred."

    Like you, I also appreciated the sense of community that formed despite the frustrations and the tension. There are clearly voices, and individuals behind them, who want to move forward and want to help those around them do so as well. What I loved so much about the energy behind the "incubator" idea was its inclusiveness, and its potential to draw the tide higher without sinking any of the individual ships we sail (to delve a bit too deeply into metaphor).

    Since trying to piece together an independent career as a journalist since May I can't recall a time I felt this much energy and, yes, excitement about the future of journalism while simultaneously sensing that there are individuals who very clearly share this passion. We can step in for one another when we are drained, and share our successes when we are not.

    Anyhow, I'll have more specific dissections of the conference soon.

  9. I find all the discourse over the conference fascinating – and even though it's been several days, I'm still not sure where in the mix I fit in. I'll guess I'm probably younger than at least half of the "Twitter Corner", but honestly I didn't attend the conference to tweet, but to listen and contribute face-to-face with other journalists facing the same challenges. Maybe one of the tweeters who made the nasty comment that broadcasters were stupid as myself and another journalist (both of us TV people) were presenting our group's ideas is right, and I am just a silly TV bimbo – but I find it terribly hard to pound away on the computer and listen to what's being discussed at the same time.

    I also thought it was telling that when a non-tweeter asked if someone would read aloud what was being said online during the afternoon voting session, the self-proclaimed "cool kid" area was painfully silent. Scrolling over the tweets on my phone as she asked I looked over the last ten or so comments, and they were all akin to the mean notes comparison Ron Buel drew in his review of the day. And all the "old white guy" comments are hilarious to me given the fact that the tweeters were overwhelmingly fair in there complexion (or maybe it was just the glare from their screens?)… Sure you may not be old yet, but will you turn a different ethnicity when you are? Why would you pay $25 to sit in a corner and make fun of people? Ignorant comments like the ones clogging up the #wmtm discussion are exactly why the older generation writes us, and our new-fangled technology, off.

    I do think that there were some valuable things brought up through the online discussion, but I wouldn't say the percentage is higher than what I found useful from the "mainstream" conference. While the majority of the tweeting seemed self-indulgent and pretentious to me, I also realized that as a younger woman, I wasn't really heard in my discussion group. If I forced my way into the conversation which was dominated by the older men in the room perhaps the group would be quiet enough (often I was interrupted by the aggressive guy leading our group), but I truly didn't feel that I was being heard…at least not by the guys running the thing. It's really ironic, because the whole point of the breakout session I attended was creating a cable TV channel, and I just left my job at a very successful channel of the exact same nature to move here. I think I had some important insights to contribute, but didn't feel they were really taken into account.

    I'm not throwing in the towel; I'll take part in the follow-up sessions, but I'm really surprised at what I saw as the lack of respect and united spirit I was looking to find. I wish there were more people that wanted to meet in the middle of the new/old gap…but maybe *hopefully* there are, and we all just got trampled by the bickering sides.

  10. Responding just to Saadia23's brave and thoughtful comment:

    A lot of the problem here could be solved, I think, by looking at the Twitter feed the way Suzi did: "Wish I could strain out the trolls."

    Trolls are trolls. The trolls will always be with us, and even sensible people will sometimes be tempted to troll.

    But we shouldn't make the classic Internet mistake of reading cruel and stupid comments from three people and concluding that their behavior is endemic to the device or the medium. We might as well say "all bloggers get their facts wrong!"

    I'm not saying there wasn't a bad atmosphere on the Twitter feed in which such comments arose. But if anyone really thinks the general attitude coming from Twitter was hostile, read it again.

  11. In response to Michael, I did say there were valuable things being discussed online, but that for me, sifting through the junk just wasn't worth it – at least not in the sense that I got anything different from it than just talking to fellow conference colleagues face-to-face. But again, maybe that's just me. And looking back through the conversation, it's more than just three people polluting it. Although the majority of truly mean comments may have been limited to a special few, there were quite a bit of tweets complaining about how bored they were, how they wish they would have left with the others, how much they would rather be at a bar, etc. I must have missed the armed guards keeping us all in the room. I'm not saying all bloggers get their facts wrong and think it's quite a jump from my observations to suggesting that. It does seem that most of the responsibility is being placed on the non-tweeters for not respecting the online conversation or sorting through the "trolls", but I really haven't seen much suggesting that the tweeters who detracted from the progress online do anything different or take any responsibility for undermining the credibility of the conversation.

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