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.)