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Inside the auditorium

MIAMI — Your tireless correspondent shook off the South Beach-induced hangover and slogged over to the University of Miami for another day of schmoozing and conversing at the We Media conference. Once again, I was impressed with the people who attended the confab, and learned a lot about what’s going on in the social media world — but not in the main auditorium where the “stage-setters” largely hogged the stage.

To get in on those conversations (and this is about conversation, right? We Media?) required waiting until all panelists spoke, questioned each other, and then getting called on by the moderator. Often there was little back-and-forth you’d expect in a conversation, and more of a question and answer session typical of most conferences. This year’s enhancement was the addition of “go-to participants” planted in the audience. But that just made it seem like there were ubiquitous panelists popping up like whack-a-moles out among the common folk.

Some of the more interesting, frank discussions — and, of course, the snarky complaints — took place out in the hallways. As is becoming a custom at conferences, the hallways and outdoor areas are the hotbed of intellectual discourse, socialization and true connection. I’ve often wondered why someone didn’t just create a conference that was just one big hallway, and NowPublic’s Michael Tippett seconded my emotion when I chatted with him outside.

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Out in the hallway

“I think this conference would have been better served with the unconference format [without formal panels],” Tippett said. “I think the audience here has some really interesting things to say, and the unconference format would give them many more opportunities to speak up. Someone should do a conference that’s just eight hours of people networking and just dispense with the nonsense and the podiums. You have 20 minutes to meet the 10 people you came here to meet, and you’re doing it while shoving a piece of salami in your mouth.”

Tippett had one of the more important announcements to come out of We Media, with his citizen journalism hub NowPublic making a deal with the Associated Press to supply photos, text and video shot by average folks to the august news service. Tippett told me the AP would be paying citizen journalists if they used their material, with part of the fee going to NowPublic. (You can read more about this deal in this later MediaShift post.)

Of Teens and Town Halls

So while I thoroughly enjoyed the people I saw and met out in the hallways and outdoor schmooze zones at the conference, the panel forums in the auditorium were a mixed bag. Sometimes the pace felt rushed, and the pressure to sum up everything with sound bites was strong. The online backchannel wasn’t as much a part of the festivities as last year, but Brian Reich ably kept PowerPoint style notes on the “a-ha” moments as they came up.

First up this morning was the requisite look at what the kooky kids are doing these days. The panel included a smattering of Miami high schoolers along with a marketing trendspotting expert, John Fischer, the oldie at 24 years of age. The group generally dispelled the notion that email is only for older folks, though many of them did say how much their lives revolved around social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, where even their teachers were communicating with them.

There was consensus that many teens aren’t following the news that much, though many of the panelists do follow the news. And while some of them were into social networking, others pooh-poohed them as being full of junk and irrelevant invitations. The problem with this teen panel idea is that you can’t get a sense of what all teens are doing with a handful of random ones on a panel. Instead, perhaps the group could at least pierce through some of the stereotypes about teens, including an Internet question about them being the slacker generation.

“It’s ironic you have us all up on stage,” Fischer said. “There’s an idea that our generation will break all the old models. But we have the same old problems, the same human needs and issues as you all do. It’s unfair to characterize us as bored or boring. We’re not saying pay attention to us, we’re different. You’re the ones who put us up on stage.”

In the men’s room after the panel, I overheard this conversation between two attendees:

Guy 1: “What did you think of the panel?”

Guy 2: “I tuned out half way through and was checking my email.”

Guy 1: “Have you checked out MySpace? It would probably be a good idea to spend some time there….”

Guy 2: “No not really. I haven’t spent much time there. But my students use it.”

Later, there was a powerhouse “Town Hall” panel with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, University of Miami president and former Clinton cabinet member Donna Shalala, Time Inc. executive editor Sheryl Tucker and Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibarguen. New York Times futurist-in-residence Michael Rogers was the moderator, and kicked off things with his own predictions of what’s to come in media technology.

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Donna Shalala

Rogers predicted that there would be an “extreme explosion and evolution” of mobile devices, with a new device that would combine the power of laptops and tablet PCs with smart phones to create a laptop replacement. He also predicted a new decade about identity, where everyone would have real legal identities online that would be more meaningful than passports. Not surprisingly, Rogers was bullish on Big Media catching on to the we media craze.

“Big Media is catching on fast,” he said. “It’s easy to say Big Media are dumb and blind but it’s not the case. TV networks and newspapers all will adopt social media. Reporters did not become top reporters by ignoring reality. We’re at these conferences and we’re all listening.”

Big Media Will Absorb You

Time and again, the theme of the panel came back to Big Media really, really getting this we media thing-a-ma-bob. Time’s Tucker said that “We are not the enemy as mainstream media.” Even Newmark took potshots at the blogosphere for a “print first, then maybe do fact-checking” attitude and lauded Big Media for having pro fact-checkers. These are the old rationales and defensive postures that MSM folks like to make to separate themselves from the masses of untrustworthy citizen journos.

I couldn’t take it much longer, and finally got up to basically restate what I had blogged about yesterday, complaining that the unspoken context of this conference was Big Media trying to regain the control they had lost.

“What no one wants to admit is that the mainstream media has lost power and lost control to the people,” I said. “And Big Media is here to try to figure out how to exploit or make money off of citizen media. I’m not saying that they can’t be part of this new world, but they need to engage it in an authentic way.”

Their defensive posture was to say basically that “hey we’re all media, we can all get along” and it’s not an us vs. them thing anymore, which was not my point at all. Time’s Tucker was the most defensive, saying that she too was a citizen, and just wanted to provide a framework for people. JD Lasica tried to more eloquently make my point in a question to the panel later.

“The Time magazine Person of the Year was ‘you,’” he said. “How come they chose you and not us or we? My question is do you see MSM representing our interests, do you have our best interests at heart? People see MSM as representing hard power and not being on our side. The figures from Zogby show that the public perception of MSM is [as low] as the way people view Congress.
How can people in charge of media companies embrace the new ethos of new media?”

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Sheryl Tucker of Time Inc.

But that question proved to remain rhetorical, because it just wasn’t getting through to Tucker, who was stuck on MSM providing the trusted voice. “We need to give our readers a frame of reference,” she said. “Are we communicating with hardcore research or off the top of our heads? Whether it’s from a computer at home, the standard doesn’t change. They can judge whether it’s accurate or not.”

Outside in the hall after the panel, NYU professor and PressThink blogger Jay Rosen told me that Lasica and I had not gotten through to them. Rosen had raised his hand but wasn’t called upon, but had a great analogy of what was wrong with MSM’s approach to citizen media.

“They are trying to change the vocabulary without changing the grammar,” he said. “They use the new vocabulary [of new media] but they are not changing their mindset, and accepting a loss of control.”

In other words, they might start blogs or podcasts or accept comments on stories, but they still believe their work is coming down from on high atop the mountain of Eternal Truth. The new truth of we media — lowercased — is that the media elite have lost the lock on media control, the old style of getting into a room and deciding what is news for the rest of us.

*****

One footnote to the Town Hall discussion was that I missed Tucker after the panel, and she left a business card on my laptop with a hand-written note:

Not really clear about the us and we. Would love to continue the conversation, so that I can better understand how to respond. Good journalism shouldn’t have boundaries or be held hostage by mass media.

I will follow up with her and hopefully we can make our points more clearly in a real conversation, which I will update here.

For more comprehensive coverage of the We Media confab, check out Jemima Kiss at the Guardian’s Organ Grinder blog.

UPDATE: ABC News anchor Charles Gibson provides a great Exhibit A of the MSM taking a defensive stand against the web and people’s control of media. He told the Chicago Tribune the following:

I’m getting on a high horse here, and I haven’t really worked this through, but in many respects the oft-now-derided MSM becomes more important rather than less important in the web age. You are choosing the particular kind of news that’s interesting to you. We become more important because our mission is to expose you to things you wouldn’t have clicked on.

The fact that people are going to the web and gravitating toward news that they want makes it more important for somebody putting together the front page of the Tribune to say, ‘Well, it’s still important for you.’…It’s a defense of journalism. It’s not that we know better. … It’s not an elitist function. It’s an editorial function. It is a function of taking a look at what’s important in a diet of daily news and saying, ‘Here’s what I feel is important.’”

And what makes your editorial function more important than anyone else’s?

UPDATE 2: In comments, Michael Rogers of the New York Times, says that the social media community is wasting energy in attacking the MSM. He hopes that everyone can all just get along and look toward the future together:

When a Reuters supports Global Voices, or the AP supports NowPublic, it’s not a secret conspiracy to figure out how to subvert these tools to sell more SUVs. When newspapers start blogs or put editors online to answer reader questions, it’s not a desperate ploy to “regain power.” It’s because we think these elements add value to what we do. It seems to me that the MSM vs. blogosphere argument has outlived its usefulness. It’s time to concentrate on building the best future we can with whatever tools look right for the job.

Richard Sambrook, director of BBC Global News, said it sounded like Groundhog Day at We Media, noting that the same old arguments were still coming up about old media not getting it, and bloggers complaining. Here’s the meat of his post:

Enough of conferences going over the same ground, enough of bloggers (several of whom make their living from consulting with big organisations) saying big media doesn’t “get it” and only they have insight, enough of big media publicly agonising over how to respond to the huge disruption the internet has brought. Enough of the fallacy of thinking there is some kind of power struggle going on. It’s about integration, not subsititution… For me this year has to be less about talking and more about doing.

Point taken — and I’ll agree whole-heartedly that it’s time for action. Obviously I am being paid by an old media, Big Media company, PBS, to write this blog. My intention was not a slam against all traditional media, or a holding up of small-m media. My hope is that there is a pro-am way to make new media work, a way for the public to be served, whether it’s by a credible amateur blogger, a traditional media podcast, or a citizen journalist video feed from the scene of breaking news.

UPDATE 3: Author and blogger Shel Israel has a fantastic post describing his experience on the first panel at We Media. He wondered whether Big Media really had its heart in social media or was just in it for the buzz words:

But in the discussion between our five-member panel and about 150-200 attendees from big media, academia and assorted other places, I kept hearing from people who claimed to understand the current transformational period which will probably culminate on the inevitable day that newspapers die. They used words like “allow,” “brand extension,” “control,” “company initiative.” These to me are words that have lost their fuzz, like some kids toy whose battery has run down.

It seemed to me that some members of this audience should worry much less about elephants and a lot more about being dinosaurs. After my talk, a representative of one of the most powerful media companies in the world told me, “every year, for three years, we gather together and talk such a good game about the changes we have to make. Then we go home and do almost nothing until the next We Media, when we gather together to talk a good game.”

Auditorium photo and photo of Shalala by JD Lasica.

Hallway photo and photo of Tucker by Georgia Popplewell.

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