MIAMI — Thanks to the audience taking control of their media experience and creating their own media in blogs, podcasts, video and social networks, the people who are losing control have decided to meet — and meet, and meet again — until they figure out how they can take back some control of this uncontrollable situation.
That’s the rub in Miami today and tomorrow at the We Media conference, a high-end schmooze-fest sponsored in part by Reuters, WashingtonPost.Newsweek.Interactive and the Knight Foundation. My personal definition of “we media” is the movement toward an empowered audience, who can customize their media experience and create their own media, leaving behind the old model of the mainstream media control. In that case, a “we media” conference would be about those average folks who are innovating in citizen journalism and breaking the mold.
But this conference uses the “we media” moniker loosely, making the gathering a hotbed of broadcasters, newspaper folk, venture capitalists, and advocacy groups who all want to understand how they can dance the “we media” dance. Usually I insert a metaphor about square people in suits trying to look cool doing hip-hop breakdancing, but in this case the conference was kicked off today with a couple hip-hop videos, so my usual fiction was strangely coming true.
The conference was marketed as being a conversation among various players in the media industry. As the conference site put it: “The program includes a series of roundtable discussions and a variety of participatory activities involving communities, individuals and organizations to help participants understand and address the challenges of a changing multi-media world.”
But some individuals, who wrote complaints on the We Media website, were put off by the $1,000+ walk-up registration fee. One commenter named Joshua put it like this:
A thousand dollars? WHAAAAAT???? How do you expect this event to benefit everyone, when only those wealthy enough to set aside a THOUSAND BUCKS for travel and registration can attend? Iâm a professional journalist — a news anchor — and I can’t afford that. And I live in Miami! I’d love to take part in this, but the price is just insane. Isn’t there another way?
It’s true that there are other low-cost unconferences such as BloggerCon, where there are no fees and no sponsors, and the space is donated. But this is not what We Media is aiming for. I chatted with the conference organizers, Dale Peskin and Andrew Nachison (a.k.a. the new media Blues Brothers), this morning before the confab started, and they explained the high cost of We Media.
“Two-thirds of the [250 people] who attend don’t pay the full price to come,” said Peskin. “We also pay for 25 fellows to attend, and we try to limit who comes.”
Nachison said that registration fees only pay for 20% of the costs to put on the conference, with sponsor money making up the rest of the income. Their group, iFocos, is non-profit, but they obviously aren’t looking for charity here. This is about business, and how the media business is changing, and it’s not just the army of citizen media people.
“We want bottom-up media, top-down media, sideways, whatever,” Nachison said. “We want to cover the whole ecosystem of media. We want to do more than just help media companies figure this change out. We want society to figure it out. Some companies will figure it out and some won’t.”
First up was the “Community Forum,” which included representatives from MTV, Topix.net and BlogHer leading a discussion about the new ways people are using news and information in their communities. Ian Rowe from MTV noted how his younger audience is changing the dynamic in how MTV covers issues.
“They want to get their content when they want it and how they want it, and that also goes for issues in their life,” he said. “It used to be top down where we chose one or two issues for them. Now our audience is telling us it’s great you are focusing on issues, but I want to deal with issues that are important to me, and I want to connect with people around the world to talk about issues I care about…We see great opportunities in the media revolution that’s now in the hands of young people.”
What’s left largely unsaid (at least until the afternoon “Investment Forum”) is what MTV and other media companies think these “opportunities” are. Is it an opportunity to cash in on the idea of citizen media? Is it an opportunity to change their own top-down culture?
Jan Schaffer, who runs the J-Lab at the University of Maryland, pointed out that grassroots media sites don’t necessarily play by the corporate media rules of money first, community service second. A recent survey by the lab of 191 citizen media sites found that they were largely shoestring operations with content coming from volunteers. Here are some eye-opening stats from that study:
> 51% said they didn’t need to make money to continue.
> 82% said they planned to continue “indefinitely.”
> 73% of respondents said their sites were a “success,” based on the impact in their communities.
A lot of the comments from the room revolved around people mentioning their own citizen media efforts and initiatives. Someone from Gannett mentioned Gannett’s mobile journalists. Someone from Topix.net talked about the forums at Topix.net. Someone at BlogHer talked about the female blogger network at BlogHer. These were all great examples of what’s happening in citizen media, but there was a self-congratulatory and self-promotional tone that didn’t feel very “we media.”
But it did fit in well with the conference’s tagline: “Behold the power of us.”
Look out for more reports from the We Media conference in the next day or so, and you can read my reports from last year’s London conference here. If you’d like me to bring up your own feelings about “we media” to attendees, leave comments below and I’ll make your most eloquent points in future sessions.
UPDATE: If you’d like the real-deal live-blogging from the conference, check out what Jemima Kiss is doing for the Guardian’s Organ Grinder blog. A real blow-by-blow of the whole first day here in Miami.
UPDATE 2: Rich Skrenta, CEO of Topix.net, takes a hard look at the failings of the conference, and how that parallels the failings of many startups in what he calls the “News 2.0” space. Here are some key passages of his excellent blog post:
There is actually a media revolution in the works. So what’s going on here? By implicit definition, participatory media is non-commercial. If it’s commercial, someone owns it, and it’s not “we” anymore.
Furthermore, as soon as a new media venture crosses the line and tries to become a business, it either becomes a successful business or a failed one. Businesses aren’t about ideology, they’re about getting a job done and earning revenue to keep the thing going. Even wild success tends to leave ideology behind. Ideology is the realm of nonprofits and failures…
Yes, there is a media revolution in the works. But it’s messy, it’s nasty videos on YouTube, not the neat & tidy civic Welcome Wagon of citizen journalism. You can’t quit your job as a journalist and replace your salary with AdSense on your blog. You’ll be lucky to make beer money, let alone pay COBRA and fund your SEP-IRA.
And big media has been watching, and buying the winning ventures, and building their own platforms to — yes you’re right! — exploit the new models.