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LAS VEGAS — When Editor & Publisher and MediaWeek magazines presented the recent Interactive Media conference, it seemed like the perfect time for traditional media execs and managers to examine the interactive landscape and consider innovative approaches to the web. The idea was a good one, and timely, but the execution was sorely lacking.

Everything about the conference had an old-timey, old-school feel to it, from the people pontificating from a dais to the hooker jokes at the Eppy Awards ceremony to the venue in a conference room tucked away in a corner of the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas. To make matters worse, the economic challenges facing newspaper companies (who are the core audience of E&P magazine) makes it very difficult for them to send representatives to conferences anywhere. There was a low-energy, dead feel to the “crowd” of about 100 attendees who were in the audience when the conference started on Wednesday morning.

It was almost like a wake for traditional media companies, even though many of them have been doing innovative work. Rather than celebrate the good work of these media websites, the E&P moderators often framed the panels in old terms. For instance, a panel about political campaign coverage included people from PBS, Washington Post, PoliticsWest and Daily Kos. Moderator Greg Mitchell, editor of E&P, made certain to allow the “mainstream media” people to speak first, saving the blogger, Susan Gardner from Daily Kos, for last as though she were a different species. No matter that all three traditional media sites have blogs themselves too.

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Jason Manning and Laura Hertzfeld on politics panel

A more interesting way to present this panel would have been to find out just how much big independent blog sites are becoming similar to traditional media sites, and vice versa. Why not find common ground instead of dividing everything by the old, obsolete fault lines? And E&P painfully pushed its own liberal bias (and by extension the assumption that mainstream media has the same bias) with a representative from liberal blog Daily Kos and a keynote by Arriana Huffington, who runs the liberal site Huffington Post — giving her an Outstanding Achievement award, to boot. Where were people with a conservative bias or opposing viewpoint?

Some Positive Nuggets

Despite the overall dead feel to the gathering, there were some brighter moments. The first keynote speech by Martha Stewart Living president Wenda Harris Millard was almost a call-to-arms for media publishers to react more swiftly to the digital revolution, saying that consumers were not only taking control of programming their media lives, but creating and distributing their own media. You can follow some of my live-Twitter feed from her speech.

And on the second day, Huffington delivered her typical wry speech about media and politics, decrying the way the traditional media had botched its Iraq War coverage and saying blogs like Huffington Post were necessary as a “court of last appeal” (with a credit to NYU’s Jay Rosen) when big media messes up. She also talked about the ethics of blogging and the difficulty in moderating heated comments on controversial political topics. You can follow some of her speech from the live-Twitter feed of Ryan Sholin.

Also on Thursday, there was a morning panel called “Are We Being Bold Enough?” moderated by Washingtonpost.com’s Rob Curley. Rather than spend the hour pontificating, the panel went pretty quickly into questions from the audience, using more of the room’s intelligence. With such a reduced audience size, E&P would have been better served using a BarCamp or “unconference” meeting style, collaborating more with the audience rather than having panels and PowerPoint presentations.

Another positive was the announcement of the Knight Foundation’s new round of News Challenge winners, giving the proceedings an injection of fresh thinking and startup innovation. Grant winners talked about their plans for creating a collaborative online hub for public access TV stations, for making an open source platform for public radio stations, and for helping spread news in Zimbabwe by cell phones. You can see a list of all the winners here, and read more about the announcement on the Idea Lab blog, where all the winners will be blogging about their projects in more detail. (Full disclosure: Knight has given MediaShift a grant to run the Idea Lab blog.)

Full Cheese Factor

Despite those positive moments, the final indignity had to be the Eppy Awards luncheon as the final climax of the show. The E&P presenters showed their age by making bad joke after bad joke about Vegas and prostitutes. If that wasn’t awkward enough, they also mangled the pronunciation of all the Spanish-language award finalists — and made a joke out of that as well. The scripted remarks were painful and only were funny when people such as MediaWeek’s Mike Shields ad-libbed off the script.

Though probably not meant as a joke, the music that played when each award-winner was announced had a cheesy, “Chariots of Fire” feel to it, as if someone was winning an Olympic medal. One of the winners very appropriately raised his arms and ran up to the podium as if he won a foot race to the heroic music. More often, the winners were absent from the room, leaving the presenters to accept the award on their behalf. It was unspoken, but they might as well have said, “The winner would have been here if they hadn’t just had job cuts and eliminated their travel budget.”

As I looked around the room during the awards luncheon, I was surprised to see interactive execs such as USAToday.com executive editor Kinsey Wilson and CNN.com senior executive producer Mitch Gelman. It turns out that many of these folks showed up just to get their awards and go home.

And in the end, that would have been the best way to see this kind of old-school event: Stop by, get your hardware, sniff the odor of defeat in the room and head back to where the real work gets done — at newsrooms, web production studios and sales staffs out in the real world.

What do you think about the E&P show? Did you attend, and why or why not? What do you think could be improved about the show? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of Manning and Hertzfeld by kthread via Flickr.

UPDATE: E&P’s Greg Mitchell, not surprisingly, disagrees with my sentiments about the conference. He says that the room was packed with 250 people the second morning (I’m guessing to see Huffington) and with 350 for the awards luncheon (I’m guessing to get their awards). I’m curious to hear how the conference has grown in the past three years — what were those numbers? It was a pretty sparse, low-energy audience at the conference’s start.

Now, I do agree that some of the issues covered and the people who attended had forward-thinking ideas, and I mentioned how the Knight grantees definitely helped out. But my criticism was more in how Mitchell and the other E&Pers poorly framed the discussion, often showing a lack of knowledge about new media trends and using an old language about bloggers being somehow apart from the MSM. Yes, I was there for the politics panel, and Twittered it, and quoted Mitchell saying statements like, “E&P was the first publication to link to blogs.” Huh? How can you even back up that statement?

I wasn’t alone in finding the panels to be either too basic or off-putting. Many Knight grantees complained to me privately that they would have preferred the unconference, collaborative style instead of the podium panels. And others thought the breakout sessions, such as the one about social networking, weren’t worth the time.

I’m sorry that these people didn’t fill out the feedback forms voicing their complaints. Consider my blog post as a big public feedback form, speaking for some of the attendees. I only criticize if I think it will help bring about change, and I think this gathering is in need of big change.

UPDATE 2: Someone who was at the Eppy Awards show told me that one of the songs they played after a winner was announced was theme music from the movie, “Jurassic Park.” How stunningly ironic that they would give out a newspaper award while music played from a dinosaur movie.