Last week, Chicago independent media sought the key to a sustainable future by sitting down to study their collective navel. Two industry conferences a day apart brought together journalists, bloggers, public relations professionals and interested academics to explore the state of local media — especially online media — and figure out how to keep news coming to the masses in an era of declining revenue for traditional media outlets.
I attended both conferences. Overall, the agony outweighed the ecstasy, with the latter being largely confined to Community Media Workshop’s mid-week Making Media Connections 2009 conference hosted at Columbia College. I schmoozed my way through a day-and-a-half of panels and meet-and-greets, and had the pleasure of moderating a discussion on the sustainability of online neighborhood news (with panelists including Daniel X. O’Neil of Everyblock.com, Geoff Dougherty of the Chi-Town Daily News, Silvana Tabares of Extra Bilingual News and Dan Weissmann of Vocalo.org.)
Besides naming my personal blog, CHICAGO CARLESS a Top 20 community Web site, the Workshop’s conference made clear that the future of news dissemination lay online, and substantially with smaller community- and niche-news sites. However, as I reported Friday on Chicagosphere, the conference also pointed out a pernicious lack of understanding about the nature of the blogosphere on the part of some traditional media types.
That alone was enough to drive anyone with a virtual clue about the Internet (pun intended) to drink. So Friday night I wasn’t surprised to find myself holed up in a dank corner of Boystown’s favorite over-rated Mexican dive, Las Mananitas, with my neighbor, Mattcountant, trying to shed the stress of the week. Though when you wait an hour for your meal and have to go on an expedition across the dining room to find where the waitstaff absconded with your still-unlit candle, how much stress can one really leave behind?
“Let’s order a pitcher of margarita, top shelf,” said Matt, to my hesitant gaze. “I had a rotten day, so don’t worry. I’m paying.”
It’s amazing how much more sloshed the good stuff can get you, especially when you’re a two-drink-maximum lightweight like me. The next morning my doorwoman reminded me Matt had to escort me all the way up to my apartment. That’s the moment I realized I’ll never be able to drink like the Windy City columnist I dream of becoming.
(Video: What Chicago’s blogging community really needs these days: a voice of its own.)
From its title, alone, Saturday afternoon’s Chicago Media Future conference (impressively organized in a teeny timeframe by Mike Fourcher, founder of Purely Political Consulting, Barbara Iverson, Columbia College journalism professor and publisher of ChicagoTalks.org, and Scott Smith, Senior Editor at Playboy.com) should have been four hours of deep discussion about ways to make local news sustainable online, over the air and in print.
Unfortunately, most of the day’s two panels were bogged down in discussion of what once was, what might have been and what’s never coming back in the world of journalism. The few questions from the audience regarding potential ways to make online news pay were by turns rebuffed, shrugged at or glossed over.
Given the power crowd that was in attendance, what a shame.
The conference Web site linked above chronicles lots of as-it-happened action (including a live blog and Twitter discussion). Out of the schaff, a few observations stuck in my mind from each of the two panels:
“Consuming the News”
(Panelists: Rich Gordon, Medill Readership Institute/Director of Digital Technology in Education, Medill School at Northwestern; Andrew Huff, Editor and Publisher of Gapers Block; Amanda Maurer, Social Media Producer, Chicago Tribune; Daniel X. O’Neil, People Person, Everyblock; Hilary Sizemore, Interactive Content Manager at Barrington Broadcasting Group | Moderator: Dan Sinker, Columbia College professor, founder of Punk Planet.)
The first panel doted on the decline of the 20th-century media industry, with Gordon almost incessantly moaning — and sharing statistics about — the past. It was informative, but not helpful.
Gordon’s observation that the current informational “sea of abundance” makes it hard for the media to help citizens act as citizens was particularly irritating. Whenever old media bitches that it’s no longer the public’s conscience but somehow has a right to be, it’s the equivalent of telling the public that they’re intellectual children with no innate capacity for rational thought. Uh-huh. I and most people I know do a good job discerning real news from bull shit, thanks.
Equally useless was a belabored discussion about the definition of journalism. We get it, there’s hard news and opinion. Always has been. Always will be. The real question, as Maurer pointed out, was whether online media have the capacity to tell the whole story and tell it correctly.
More relevant were admonitions to be where your online audience is (Maurer), stop fretting about distribution (O’Neil), and learn the rules of the Internet community (also Maurer), as well as Huff’s observation that the death of geographic news monopolies doesn’t mean that local news, itself, isn’t still there, waiting to be told.
“Selling the News”
(Panelists: Brad Flora, Publisher and Founder, Windy Citizen; Tom Lynch, Director of Client Satisfaction at IMP!; Steve Rhodes, Founder, The Beachwood Reporter; Patrick Spain, CEO, Newser | Moderator: Barbara Iverson, Columbia College professor, Co-publisher, ChicagoTalks.)
This should have been a discussion of potential financially sustainable models of local news gathering and dissemination on the Internet. Mostly, it turned out to be a discussion of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) practices. As ChicagoTechNews scribe Todd Allen pointed out to me after the conference, SEO practices are a way to attract page views, nothing more. Whether and how you monetize those page views is another story.
This panel concentrated on the practices and largely ignored the whether and how.
The best part of the panel was its first half, with the live Twitter feed projected over the heads of the panelists for all to see. As the real-life discussion devolved into useless SEO posturing, the virtual debate was far livelier — including dissatisfaction regarding the panelists’ answers, annoyance at the racial makeup of the room and disgust at the inclusion of anyone other than journalists at a media conference.
(That last bit of pure nonsense was from, ahem, recently laid-off Trib food writer Emily Nunn, whom, as Chi-Town Daily News blogger Lou Grant notes, I accused of trolling the live Twitter feed for locally bridge-burning tweets such as this, this and this. I originally encountered Nunn when she personally smeared me as part of her ongoing troll — for example, here, here, here, here and here — of the Trib and ChicagoNow bloggers. Axe Grinder, party of one, your table is ready…)
Even so, panelist Spain proved the day’s most notable participant. He largely and very obviously ignored, talked over, interrupted or derisively gazed sideways at the other panelists, especially bloggers Flora and Rhodes. His open dismissal of the potential for any news site without 5 million viewers, SEO-crafted headlines or a distaste for narrow-casted content–i.e. any site different from Newser — was obnoxious. It was also untenable — the jury’s still out on Newser’s future lifespan, just like every other news site on the Internet.
Rhodes was the hero here, rebuffing Spain’s SEO-heavy-handedness by saying, “I don’t want to live in that kind of world. My brand couldn’t be what it is without [satisfying headlines].” He was also the only panelist to elucidate an approach for reaching sustainability: Creating a stable of six to eight sites and seeking partners, collaborators and investors, instead of wasting time chasing meager local advertising dollars.
In the end Chicago Media Future was yet another missed opportunity for real discussion about survival. Why are we afraid of talking about the problem head on?
As I spent a post-conference dinner at Opera with advanced-urban-thinker Aaron Renn (blogging as The Urbanophile) and his lovely wife, the three of us spent some time debating the uneven impact the Internet has had on metropolitan versus rural areas. I couldn’t help but realize our increasingly tipsy discussion was more relevant than most of the four hours of commentary I had heard earlier in the day.
I could be wrong — that moment of remembered collective media hubris could have been the result of the thankfully watery Singapore Sling I was sucking down (or the giddiness from the transcendent Kung Pao tofu it was accompanying.)
Either way, sobered by a Sunday of doing nothing for the first time in a week, here’s what I think this town needs: a blogosphere roundtable: We local bloggers ought to get together for a strategy charrette one weekend afternoon in a modestly-sized group in a shabby conference hall surrounded by pizza, beer and a phalanx of flip charts and have a frank discussion amongst ourselves about where we want our sites to go, how we’re trying to get there — and most importantly, how we can work cooperatively to make sustainability happen.
Then we should take we we’ve learned from each other, package it into a manifesto and vet it at a community-wide conference. Now that would be a conference I’d want to attend.
When you get right down to it, the point isn’t to recreate billion-dollar mid-century media firms or copy self-aggrandized national sites. The point is to find the happy intersection of building community, sharing the news and making a living in Chicago for Chicago bloggers and Chicago audiences. I wish sites like Newser loads of success, but I’d much rather hear what my blogosphere colleagues have to say.
Without being pushed towards a non-profit solution by the luminaries of the local foundation community or pestered by some self-important Internet CEO trying to talk us down.
(Click the HQ button for a higher-quality video. RSS subscribers, click here to view the video on CHICAGO CARLESS.)