Mainstream Media Wants to Take Back Control

    by Mark Glaser
    February 8, 2007

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    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.

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    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? I’m 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.

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    Dale Peskin and Andrew Nachison

    “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.”

    Community Self-Congratulation

    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.”

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    Community Forum

    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 SEPIRA.

    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.

    Photos by David Parmet, except Blues Brothers photo by JD Lasica

    Tagged: conferences new media newspapers podcasting video weblog
    • KJ Watson

      Mark, judging from your comments, am I right in assuming you feel the ‘We’ in We Media is really… ‘Them’? That this conference, while posing as an opportunity to talk about incorporating the best of soft media into Old Media, is really about how they can retain or recapture the marketplace?

      If so, it’s kind of like the Simile of the Snake: if you don’t understand how to pick up a snake, and grab it by the tail, it could turn around and bite you. Buddha used that analogy to describe people who learned his teachings but didn’t understand them, instead using them as a weapon to criticize and to win debates. Which is how a lot of us out here view any Old Media attempts to use soft media; it’s all about the money and not about the process, content, motivation or outcome, in the long run.

      And by the way, I’m not even Buddhist. I looked that up online, and by golly, made a piece of ‘citizen journalism,’ didn’t I?

      Looking forward to more information about what ‘They’ think about ‘Us’. Thanks.

    • Wow, it’s deja vu all over again! I was at last year’s WeMedia, invited to be one of the ‘online curators’ responsible for taking part in irc, and reading blogs, so that I could then feed questions and topics back into the conference. Except the organisers didn’t like what was coming out of the backchannel at all. They ignored much of it, and as the people taking part by IRC or blog got more and more critical, so their views were swept more firmly under the carpet. The finale on the second day was when one of my fellow ‘curators’ said “Well, there’s been a lot of discussion in the backchannel” and went on to – as far as I could see – make it up.

      I was disgusted by the way that things went, and very nearly walked out. (Somewhere there’s a video of me ranting at the WeMedia Fringe in a ‘talk’ that I hastily titled ‘Why WeMedia Sucked’.) I’d pushed back at Andrew and Dale, and gave them a very frank assessment of WeMedia’s weaknesses, but my suggestions for how we could improve the ‘we-ness’ of it went unheeded.

      As frequently happens, what we saw and what WeMedia, Reuters and the BBC saw were different things, and the herograms that they sent around afterwards were just risible. What we thought was a farce, they thought was a triumph.

      I have no doubt that the same will happen this year, that Reuters, WashingtonPost.Newsweek.Interactive (wow, what a piece of branding that is!) and the Knight Foundation will pat themselves on the back at a job well done, whilst the rest of us wonder how they could make the same mistakes three times in a row.

    • My impression is that this year is actually an advance on last year. In London there seemed to be a lot of discussion from old media such as newspapers about how they could move into the web. This year there is almost nothing about newspapers as print. That discussion presumably continues, but somewhere else. I am only guessing from a distance. I live in Exeter UK so did not attend the UK one either. There is some positive stuff comes out of these events.

    • thanks Mark! I was talking with bunches of folks after the morning panel, and, well, since you and I were also talking, and shared similar opinion, I was surprised to *then* hear some people who seemed to think that the morning panel went well…

      Then again, these were folks who don’t spend a lot of time (if any) going to conferences…

      Thing is, many cons are saying the same stuff all over again–it’s not just We Media. I’m skipping this year’s SXSW Interactive because other than Will Wright it’s a lot of the same folks, addressing the same topics, on a different day…and those conversations aren’t going to make the tech folks any less condescending towards users…

      Panels like this aren’t going to change for two reasons–monetization and executive fear. When so many in old media are looking, like vultures, to “the people” to change things, there will never be any representatives of “the people” on panels to challenge what’s being said (and when there are “go to” participants, the conversation’s really even more controlled, even within the room)

      Why all the control and condescension? fear. pure and simple. people enjoying themselves online, using tools to talk and get to know one another, creates fear and anxiety in those who feel a need to persuade others all the time. I was stunned by the use of the term “echo chamber” and David Saski’s problem with the term. Apparently, David is an enthusiastic young man who wants to change minds. And doesn’t get that life online isn’t always about changing minds.

      I use two anaolgies to explain what goes on out here to the C-levels: The first is the local diner. Big “M” media’s desperate need to control the various converations is like local newspapers sending out reporters to sit in local diners to go up and correct the perceptions of every person having a conversation.

      Then, there’s the barroom idea: if you go to a bar in Boston with a Red Sox logo, where everybody’s talking about the Sox, and you try to talk about the glorious Yankees, you’re going to get shouted down. Blogs are like little barrooms, and the “echo chamber” is people discussing what *they* want to discuss. They may not want debate any more than the Red Sox folks want to hear about the Yankees, and an activist is just a bore.

      then again , for the C-level folks to get what I just said, they’d have to understand that life online IS a form of real life. And that’s something they *really* aren’t getting. Will that change? Very Doubtful.

    • I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. It was painfully obvious who was in the room and who wasn’t. A few times during the community session I wanted to ask a question, but I think I would have been seen as the ‘crazy kid in black t-shirt’.

    • oh and FWIW, I’m sick and tired of the term “mommybloggers” Women who use the term do not get that they are forwarding the opinion that a woman who blogs, who is not a professional of some high leve, is a “mommy” I’m a struggling freelancer who’s got most of her recognition from blogging, and I know the slippery slope that’s being created by the emphasis on the “buying power” of “mommybloggers” and how it is eclipsing the rest of the great women who aren’t mommies.

    • Nice posting Mark! I think this We Media conference illustrates the worst trends with how corporate media is trying to digest so-called consumer-generated content. In fact, I hate the term “consumer generated” because it suggests that the gatekeepers of media are ‘allowing’ people whose job it is to passively consume to produce for them and line their pockets. To them, ‘we media’ means free content which they can exploit. But people who get it see an alternative vision: you don’t need them to distribute any more. All you need is the ability to tell a good story. “We Media” is nothing more than a gathering of corporate middlemen who have confused themselves with actual media creators (directors, producers, musicians) desperately trying to justify their relevance. The issue is not whether creators which have been traditionally shut out can have control. They do – and have more with each passing day. The question is how can we make these people better storytellers and create a culture where people feel as obligated to create as to consume. We’ve launched a site (http://www.nomadsland.com) which is squarely focused on building a new distribution platform for creators who make international feature films, documentaries, satire and music which encourage social change or offering social commentary. The main component of our ethos is we’re encouraging people with “us” values to tell “us” stories. Both corporate media and user-generated media still focuses too intently on telling the story of “me” because narcissism is still one of the prevailing pillars of American culture. But the real victors in Web 2.0 will be those who who tell the story of “us.” This is already being proven through popular blogs and will continue with multimedia. “We Media” sounds like a bunch of dinosaurs trying to monetize a trend they don’t understand because it is fashionable.

    • Lord Baker

      I was thinking the same thing long before this blog was posted. We are the web, we are the ones that tangles to one another, making technology a very useful tool. I was completely surprised when I was able to watch a full length show online at my latest finding LineTeVe ( http://www.lineteve.com ), this took me back to when I was a little boy growing up back in the sixties, all I can think of at school was hurrying back home so I can watch the tube, but now .. the tube goes with me everywhere I go (thanks to the internet). I hope we see more sites like LineTeVe, then we (the people) can be our own media.

    • I’m attending Len Witt’s UnConference up at Kennesaw State this week, and guess how much it is…nada. The traditionalists don’t want to bring the independents to the table because the media pie is being split into too many small pieces.

    • I agree 100%. There was a lot of arrongance and elitism in the room. But mostly fear.

    • Good meeting you last week at Miami…I just heard there’s some news happening at MTV. see video:


    • Here comes Universal Content Utopia, Global Democracy, and No Media.

      Media means a mediator, an interpreter, a message bringer, a hoops through-jumper who needles and meddles and hands us infotainment on a mirrored silver platter, into which we gaze moronically and think we got “news” and “information”.

      So why a media, mediator, mediation machine? Why a go-between? Why a “reporter”? When we can now access what is going on directly connecting to it our own bad selves?

      The auto-disintegrating of social media will shut down the big mass media and their dinosaur attitudes of “how can we dance like that on the disco floor of the engines of commerce?”

      When big media invades little media, the old wine shall burst the new wineskins, they will be spewed out, vomited forth like golden globes of monetized sewage.

      We our methods for dealing with, and driving crazy, such buffoons who dare to warp our Open Source Everything revolution. They will self-deteriorate all over each other.

    • Rather, the new wine of social participatory interactive media will dissolve the old wine skins of mass passive broadcast media.

      So they pour their old wine, wind-baggage of old mass marketed infotainment news programs and advertising models into the new wine skins of open source online community collaborations, and digital soapbox derbies, only to lose their hats and heads.

    • Michael F. Sarabia

      The problem, like you said in PBS, is the anonymity that allows

    • Michael F. Sarabia

      The problem, like you said in PBS, is the anonymity that allows the weak minded to be as gross and rude as the vocabulary allows.
      Some would be affected if they were required to use their names but, somehow, I doubt it.
      Good Interview, good book.
      Michael F. Sarabia

    • Michael F. Sarabia

      The problem, like you said in PBS, is the anonymity that allows the weak minded to be as gross and rude as the vocabulary allows.
      Some would be affected if they were required to use their names but, somehow, I doubt it.
      Good Interview, good book.
      Michael F. Sarabia

      PS It’s a good idea to prevent quick thoughtless comments. I hit Return too early.
      If you find something else that keeps the rude at bay, let us all know in your next book, or comment. Thanks.

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