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    Fear and Loathing (and Bad Hooker Jokes) at the Old Media Corral

    by Mark Glaser
    May 16, 2008

    i-6cd15cf21fbc2a8257000f1abc479500-Interactive Media logo.JPG
    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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    i-ad7996fbb02f866955be0d52d52a89cd-Pond and Hertzfeld.jpg
    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.

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    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.

    Tagged: arriana huffington conferences mediaweek new media newspapers weblog
    • Mark Glaser is entitled to his opinion about our recently concluded Interactive show in Las Vegas, and some may even be valid (and yeah, the “Chariots of Fire” music was unfortunate), but in reading it I had to wonder if he was at the same conference. Of course, I am biased, but to mention just a few unfair or factually wrong statements:

      * There were far more than 100 in the crowd when it kicked of on Wednesday morning and he failed to mention (why?) that the room was packed with 250 the following morning and 350 at our luncheon — all gains from last year, not a “reduced audience size.”

      * I know something about that political campaign panel, since I hosted it, and his description bears no resemblance to what was presented — in fact, all three of the “mainstream” people talked about their video and blog-like work and the entire panel, including the DailyKos editor, frequently referred to what they had in common and where they differed, with a full discussion on different standards for “comments.” That was the whole point.

      * I object heartily to the suggestion that this was an old-timey affair. In fact, the majority of the panels covered very topical and forward-looking issues such as mobile, the next wave of video, a tremendously important debate on Web traffic measurement, the next steps in social networking, “are we being bold enough?” and so forth. All of the panels that I saw, with the exception of a couple of breakouts, produced a great amount of participation from the not-so-dead audience.

      * The Knight Foundation has many options on where to present their News Challenge winners and has chosen to do it via our conference the past two years. Enough said, except to add that anyone who attended the Knight presentation, their separate session — with 16 winners from all over the world all in attendance — and the opportunity for private chats with the winners ought to have come away inspired, not lamenting the “old-school” nature of the gathering. This is far from Mark’s mention of it as merely a positive “nugget.”

      * Mark may have detected a “dead feeling” but we got an overwhelmingly positive response to the content at the conference both in private conversations (which can be a lot of bull) and our private evaluation forms (which are always frank). We had our highest rate ever of people saying they would return next year and recommend it to others. Of course, we will work to improve and build audience — the latter, no easy trick in a period of budget-slashing. The fact that our conference has actually grown over the past three years means something.

      Greg Mitchell, editor, E&P

    • Mark has replied to my earlier response above, and now this is my reply to his reply to my response(if you are still with me).

      Maybe Mark was too busy a-twittering to get the key quote down accurately. I would never say that E&P was the first site to ever link to blogs. What I did say was that we were ONE of the first MSM sites to REGULARLY link to POLITICAL blogs. Some significant qualifiers there.

      Since Mark has already noted that a lot of people did not show up to collect their awards, he can hardly now claim that our hall of 350 was made up mainly of those who came to get the hardware. By my count that would add up to 25 out of 350.

      I’m curious who he is referring to when he mentions “Mitchell and other EPers.” The only other “EPer” who directed a panel was our own Jennifer Saba. Please Mark, find someone who thought that excellent and forward-looking panel was a waste of their time.

      Elsewhere: Mark, are you really saying that bloggers are not “somehow apart from the MSM”? Of course, some are more MSM than others, but to be criticized for making a distinction — which many bloggers, of course, insist on — is bizarre. Since I am a daily contributor to two of the leading blogs in the universe (besides having my own) it’s interesting that he would paint me as out to lunch on the blog front.

      One final point: In case Mark does not know, both E&P and Mediaweek are TRADE publications. Of course, many in our reading audience — and at our conference — come to it from a business perspective. Hence, the panels related to Web advertising and so forth. I would imagine that some in attendance would find those sessions quite boring and unnecessary. For others, in our crowd, it is priority one.

    • recovering journalist

      I just looked at a photo from the 2007 conference, and was not surprised to see that it was about 99% white males in view. You have to wonder if that might be a factor in the demise of traditional media. That is not the demographic of this country at this point.

    • Recovering Journalist,
      I’d say the issue was nearly the same (predominantly white male) this year, though that was mitigated somewhat by the presence of people who won Knight grants from other parts of the world.

      But you did get that vanilla feel to a lot of the event, including the awards most of all. The golfing and hooker jokes were just the most obvious result of that. It was almost as though they were going *back* in time instead of thinking ahead.

    • Sorry, Greg, but although I didn’t attend this year’s conference, Mark’s description of this year’s conference was an accurate description of the past several E&P/MEDIAWEEK conferences I’ve attended.

      What he described is why I decided not attend this year’s or last year’s conference, despite having attended every other one since 1994. (I no longer attend, but I’m still one of its awards contest’s judges, as I’ve always been since the mid-90s when those awards began.)

      Don’t feel bad. The Newspaper Association of America’s interactive conferences are worse.

      For a decade, I’ve been attending each annual interactive publishing conference held the World Association of Newspapers or Ifra and often attend each annual conference of the INMA, British Newspaper Society, Daily Newspaper Publishers Associate of Spain (AEDE), and the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers Association (PANPA), so I think I’ve got a fairly good perspective on newspaper conferences in general and those specifically about online publishing.

      I’m glad to hear the number of attendees at the E&P/MEDIAWEEK conference is growing. But it’s hardly the 800 to 1,000 attendees the show attracted in the late 1990s, when online publishing wasn’t so desperately important a topic for American and Canadian newspapers.

      I wish that E&P would become the trade journal of all news editors and publishers, not just those who work for companies based on newsprint. Unfortunately, it’s the tendrils of printers ink that are holding back your conference.

    • A commenter judges our 2008 conference from one picture from 2007, which supposedly showed 99% white males in view. Mark then notes “the issue was nearly the same” this year. Of course, the picture was misleading about 2007 and the facts, which Mark ignores again, for 2008 are that roughly 1 in 3 panelists were female along with BOTH of the keynoters. I’m sure that the dozens of award winners, which represent a full range of Web sites from traditional media — which is what the EPpys judge — from offbeat blogs to nytimes.com, will appreciate the “vanilla” label.

    • Hmm…

      Having been there, sitting right behind Mark during the first keynote, and in the room for my share of sessions on Wednesday and Thursday, I understand where he’s coming from.

      To the trained New Media ear, most of the panels and questions were circa 2004.

      And even then, for a roomful of journalists, they were surprisingly slow on the question front. It felt like being in a classroom with a lot of bored kids eager for the bell during some sessions.

      The panel Rob Curley moderated was far, far more useful than any of the others, with more appropriate panelists and a real goal of having a conversation.

      The SNA panel was great, too, and at least felt like useful information being passed on to the right audience.

      I can’t say the same about the social networking panel. I could ID four people in the audience that could have jumped up there with Beth from Digg and put on a frickin’ clinic on social networking for news sites.

      So if it felt Old World in there, I can only wonder who shows up to this sort of thing. I know of at least three sharp online news types from major metros who were in the room, although I also know they got more out of the hallway than they did out of the panels, just like me.

      I’ve only been to a few conferences in my short news industry career so far, but I’m going to stop complaining about them in advance.

      Would an unconference be better? Yes.

      Would 90% of the people who show up to these conferences participate at an unconference? I’m not convinced they would.

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