So here’s The Pitch: Put together some of the smartest, most engaged, passionate thinkers about the changing media landscape in a room, buy them a few drinks, and let the conversation flow.
Jason blogs at Eat Sleep Publish along with Mónica Guzmán, a reporter and blogger at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. (Here’s a BeatBlogging.org interview Pat Thornton did with Mónica about cultivating conversation.)
If the premise of The Pitch sounds familiar, check out the Copycamp archives for ideas about bringing together reporters and readers.
The next Pitch event is on Wednesday Dec. 10, 7 p.m. at Lucid in the U-District. I interviewed Jason by IM on Nov. 20.
Ryan Sholin: How long has The Pitch been going on, and who is involved with it now?
Jason Preston: The Pitch is actually fairly new, as is my blog Eat Sleep Publish — and they are very much connected. I booted up the blog in May 2008, so, about 7 months ago, and the first Pitch happened on September 18th.
From the very beginning, I’ve wanted to make ESP a hub for opinion as much as a broadcast platform for my own ideas, and given that Seattle has such a vibrant tech community and there are inherent limitations to just how social a WordPress installation can be, I thought doing a real life event would be a natural fit.
It’s still pretty much just me running the show, although I have had one or two people in other cities mumble about starting their own Pitch events — one in NYC and one in Australia somewhere — and nothing would please me more to see these popping up in other communities.
RS: What’s the structure of the live event? Panels? Presentations? Conversation?
JP: The Pitch is about as free form as I can make it. When you drop by the official event page, you’ll see three people listed as “speakers,” which is entirely a misnomer.
These three people are people who are, hopefully, knowledgeable about the topic and willing to each give about five minutes of background info, and present a basic opinion about “The Pitch,” so that everyone who shows up doesn’t need to be an expert to chime in — we’re all starting with a basic level of understanding.
So each event revolves around a “Pitch,” which is a basic, hopefully contentious statement about the publishing industry. For example, on December 10th we’ll be debating the validity of the statement: “An established newspaper will never be able to provide better hyperlocal coverage than a well-managed neighborhood blog.”
Other than that the event is open. I bring a microphone and pass it around to everyone who wants to have their say. I also buy people drinks because I think that makes them like me.
RS: Yes, yes, every time I look at the Pitch page on Eat Sleep Publish I can’t help but notice the open bar notes. Is that out of pocket or do you have sponsors for the events?
JP: I was lucky enough to get the first event sponsored, and it looks like I’ll be able to do that with the second as well.
It’s a little bit tricky to find a sponsor that fits the event, which is important to me. I don’t think it would make any sense to have a bunch of journalists, bloggers, and new media types show up and find a publishing event sponsored by Twinkies or something weird.
That said, I’m never going to go back on the offer for free drinks, even if I have to buy them myself.
RS: I’m interested in that breakdown of people who show up at the events; you’re expecting “journalists, bloggers, and new media types.” You describe yourself as a “social media consultant and professional blogger.” Do journalists look at you sideways when you mention that?
JP: Sometimes. I think in Seattle less than in other places since this city is positively crawling with ex-Microsofties who are doing their own startups. Within any two block radius you can find four coffee shops each with eight “social media consultants” pounding away at laptops.
But as a general rule one of the things that I think plagues the publishing industry as a whole is the distrust, sometimes warranted, of “new media.” It leads people to avoid trying things at a time when trying “things” is probably the most important part of any business plan.
RS: Is that part of the point of these meetups? You’d think that journalists and social media consultants partying together couldn’t be a bad thing to build relationships…
JP: You’ve hit the nail on the head. I remember reading a New Yorker article eight or nine months ago that described a (ready for this?) ex-Microsoft millionaire who started a company based around filing patents. [Note: Jason’s talking about Nathan Myhrvold.]
His idea was that if you get enough smart people in the same room from different backgrounds, patentable “discoveries” are almost inevitable. A problem that plagues medical doctors may be something that physicists solved years so, or an urban planner may be sitting on the secret sauce that makes the Space Shuttle fly at twice the efficiency, and so on.
I think that makes a lot of sense. And I think that there’s a lot to be gained from putting old school journalists and publishers (good reporting skills, contacts, and they RUN the freaking business) in a room with bloggers and new media types (who might not know the first thing about journalism, but who seem to instinctively get the internet).
RS: Sounds like the right idea. What’s the turnout been like so far?
JP: It tends to be around 20 people or so. Which is actually just about the right size for passing the mic around. I’m a little afraid that if it gets to big it will become unwieldy, and then I’ll be faced with the really difficult choice of either changing the format of the event or turning some people away, neither of which sounds particularly exciting to me.
RS: The small group definitely sounds more productive than a conference-sized audience trying to unconference themselves into a conversation. What else should journalists, whether they’re professionals or amateurs, know about The Pitch?
JP: Well, I think there are actually a few less-obvious benefits to The Pitch, aside from the usual value of actually showing up and meeting people (commonly and somewhat sleazily referred to as “networking”), including the fact that it’s a real snapshot of the community, and an example of the community interacting with an online publication.
Newspapers actually started, I believe, as tools of policial parties, and gradually evolved into their current form. But they’ve always served as tools to help a community bond together, with the implicit promise that some paper on your doorstep every morning was a pretty good way to do that.
But the internet changes all those rules, and it makes it hard if not impossible for a newspaper to serve those same community functions (why check event listings tomorrow morning if I can look them up now on my iphone? same with classifieds, etc)
I’d be lying if I said that Eat Sleep Publish didn’t get a healthy boost from being tied to these events. So do its sponsors (I hope). It’s stunning to me that so many newspapers don’t do more to engage with the community.
Mónica Guzmán, who writes at the Big Blog for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, holds a weekly “office hours” meetup at coffee shops around the city, and usually about 8-12 people show up for a couple of hours and talk about whatever.
But the point is that she’s cultivating her community, getting story tips and ideas, and developing a loyal reader base in ways that no other local paper is doing, and the P-I is going to reap the benefits by having a more engaged audience, spending more time on site, and relying more on the P-I as a tool to connect them to each other. Which was and always will be the power behind a newspaper.
Also did I mention there’s free drinks?
RS: Thanks a lot, Jason.
JP: No problem, thanks much.