As I left the 140 Characters Conference (a.k.a. "The Davos of Twitter") yesterday afternoon, I was approached by a lovely suit-by-day-DC-based-lifestyle-blogger-by-night who wanted to chat about the business of blogging. The whimsical tone in her voice implied that her relatively interesting day job was not half as rewarding as the passion project she feeds in her free time, a battle scar shared by virtually all bloggers. After a 12-hour day of provocative sessions led by some of the top minds in the media game, she heaved the Great Aspirational Citizen Journalist Sigh and said, "Well, you're an actual journalist, so I'm sure it's different."
On paper, her observation is decidedly accurate, but since I became a rogue new media chick a couple years ago it's been an ambiguous moniker that inadequately represents a skill set that no longer abides by conventional definition. Yes, I have a master's degree in journalism from the prestigious Medill school at Northwestern University. I've worked in mainstream media as a reporter and columnist for The Chicago Tribune and you could possibly count my tenure with Arianna at The Huffington Post and subsequent entrepreneurial digital ventures in the "journalism" section of my resume, although I could also easily argue that the latter falls under the realm of what many consider to be social media marketing. Regardless, the broader implication is that in neither capacity have I reaped the financial benefits of my zealous citizenship nor have I been satisfied with the dispensation of what may loosely be deemed as "news." As though there's some distinction between stripped-down media outlets piling onto the same three daily talking points that were cut and pasted from AP wire as opposed to retweeting Pete Cashmore's @mashable posts.
Yesterday's dialogue at the #140conf, organized by the brilliant Jeff Pulver, underscored the collision of mainstream and emerging media, making it obvious to everyone in attendance that we've reached a tipping point on the hybrid reporting model. At times, the conference could be characterized as "explosive," as *shockingly* opinionated bloggers disrupted the more traditional presenters and dissenters among them engaged in what I like to call "twittering the sh*t out of it." Excitingly enough, however, unlike the droll, vague expositions we typically see from the same big names at events dedicated to the so-called Future of Media, I sensed the faint seed of momentum that I noticed in Chicago a few years ago when a certain senator was telling us we could take ownership of our future and instigate tangible change.
The definitive moment came during a fascinating, uproarious clusterf*ck-of-a-panel hijacked by two of the Twitter community's favorite narcissists, Robert Scoble and Rick Sanchez. (For a full account of the debacle, see the New York Observer, although it notably lacks a description of the audience's arguments, led by @blogdiva.) As the crowd raged against CNN's alleged botched coverage of the Iranian elections, Ann Curry passionately defended the process of story selection and fact-checking, championed Twitter as a direct channel, and asserted (between the big boys' histrionic monologues) that "news judgment is developed over time and must change with the times."
But as I posed originally, whose judgment matters these days? As the absolutely genius Chris Weingarten of Rolling Stone and The Village Voice reminded us after our lunch break: Creating content is a redundant, circuitous business that nobody wants to pay for.
(Here is his speech. Worth every minute!)
Except this is not an acceptable scenario. Who wants to live in an America where thought is dominated by dolts with Flip video cameras?
I hang with media, tech and advertising executives on a regular basis at conferences from SXSW to the Web 2.0 Summit to Netroots Nation, and I'm absolutely sick of hearing brilliant, successful people tell me they don't know what's going to happen to our industry standards or who is going to pay for their work in the nebulous Future of Journalism. Do we really not know?
The solution to the crash of the mainstream media business is obvious, and yet the executives and journalists and sales reps and media buyers who hold the keys to success in their hands remain so justifiably petrified by their mortgage payments and health insurance that no one will step up and pull the trigger. Any person with business sense knows you have to invest in your core product and sell it. Reporters with access, fact-checking ability and expertise are the core product, and the distribution mechanism required is a community-based web site with a functional mobile ap and optimized SEO strategy. At some point one of the few organizations that actually produces original thought anymore, such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Washington Post, is going to go all-out digital. A competent sales director is going to recruit the country's top sales managers away from their lucrative jobs in pharmaceuticals and hack $15,000 or so off the base salaries of their sales force. They'll incentivize productivity through a stronger commission structure, write a new rate card that emphasizes print or terrestrial broadcast programming as an add-on, and train their customers to value the same web content that their audience clearly now does. Sure, quality of impressions is an issue, but what ad agency isn't pimping its shiny new social media division and which media buyers aren't looking to tap into community-based peer-to-peer environments? Is a glossy page in Vanity Fair really still as valuable as an endorsement from the Twitter Moms?
More than ever, I'm eager to see who will step up and be a leader. (Are you listening Bill Keller?)
Yesterday Kodak Chief Marketing Officer Jeffery Hayzlett made a great point that stuck with me about his ROI expectations, and by ROI he meant: Return on Ignoring. We're not up against the free market, we're up against a collective action problem. Craig Newmark and Arianna did not kill the media business. They innovated a marketplace and no one is competing with them. Until major players in media abandon this downward spiral of incremental change, we'll all continue to sit at panels staring at each other with our hands up in the air blaming Google for our demise. The longer we invest in the model of the past and yield the same diminishing results, the longer we'll obstruct professional journalists and citizen aggregators from the important business of disseminating the quality information that is our country's pulse.