07/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Little Progress at the Chicago Media Future Conference

I spent most of Saturday at the Chicago Media Future Conference. Quick summary: I learned a few things, the conference had some shortcomings, and overall it was definitely worth my time.

Kudos to the organizers, who clearly learned a lot from the Chicago Journalism Town Hall in February. Big differences between that event (which did a fantastic job of starting the local conversation about these issues but not much else) and the one this weekend:

  • organizers didn't assume that they could solve the problems of the entire journalism industry in a three-hour event
  • they focused the discussion to be (relatively) specific
  • they didn't deign to claim that they had The Answer
  • they invited panelists who actually knew what they were talking about
  • they gave attendees much more of a chance to talk to each other before, during and after the event
  • they left a lot of time for Q&A
  • they seemed *very* open to constructive criticism.

In that spirit, here is some constructive criticism. Next time . . .

Find moderators who know what they're talking about and make sure they have a plan for how to lead the discussion. In the first panel, "How do people consume the news, and what do they do with it?" Dan Sinker (a good guy whose journalism I really respect) missed an amazing opportunity to talk about how people are consuming news, what readership studies tell us, how social media is impacting consumption, how to deal with the digital divide. Instead, he largely rehashed the Town Hall in February, and, frankly, seemed to be winging it. It's 2009, and the people in the room are relatively sophisticated -- don't waste their time asking five people to define "what news is." And don't let a few people dominate a panel -- Hilary Sizemore might've had some interesting things to say, but Sinker barely called on her.

Barbara Iverson organized the event, and she has been examining the convergence of journalism and technology for a long time. But if someone doesn't know what "the long tail" means, she shouldn't be moderating a discussion of media business models. For those who weren't there or haven't listened online, Newser CEO Patrick Spain was basically saying, "Look, Windy Citizen is a cool idea, you'll be able to make a little bit of money, but you'll never be successful as a business unless you have a network of Windy Citizens." (For example, Oklahoma Cityzen, Asheville Citizen, etc.) And that's what The Long Tail is -- a company making money by going after several niche markets/products at once (for example, Netflix making money by renting lots of obscure documentaries, not huge blockbusters). Iverson essentially said that Patrick Spain could be wrong, because Windy Citizen and The Beachwood Reporter are going after the long tail. But they're not long tail companies at all: What Brad Flora (full disclosure: he's a collaborator and friend) and Steve Rhodes were saying is, "We can do it on our own, and we think we can make reasonable money at it. Maybe not hundreds of millions of dollars, but enough to live on." And Spain was critical of that business model. Because Iverson didn't understand his argument well enough, she didn't ask tough questions of Flora (or any of the panelists). I love the Citizen, but I have some questions about the long-term viability of a single-site business model that doesn't focus on something ultra-lucrative like sports, finance or porn. Iverson didn't seem to know what to ask, and didn't know how to push the panelists to productively argue with each other.

Invite panelists who can speak to the topic at hand. In general, the panelists were insightful and appropriate, especially Gordon and Spain. Best insight: Gordon's claim that every technology is always used to the fullest extent possible to connect people. For instance, the telephone, which might have been used to replace the phonograph (concerts-by-phone), instead came to largely replace mailed letters. I doubt the idea was extemporaneous, but it was really interesting -- it sounded like the basis of an article or book chapter, feel free to send me a link if it exists.

Not everyone was right for their panel, though. Amanda Maurer, a social media producer at the Chicago Tribune, said a few interesting things, and clearly knows the digital media world well. But someone who finished J-school a year ago, works at a newspaper that launched its social media initiative five years too late, and sits near the bottom of the organizational totem pole isn't going to be able to talk about how social media fits into the larger distribution and financial strategy at the Tribune, which is really the only reason to have someone from the Tribune on the panel. (Or maybe she was -- Sinker didn't ask about this.)

I like Steve Rhodes, he's a good guy and an unbelievable media critic, and he did make some interesting (and funny) points. But he didn't need to be on that panel. The guy admits that he doesn't focus as much as he should on advertising or business as he should. Why have him on a business panel? He and Andrew Huff (who has not much to say about journalism but a ton to say about the media business) should've swapped panels.

Be specific. The most interesting stuff was the detailed stuff. The Spain vs. Flora/Rhodes discussion was fantastic. And I liked real discussions of real CPM ad rates, or the ideal number of tags, or the fact that the real problem is a distribution problem, not a content problem (with a few ideas on how to fix it). But there wasn't enough of that sort of conversation, especially during the first panel. Look, I know there's only so much you can do in three hours, and there were some people there who didn't know the difference between search engine optimization and search engine marketing. I'd much rather have some depth and insights on a handful of topics than a broad-brush panel that tells me very little that I don't already know.

The first panel can pretty much be summed up with what Everyblock's Dan O'Neill said (this quote isn't quite accurate, but it's close): "It's literally impossible for answering the question 'What happened?' to not be valuable."

Everyone was basically like, "don't worry, there will be new models and it'll all be fine." And my thoughts were, "Yeah, I feel the same way. Your job as a panelist is to tell me about them." Which they didn't. Sinker failed to challenge the panelists the way you'd expect an experienced reporter would. What models? Which technologies? What is working? How? Would you please defend that massively Pollyanna-ish generalization?

It's too bad Sinker kept things so vague, because Gordon is clearly so insightful (on this topic and tons of others), and each of the panelists had a lot more to say on specifics within their domain area.

Don't just slap up a twitter feed on a giant screen and then call it a day. Having a twitter feed on the background screen was a cool idea but largely distracted from the panel. It might've worked better if there more informed/critical Twitter-ers in the room, instead of ridiculous off-topic posts like, "Has anyone ever figured out how best to address one of the basic bits of journalism that we're abandoning: the Obituary?" (Answer: Yes, a lot of people. Google "online memorial sites.")

All criticism aside, the conference was a huge leap forward from other events I've attended on the same topic, and I'm looking forward to more. How's this for an endorsement: I may collaborate with them in the coming months on an event.