Media Frets About Its Own Future at SXSWi 2010

Every year internet geeks gather for five days in Austin, TX to discuss the state of interactive media — and more importantly, what the future holds next — at South by Southwest Interactive. This year, old school tools like Facebook were barely mentioned: the hottest topics were online privacy, location-based social networks like Foursquare and Gowalla, and perhaps most interestingly: the future of journalism.

The social media and Twitter elite demonstrated this week that they are increasingly more and more concerned about the state of journalism and what it will take for traditional media to survive the digital revolution taking place around them – and there was no shortage of panels obsessively deconstructing this topic.

In “Media Armageddon: What Happens When the New York Times Dies?” (hashtag: #endtimes — a little morbid if you ask me) a group of panelists including Daily Kos’ Markos Moulitsas talked about when (not if) the New York Times would die, while NYT’s own media columnist David Carr played the role of “MSM piñata.”  The panel rapidly turned into a heated discussion of Daily Kos vs. NYT — which one is more credible and which one would survive through the current tumultuous media landscape.  The panelists also frequently brought up Gawker Media, citing Nick Denton as an example of a publisher who had managed to build a successful model for online news. “I think Gawker is arching our direction,” Carr noted. “They have great reporting, research, and writing.” He added that he gets scooped by Gawker “all the time” – having often spent hours researching a story only to find Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan had already written 900 words covering everything readers needed to know about it. Nick Denton was flattered.

In “How to Save Journalism,” panelists discussed the state of journalism — and tossed around solutions and ideas for how to “save” journalism with the audience. Panelists included Huffington Post’s Matt Palevsky, Fark.com’s Drew Curtis, USAToday.com’s Jeff Webber, and the Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride. The panel focused on one hot topic: how, and if, media companies can monetize online content — and whether readers will pay for it. Palevsky mentioned that the paywall model was not something the Huffington Post was interested in, and that their ad model works —  and that they emphasize having seasoned editors work with a team of citizen journalists instead. Panelists and audience members agreed that this might be a more sustainable model for other publications in the future. One panelist dubbed citizen journalists the “fifth estate” – people that commit journalism but don’t get paid for it (Follow the discussion at #savejournalism).

In “Online News of Tomorrow” (hashtag:  #newsfuture) Buzzmachine’s Jeff Jarvis, NYT’s Jeremy Zilar, Brad Flora, and Andrew Huff, and EveryBlock’s Adrian Holovaty debated what online news would look like in the next few years. Jarvis pointed out that in a link economy, the news organization with a big problem isn’t the New York Times but the Associated Press, who refuse to link to anything in their online content – in link economy, Jarvis said, the AP breaks links, and that will hurt them. They also seemed hopeful about services like Google News and TechMeme that aggregate and help curate the best content from around the web – however, they noted that only 12% of news in Google News is original source, and many are rewritten stories.

Mediaite’s own editor-at-large Rachel Sklar hosted a panel with Jacob Lewis, former managing editor of the New Yorker and Portfolio, called “Could the iPad have saved Gourmet? The (New) Future of Magazines.”  Sklar and Lewis painted a portrait of the current state of the media industry and pontificated about how the Apple iPad  (which was also demo-ed at SXSW by Wired) will change all of that in the next few months. A key problem highlighted by Lewis was that advertisers want consumer data to know who’s looking at their ads, but with the iPad, Apple won’t give that kind of consumer data to advertisers. And thus, advertisers will be forced to adapt and develop different measurement and metric systems for print, online and iPad/iPhone content.  “If GQ sells 15,000 magazines through iTunes for the iPad, then iTunes becomes the world’s largest global newsstands,” Lewis said, and added that this was something advertisers had no choice but to adapt to. So the long answer to the question asked by the title of the panel? No, said Lewis; the iPad could not have saved Gourmet, but if advertisers of the future learn to adapt to the iPad, they can help magazines flourish. Discussion of that panel was denoted by the hashtag #ipadmag.

In “The Effects of Twitter on News,” NYT’s Brian Stelter, USA Today’s Brian Dresher, and GQ’s Ana Marie Cox discussed how Twitter had shaped their reporting and writing habits. Although the panel was an all-star group of journalists, they were only given 20 minutes for the panel (it was for a #140conf event, with shorter sessions packed into one larger session) AND were squeezed in at the very end of the last day of Interactive, which is not enough time to produce any major takeaways — and at the last minute two audience members with a rap about Twitter randomly cut them off (although Ana did decide to accompany the rap with interpretive dance. Which was interesting).  However, Stelter talked about how he found Twitter Lists enormously useful for following breaking news stories, and Ana Marie Cox mentioned that Twitter has forced her to react to news and push out content in two different modes: the instantaneous (Twitter) and the monthly (GQ).  And the audience shared their own insights with hashtag #twitteronnews.

With so many panels on the future of journalism, clearly this issue became a key theme dominating discussions at the nerdier half of this year’s South by Southwest.  And certainly, many of media’s best and brightest came together in Austin to discuss how they see the media adapting to the rapidly changing world of technology.  Critics may claim that this amounts to a whole lot of talk (and tweets) and very few solutions. But I fully believe that with the media industry, a whole lot of talk is the only way to force creativity and innovative solutions. Somewhere, someone has the answer to all these questions. And when it does, I think it’s very likely that answer will have come out of one of these many SXSW conversations.


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