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.


Panel Nerds: More Media Clairvoyance From Dan Rather and Crew

panelnerds-i-disagree-sir2Who: Dan Rather (Dan Rather Reports), Marcy Wheeler (EmptyWheel), Jane Mayer (The New Yorker), moderated by Victor Navasky (The Nation)

What: The Nation’s “What Will Become of the News?”

Where: Symphony Space

When: September 23, 2009

Thumbs: Up

With three leaders in three separate media branches at his disposal, moderator Victor Navasky didn’t limit the agenda for the evening. Instead, he kept it open-ended and tried to address the question of the evening: What’s in store for the future of media?

Marcy Wheeler, who blogs at FireDogLake, immediately defended her medium in the face of traditional journalists. She distanced herself from other breeds of bloggers, saying that political bloggers have become more mainstream, accepted and reliable. In the most recent election, she said, bloggers like Nate Silver and a few Alaskan reporters contributed some of the best coverage. Bloggers, she argued, have changed the way pollsters and reporters approached their assignments.

A source of contention quickly emerged though, when Wheeler suggested that her readers serve as her fact-checkers. Jane Mayer, who said she’s endured her share of 10-plus hour sessions of New Yorker fact-checking, objected to this practice. She said that journalists who make mistakes, regardless of whether it is on a blog or in a publication, undercut the authority, accountability and credibility of all journalists.

Dan Rather argued that there has been a distinct drop in the quality of journalism, though he doesn’t blame bloggers in particular for the decline. Rather indicated that what concerns him are the diminishing values and leadership of news organizations. He says that the powerful — corporations, lobbyists, politicians, governmental departments — have become even more intimidating, leaving media outlets on the outside looking in.

Bloggers, in this way, seem to have an edge on reporters who must answer to editors and owners before conducting an investigation. Cost is a central issue, as investigations have widely been labeled as luxury items that few can afford to fund today. The immediacy that qualified political bloggers bring to their projects carries weight that even a skeptic like Mayer recognizes. Still, she stressed that there’s a certain beauty to a well-researched and crafted piece of traditional, long-form journalism.

What They Said

“It’s not just about getting the little facts right, it’s about getting the truth right.”

- Jane Mayer suggests that bloggers can’t compete on accuracy

“Most of us when we were 17, 18, 19 years old knew less about the news than we’ll try to convince you we did.”

- Dan Rather grew into his role as a trusted source for world news

“The notion of credibility and what gains you credibility is changing.”

– Marcy Wheeler contends that bloggers do a better job reading through court documents than reporters do. She thinks reporters can learn from bloggers’ initiatives

“There are vertebrates in Congress who have no backbone.”

- Jane Mayer said that it has become increasingly more difficult to get politicians to go on the record with her. It’s probably also more difficult for politicians to stand, walk, live, and do other backbone required activities

“Normally the moderator will tell you not to make statements but to ask questions. Tonight you get to make statements.”

Victor Navasky proudly told the audience that their admission fee would grant them the perk of not being shushed, though it does not grant you the perk of not being cited in Panel Rules

What We Thought

  • Mayer claims that there’s a lasting post-9/11 pressure that applies a fear factor to both reporters and citizens. She says that it has allowed both the current and past Presidents to push National Security as a means to justify errors of judgment and other embarrassments. It has also left many in Washington fearful of speaking to reporters who might wind up challenging the government’s agenda.
  • We appreciated Navasky taking a moment at the end of the panel to share his conclusions from the evening’s panel. The fact that he had scrawled notes during the panel demonstrated how he, a veteran journalist and educator, knows there’s a lot left to learn and resolve.

PANEL RULES!

Some audience behavior seems to repeat itself panel after panel. We’ll be updating a running list of “PANEL RULES!” that will help ensure that you are not the dweeb of the Panel Nerds.

Panel Nerds don’t like… Academicrophoners

Yes, we know that you were given approval by the moderator to sound off about whatever you wished. But when you spend a couple of minutes educating us about the history of media regulations and restriction on monopolies, we wind up daydreaming like we we’re back in Mrs. Mei’s 6th grade history class. The question itself was good, but we could have done without the detailed account of every business decision media conglomerates have made over the past 100 years.

Panel Nerds Etan Bednarsh and Danny Groner are New York-based writers and avid panel-goers. Want them at your panel? Email them here: PanelNerds@mediaite.com

Meet the Press move to rotating hosts avoids unfavorable comparisons to Russert

NBC is apparently giving up on the idea of a one-for-one replacement of Tim Russert as Meet the Press host. According to a well-placed source, instead they will rotate through an ensemble of hosts that will include NBC political director Chuck Todd and correspondent David Gregory.

Brilliant. Chances are, any single individual selected for this role would have been scrupulously compared to Tim Russert as the gold standard, with any deviation holding potential to be seen as a flaw. Use of an ensemble blurs these “follow-in-the-footstep” comparisons. Moreover, it even gives one ensemble member the opportunity to develop his/her own image and room to rise sufficiently to be an individual replacement some day.


CBS shows why we may be shifting from newspapers to news conglomerates

CBS’ CEO Leslie Moonves says his network is becoming a “one stop shop” for news and information that is now competing effectively against newspapers. Of all the recent bad news for newspapers, this may be among the worst.

To survive in a world without paper editions, online newspapers will need high rates for online ads, but news sites of network conglomerates will not. The conglomerates can spread their news production costs across all of their media platforms and properties, including their sports and entertainment divisions. In many cases they will not even care whether or not they recoup their news production costs, since much will have advertising value for their other properties. The network news conglomerate in the end may be what keeps rates down and newspapers out.


News going hyperlocal or hyperglobal?

Should the metro newspaper industry survive, which at this point is looking increasingly doubtful, it might only be because of its unique ability to create original content that directly affects our lives.

But the media industry is going the other way, toward global brands. In the Hollywood Reporter in regards to video, Times Warner chair Jeffrey Bewkes said, “I remember the old 80-20 rule, where 80 per cent of the money was coming from 20 per cent of the activity. Well, now it’s going to be more like 90-10, where more of the money is going to an ever more world accessible giant brands and hits.” Translating that to the news sector, if 90% of our news stories will be global stories, is it that we are no longer most interested in news that most directly affects our lives? More likely, it is that global stories are now seen as directly affecting our lives. Not a good sign for a hyperlocal news future.


GoogleCreep: From News Aggregator to News Channel?

News outlets were told they had nothing to fear from GoogleNews. Google would simply aggregate their stories and drive traffic to their sites — not create its own, competitive, original news content. But this convention season, that line is becoming a blur.

When GoogleNews provided live streaming coverage of the Republican convention this week, wasn’t that original content that competed directly for viewers who might have otherwise turned to TV news outlets? Or was that not considered competitive because it was offered in CSPAN style, sans reporters? In any event, each GoogleNews step away from being a news aggregator is a step toward becoming a news competitor. And, there are no steps news outlets can take to stop it.


Pregnant Palin stories point to a future of more salacious political stories

The future vetting process for salacious political rumors is taking shape. Those most beyond-the-pale will often start with partisan blogs, which are unteathered by journalism standards and motivated to find the worst in their adversaries. For example, liberal bloggers reported that VP candidate Sarah Palin faked a pregnancy for a fifth child to cover up for a pregnant daughter.

Traditional outlets will stand back and wait for permission to publish, which can be easily granted by a comment from a public spokesperson. In the Palin episode, this permission came when a McCain aide commented that he had no evidence the story was being pushed by the Obama camp.

With partisan blogs motivated to generate such rumors, and public figures providing permission to publish simply by acknowledging them, we can expect a bawdier future of news.