I knew I was in for a different type of experience when the girl standing next to the balloons and boxes of animal crackers ushered me into the cavernous space of the Skylight Studios for the Mediabistro Circus, billed as “a 2-day summit on technology and the critical platforms changing the flow of media.” The press release had quoted Mediabistro.com founder `Laurel Touby as stating, “Most conferences are dry and boring. That’s why we are calling ours a circus.” I caught up with Touby, dressed as the mistress of ceremonies. She told me that in March of 2007, CEO of Jupitermedia Alan Meckler (which bought Mediabistro in July of 2007), asked her, “If you had more money, time, and opportunity, what would you love to do with Mediabistro?” She said her number one priority was to develop a conference that “would be fun, but would break down some complicated stuff for very smart people.” Touby estimated that between 200-250 people were in attendance. The crowd was a mixed bag, from traditional media people to twenty-somethings, awaiting insights on how to plug into the “new tools and technologies.” Sponsors had stations set up demonstrating their wares. Mediabistro had its own team of bloggers, tapping out their point of view.
Publishing: From Print to Digital was first on the agenda. Founder and CEO of 8020 Publishing, Paul Cloutier, spoke about “community.” That was a term that would come up frequently. He defined community as “the people you share interests with,” specifying that it was not an audience. “It is proactive and creates vitality. The web will not make magazines go away, apathy will.” Paul Rossi, Publisher of The Economist discussed how reader engagement was the “magazine’s online future.” Every magazine article can be commented on, and there are currently 13-15,000 comments posted (“Correctly written, punctuated, and erudite,” he dryly noted). An Oxford style debate with two points of view, which the readership then votes on, has been launched. “It’s a natural extension of the brand,” he said. Rossi mentioned that the magazine’s readers wanted “audio versions” of articles, but were not “into video.” James Daly, of Edutopia, talked about the George Lucas foundation for K-12 educational innovation, convincing me that every teacher in America should be getting the RSS feed.
Next up was an examination of the “blogosphere” and its impact, how it is being used by different entities, and what the future might entail. Eric Hellweg, Editorial Managing Director for Harvard Business.org talked about “inversion” and how to incorporate community into publishing. His philosophy was “Let’s get these really smart voices on our site and act in a curatorial role.” He saw blogs as a way to increase frequency and audience engagement, promote idea generation, and to learn more about audience interests and preferences.
Just as I was beginning to feel that the line up of speakers was getting too testosterone heavy, Elisa Camahort Page, Co-Founder and COO of Blogher, took the stage. She elaborated on what women were finding in the blogosphere, after giving national statistics based on a BlogHer/Compass Partners study of more than 6,000 women. It showed that 53% of women in the United States are online reading blogs to express themselves and to connect with others, while looking for personal, professional, and political information. With 36.2 million women participating every week (15.1 publishing, 21.1 reading/commenting), Camahort Page said that blogging was “changing the way we survive, changing the way we age, changing the way we make a living, and changing the way we take action.”
Anil Dash, Vice President at Six Apart, the makers of blog platforms including Type Pad and Vox, told the audience, “Culture can be changed by any of us.” An early blogger (he started in 1999), Dash spoke energetically about social and cultural change, and “the promise of folks coming online and changing government and media.” “Disabuse yourself of the notion that there is a conflict between the old and the new,” he pronounced. “Why do people think centralization is going to happen on the web? Platforms are like ice cubes. They melt. The web is the platform. Blogs are the platform to rip, mix, and burn.” He concluded with, “Think of the nature of the web itself. It’s all supposed to be connected.”
Before the lunch break, I followed up with Camahort Page about the genesis of BlogHer and the role of women in new media. She informed me that she had started her site in 2005 as a labor of love to answer the question, “Where are all the women bloggers?” Dina Kaplan, Co-Founder and COO of blip.tv, was standing nearby and joined in the conversation. “We need to do more to encourage women to go into tech. We have great role models, like Esther Dyson. I hope a huge wave of female entrepreneurs follows her.” Her final thought was, “more women have to be hired, and more women have to start companies.”
Chris Anderson, Editor-In-Chief of Wired magazine and author of The Long Tail, kicked off the afternoon as Keynote speaker. His advice was concise. “Content first, then community emerges organically.” He advised going after niche opportunities, and “seeking out a raison d’être.” He advocated teaching everyone to become a ”microjournalist from the point of view as participant, not observer. The world lives at a granular level…and granular networks are the future of the industry.”
Online video as a tool for brand building, audience grabbing, and to disseminate information was the next topic to be deconstructed. Robert Scoble, “technical evangelist” and Managing Director at Fast Company TV, talked about “creating the need in your head, which leads to supplying the demand.” (Similar to the Field of Dreams theory, “If you build it, he will come.”) Dina Kaplan, a believer that, “The web is in the process of becoming a video medium,” repeated the Mantra, “Take the content where the eyeballs are.”
Speakers on social media closed out the day. Kate Evertt Thorp, CEO of Real Girls Media, pointed out the difference between the present and the mid-90’s, when content was determined by editorial rule. “Now,” she said, “is about user generated content and community.” For women online, she sees the opportunity to connect to “lots of resources and advice without judgment.” In structuring her content she always asks the question, “Are we enabling women’s voices?” Senior Vice-President at Edelman PR, Steve Rubell, also emphasized collaboration and articulated, “Content goes where ever you want to take it.” Shawn Gold, CEO of the newly minted consulting firm Social Approach, contributed, “Social networks have changed the Internet and the way media is both created and consumed…with media being a “bridge in relationships.”
And that was just Day 1. Unable to attend the second day, I contacted Wednesday morning Keynote speaker Jim Roberts, Editor of Digital News for The New York Times. I found it intriguing that The Gray Lady had been tapped to have a presence at the Mediabistro Circus. I was able to interview him by telephone, and he proved to be an ardent spokesman for the online brand. He acknowledged that he liked talking about the work that The Times is doing digitally, and that conferences of this type are a venue for that. “I’m out there selling my product in a way,” he told me. Roberts elaborated on how The Times had evolved from its “printed roots to a vibrant and innovative website” and of his desire to make people aware of that. Although intrinsically the website is “different in nature than print,” taking that into consideration, his goal is to create an entity “that feels like The New York Times and dovetails with the print edition.” As a person who appreciates holding a newspaper in my hand, I asked him the proverbial question, “Are newspapers going to die out?” He replied, “I have no crystal ball, but I truly believe there is a lot of life in the printed product.”
Roberts addressed integrating print and web into one organization, and facilitating the transition of journalists from print to web format. He referenced veteran political reporter Katherine Seelye, who is currently working on the caucus blog, as “a huge success story.” Discussing her deep roots in the print world, he traced what he characterized as her striking gains in taking her background and “that kind of knowledge, and bringing it to real time writing and blogging.” He added, “The traffic to the political blogs is off the charts.”
On the subject of bloggers, Roberts said, “The bloggers at The New York Times are journalists. Every one of our blogs is managed by an editor. I want everything that goes up to have a second pair of eyes.” The only blog that falls outside that parameter is the live blogging of sports events. Roberts allowed that within the blogging format there are differences in stylistic approaches, with blogging as a venue for delivering information, and not just opinion. “In 2008, journalists have more leeway in terms of style, tone, and personality. It’s part of the evolution of modern media.” I found a piece from 2007, where Roberts answered questions from readers addressing the format for handling comments. No profanity, no obscenity, no insults, and no attacks on reporters (My favorite was #5 – Don’t rage and don’t SHOUT). It reflected his closing comments of our conversation. “The New York Times website has high and rigid standards for taste and tone. We are traditional in that sense.”
I had wanted to learn more about Regine Debatty, a second day presenter as well. A writer, curator, and blogger for we-make-money-not-art.com, she focuses on the intersection between art, design, and technology. I contacted her by e-mail. She sent me a few lines about the premise of her contribution to the “User Experience Design” topic. “Both new media art and interaction design deal with technology. They have little knowledge of each other…yet they have more in common than one might suspect at first sight. There are valuable lessons that designers can learn from artist. Being bold, experimenting, focusing on the playfulness and pleasure of the experience…rather than the commercial viability and the rules of the market.”
There was a wealth of information to digest. I found myself reflecting on all I had heard, throughout the following week. The conference created an opportunity to reassess how technology could be harnessed to creativity, communication, empowerment, education, and mobilization. I couldn’t help wondering what Johannes Gutenberg would have thought.