Festivus, journalism & Perugia

Perugia is an unlikely destination for a conference about journalism — delightfully and cheerfully presented as a festival — but it is definitely an appropriate city for one to slow down and ponder the future of media and journalism.

The beautiful vistas that peek out from every corner of the city provide the creative spark. The alleyways that go from dark to desolate allow you to get lost in the alleys of your mind. And if that isn’t enough, you have keynotes in historical churches, centuries-old theaters and little rooms in buildings that were ancient by the time the printing press rolled around.

I am returning from the International Journalism Festival 2014, the ninth such event and my first, where I got to not only immerse myself in diverse viewpoints, but also learned about new experiments that are being attempted around the world. The festival is the brainchild of a charming and lovable couple, Arianna Ciccone and Chris Potter, who have turned their passion into one of the most intellectually rigorous events about journalism.

Even though I am out of the media game, I was invited to speak on three different panels, and I am going to include some of the highlights of what I said at each panel. (Being just another observer of media is actually fun.)

  1. Business models and brands: journalism’s bottom line under the spotlight
  2. The democratization of the distribution of content
  3. The future of all-digital journalism (Filling in for Emily Bell.)

Highlights:

  • No one could’ve predicted FB and Twitter as the boosters for media and this is why we’ve seen so much change and new models.
  • The problem with media is that it’s trying to find a answer within itself and not looking at what readers want.
  • The internet as we know it is at an end. The Chinese and Brazilian internets are developing in their own way and pace.
  • Putting a paywall on a thing people were getting for free is a backward move. You must create a new, compelling, useful experience.
  • My open source tools are a paper and a pen.
  • Journalism schools need to teach journalism for the social media age.
  • Big publishers are in the habit of always ‘taking’ from users, not giving back.
  • We are limited by the industrial definition/model of journalism.
  • It is time for big publications to think of themselves as technology platforms.

These points aside, one overarching observation from the event — which actually is an observation about the world of journalism itself — is the weight of establishment and tradition. You can hear it in conversations, on panels and pretty much everywhere. I am not saying that they are not necessary, but they can limit the imagination. The weight of establishment sometimes prevents you from seeing the bigger picture. One of the reasons why Nick Denton has been so successful is that he has always managed to step outside the “establishment” and respect traditions just enough.

It was pretty obvious in the early 1990s that the Internet was going to be a key distribution mechanism for news, and yet many viewed it suspiciously. Having gotten my hands dirty as an operator of an events-listing website, it was clear as day where we were headed. I hadn’t worked in a traditional newsroom in the US or attended journalism school, so I did not have any preconceived ideas of what a journalism career looked like. I saw the Internet and I saw an opportunity to apply my meagre skills as a reporter – fast and furious reporting with context — to this new medium. What I did was to seek out like-minded people — like David Churbuck, the founder/editor of Forbes.com.

In those early days, the traditional media and the establishment — including Forbes’ corporate parent (the magazine) — viewed us people from dot-coms with suspicion and turned noses. At the turn of the century, when blogging software became around, it was obvious that there was an opportunity to further accelerate the pace of news and it was why I took to blogging. Even today, not being part of the East Coast media cliques or being part of the establishment allows me to be willing to experiment, fail and just be open to ideas.

I admit, a lot of that un-establishment approach to media is because I have spent much of my working life on the edges of the technology world and also at the same time, have been immersed in a startup culture, where bucking the tradition is the starting point for all adventures. Uber took the idea of a “cab” and turned it into Uber. Airbnb, took the notion of a hotel room and turned it into someone’s bedroom for rent.

Felix Salmon (left) & Dan Gillmor (right)

The weight of establishment and tradition was one of the sentiments I took away as I sat through a keynote by Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times. She painted a wonderful picture of the challenges of the traditional newspapers and how the Times was adapting to change. That’s the old-way adapting to the new realities, where headline news and long features compete for attention with Monument Valley and Mad Men. (Read: A few accumulated thoughts about media.)

I am more interested in knowing what does the next newspaper look like? Is it a B-complex infused BuzzFeed? Why not? After all, if “media packets” (news, videos, photos, audio clips) are being discovered solely via social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, then why are we thinking about a newspaper as a newspaper? One argument I made during a panel was that media companies have to start thinking about themselves as technology/software companies — developing platforms, tools and formats for the world where endpoints of interaction and media consumption are multiplying quickly.

Cir.ca for instance should have been a natural product from a media group like say Bloomberg or Reuters — after all, some of us who have worked in news wire environments know that news headline are often followed by short updates. And after enough updates, a full news story emerges. News headlines make perfect sense for glanceable screens such as mobile phones — and updates were a great way to keep bringing readers back to the app. Media companies are in the business of attention (and increasingly fractional attention) and they need to build products (apps and experiences) that keep the attention on their platform.

Perugia-May2014-5Because they didn’t do that, something like Cir.ca exists. The only problem is that while Cir.ca has the right idea it doesn’t have the brand heft or the ability to attract millions of readers to make it a viable business (just yet.) Now a similar product from Bloomberg or Reuters could benefit from the bigger brand recognition. It is only possible if media groups stop thinking about “news and journalism” and start thinking about product, experience, personalization and constant engagement.

Despite being critical of The New York Times in the past, to its credit the company is doing interesting experiments and slowly trying out new ideas — but those ideas should be center stage, not part of labs and/or slow rollout. Still, they are doing something.

For rest of the media industry, the cue should come from General Electric (GE), which despite being an industrial company is going through a digital makeover, adapting itself to the new reality of cloud, connectedness and sensors. They are planning a future with what I have often called as a “digital heartbeat” and are starting to reimagine how data, services and interactions will keep filling their coffers. If they can do it, so can the media industry: it just has to stop sneering at Vines, animated gifs, listicles, or whatever is invented and popularized by the only people that really matter in media — readers & community (not establishment and tradition.)

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