In another context, I might have protested being labeled part of the “mainstream media.”
We launched our website in August. We’re trying to be innovative and edgy in our mobile apps, use of social media, breaking-news coverage, blog network and other respects. If I were at an American Society of News Editors convention, I would be one of the digital upstarts. But at News Foo Camp, the label actually fit. Sort of.
Adrian Holovaty David Cohn singled me out as the “closest to mainstream media,” I looked around the room. The group didn’t include staff members of the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune or CBS News who were attending News Foo. So yeah, I guess, a metro news site affiliated with two TV stations was as close to mainstream as the group came (though the discussion leader, Adrian Holovaty, founder of EveryBlock, works for MSNBC.com). I certainly couldn’t count Conor White-Sullivan of Localocracy (though his startup does have a partnership with the mainstream Boston Globe) or Andrew Chavez of the109, a website covering a single ZIP code in Fort Worth, Texas. Google, with at least one representative in the room, is certainly big media, and perhaps the new mainstream, but as MSM stalwarts are always pointing out, it doesn’t actually produce news content.
A few minutes later, Matt Thompson of NPR’s Project Argo had joined the group, along with Jonathan Weber of the Bay Citizen. So they got lumped with me in the next reference to the mainstream media, and Matt raised his arms in exultation, “Yes! I’m mainstream!” Matt has been a rising star of journalism for several years, gaining fame in 2004 when he and Robin Sloan produced their EPIC 2014 video (embedded at the end of this post), which predicted the New York Times becoming a print-only newsletter for the elite and elderly, run out of business by “Googlezon,” the result of a Google/Amazon merger (really, it was far-fetched and hilarious at the time).
I have attended hundreds of news industry conferences, seminars and “summits” the past decade, usually a speaker. I used to be fully in the mainstream, working for newspapers or the American Press Institute, a membership organization supported by the newspaper industry. But I began paddling against the current as API pushed for innovation in its Newspaper Next project, as I pushed beyond N2 with my Complete Community Connection and mobile-first strategy proposals and as I advocated Twitter as an essential journalism tool. By the time I joined TBD, I had officially left the newspaper business and felt like I was in an entirely different current, out on the daring edge somewhere.
But News Foo Camp was an amazing and varied assembly of entrepreneurs, freelancers, developers, bloggers, academics and digital giants, where a startup owned by a TV company felt pretty ordinary.
It was one of the most valuable experiences of my career, a chance to share ideas with people who will shape the future of news with their successes, their failures and their adventures that don’t much care to measure themselves on either scale. The question is not whether I come back with connections and ideas that will be useful to TBD, but which to try first and whether we can carry them out.
News Foo organizers told us on a pre-conference wiki and in the opening session that participants could go off the record if they wanted to, even after they said something (so liveblogging and live-tweeting was discouraged). I’m doing a separate blog post that will deal more with the issue of transparency. But for purposes of this blog post, I didn’t have many live tweets to serve as my notebook. I did take a few notes, split among my iPhone, laptop computer and an actual notebook. I listened and talked more than I took notes.
Except for a five-minute “Ignite” presentation, all my remarks were off the cuff and I won’t try to repeat them here. Many of them repeated points I have blogged about before. And I’m sure others previewed posts I will write in the future. But what I am going to do here is recount some of the remarks that stood out to me. While many, probably most, of the people I’m quoting would be fine with being quoted by name, I’m going to respect the quasi-confidential nature of the discussion. (If you’re a Foo Camper and I quoted you and you want to put it on the record, please claim your quote.)
For better accounts than mine, see Mo Krochmal’s Storify curation of social media accounts from News Foo and Alex Hillman’s Fear and Loathing in Phoenix.
This quote from an Ignite presentation was retweeted more than 100 times:
And here are other quotes that stood out to me:
“We are all competing with obscurity.”
“A lot of the web is old media now because that’s not the way information flows.”
From sessions dealing with business models for news
“You can put the word Apple on a dog turd and Apple fans will click on it.”
“A web ad model leads to a lot of junk coverage.”
“We took a model that worked very well in another form. We sold an audience to advertisers and they were organized around interest or geography. We’re still clinging to this model because it’s what we know.”
About online advertising: “It’s a snake that eats its tail.”
“Advertising’s just screwed. We’ve got to move away from it.”
“A business model is built on an understanding of what you’re selling.”
“You can’t argue against oversupply: That’s a fact.”
“How many of you are running banner ads?” Several hands go up. “Why?”
“No restaurant wants to buy clicks to its crappy website.”
On the future of advertising: “It’s getting away from selling space. It’s getting away from selling CPM’s. … Increasingly it’s going to be performance.”
On the notion that events don’t have to be huge and expensive to be a revenue source for a community news organization: “Think of news Tupperware parties.”
“The old expression was I know 50 percent of my advertising is waste, I just don’t know which 50 percent. Well, now they know.”
Advertisers “want to find qualified customers in the moment that they are ready to buy.”
After noting that the median amount of time spent on web before buying a car is 8 hours (I have not verified that, but the speaker seemed knowledgeable), someone noted that Ford’s website offers ways to compare its cars with other cars. “They were trying to build in their authenticity, their truthiness. That’s money that used to be spent on full-page ads in newspapers.”
After noting that media and advertisers have thought of consumers as “eyeballs connected by a spine to a wallet,” a speaker said entrepreneurial success today rests in understanding the “actual person” between the eyeballs and the wallet.
One startup described his operation as “ramen-profitable” (he’s young and said it as a hopeful sign).
From sessions dealing with community engagement:
“Are we only engaging the people who are already engaged?”
“We are strategically sending certain people away frustrated.”
“The cliché is that it’s news when man bites dog, but not when dog bites man. But when dog bites man, that is news if it’s on your block.”
“Strategy is what you don’t do. Community is who you don’t let in, what behaviors you don’t allow.”
“Competition is not just who pulls out every fact, but who provides the best narration of all the facts.”
A great question: Would we get better comments on stories if, instead of just inviting people to “leave a comment,” we asked specific questions?
We considered lots of different ways to engage community. But we decided we should avoid this approach to community engagement at all costs:
The vision (six years ago) of the now-”mainstream” Matt Thompson: