Making the most of making the media

I arrived in Los Angeles late Monday afternoon. As I landed, I watched the sunset turn the Santa Monica Mountains that golden hue they turn in late fall, caught glimpses of the skyscrapers along Wilshire Blvd., marveled at the sheer everywhereness of it all and traced a line from the Hollywood sign down to the corner of Hollywood and Vine, where, nearly a century ago, my great-great-grandfather's decision to rent a barn on his sprawling ranch to two young filmmakers for $250 a month might have made much of the city's role as a media mecca possible. The tableau pulled at my heart, one more landing in a city I've called home for only a year, but which has been in my blood for five generations.

For years, though, as I hinted in a post last Spring, I've danced with another city. Over the past week, the motions became more certain, thanks in part to the energy I tapped into at the We Make the Media Conference at the University of Oregon's Turnbull Portland Center.

Thoughts about the future raced through my mind as my plane descended. Some of these thoughts are familiar to the world at large. Some are personal. When it comes to Saturday's conference, I've had to take some time to digest, get back home, and prepare my next steps. They include returning to Portland very soon — and more permanently — in part to join the community of mediamakers who emerged at the conference.

Finding Community

I want to reiterate this word “community.” For whatever it's worth, however hokey it might be dismissed as, I found community on Saturday. In a way I haven't been able to say for quite some time, I've found my people, at least my people for this moment. Perhaps I'm just famished, but I just haven't found these people in Los Angeles.

I'm emphasizing this for a reason. For all the critiques I have of We Make the Media, and all the many more already so eloquently articulated by other thinkers (Click here for a list of the reflections I've found, some of which I'm responding to here), I'm stunned by how, a few days later, I remain invigorated by the event. Like Abraham Hyatt and many others, I left the event quite drained, but now feel energized. Though the event may not have gone in the direction organizers hoped, perhaps it was a success anyhow.

A sort of “sub-organizer” of the event, Hyatt was the first to bring it to my attention. I know, as others do, that he put a great deal of work into both making it happen, as he does in other efforts cultivating Portland's media community. So I looked to him first for his dissection of what went right and what went wrong at the conference.

Despite my hopefulness, significant concerns emerged. As much as I felt I found community, I was as troubled as others about the limits to the pool from which I could derive that community. As Hyatt admitted, conference organizers may not have made enough of an effort to reach out to community media or to media that “reflected the racial diversity of Portland:”

“We were lucky to have KBOO come on as a sponsor a few days before the conference. But what if that had happened a few weeks before? Who else could we have invited? And how would that dialogue have shaped the planning of the event? If we’re going to create a media organization that breaks out of the old news models, we need to be including people from outside traditional media outlets.”

I don't think I'll write much more about this issue right now. Hyatt acknowledges the problem succinctly, and others have addressed racial diversity far more effectively than I may be able to. Please do continue to discuss the topic. I want to be part of a growing, inclusive media community and I want to know how I can work to enable that inclusiveness.

Stopping to breathe

What I do feel comfortable discussing is technology, connectivity, and other forms of inclusiveness. Many have discussed the “Twitter corner” that emerged — largely for reasons of proximity to power outlets and the wi-fi access-granting powers of Suzi Steffenas if it was a breakaway counter-conference. That's not entirely true, and I'll get back to that point.

Early in the day, Steffen complained on Twitter about the lack of a projection of the live Twitter stream that emerged at the event. I agree that a common Twitter hashtag (which, of course, became #wmtm) and information about wi-fi access should have been announced before the event. The digital element of the conference felt like an afterthought, and it's rather astounding that an effort largely inspired by nonprofit journalism endeavors in Minnesota and San Diego, Web-only endeavors, did not have online elements that didn't feel like afterthoughts.

That said, I don't know if I agree with Steffen's concerns about the lack of a projected twitter stream. Yes, it may have kept the entire crowd informed about the discussion happening online, but I wonder whether this is a great example of how Twitter should be a platform people choose to participate in or not (During an early Twitter exchange about recording and documenting the online discussion and the event in general, Steffen convinced me of the importance of being able to opt-in to or out of the online discussion.

Could one opt out of a projected stream, though? I'm not certain that really would be possible. Perhaps some of my fellow tweeters might argue that's fine, that it just offers a different way of presenting what's taking place at the conference and eliminates the tenuous authority we place on anointed speakers. It would change the event's dynamic. I haven't been to an event with a live Twitter stream yet, so I'm speaking on conjecture, but I feel the conversation might get too disjointed and too distracted.

It was worrisome enough to me to see how caught up I got in the Twitter stream myself. What would happen if every participant was having fractured, interrupted conversations, if the speaker responded to every tweet, or some of them, or if she didn't respond to any? How would that affect the event's dynamic? I think it would become far more than a stream. And again, that's fine, but I think this is a point where we need to acknowledge that just because we have the ability to discuss and comment and report everything that happens, doesn't mean that we should.

Sometimes even if  we have tools available to us, tools that are incredibly useful in certain contexts, we don't always have to use them. I have a car. It's comfortable and it goes quite quickly from point A to B, even taking traffic into consideration. But I'm often much happier, much better served, by reaching my destination on foot, by bike, or via public transportation, specifically because each of those methods offers its own way to experience the journey. While I have the car (and no, not everyone has the luxury to choose), I don't have to use it every time I leave my house. Just because we have technology doesn't mean we must use it, and I think that point was missing from discussion at the event, and it's often missing from our discussion of the “future of journalism.”

During the event,Courtney Sherwood announced on twitter that she was “Not enough of a multitasker to keep up w/ #wmtm live tweets. I'd rather listen to speakers than read other folks' summaries and debates.”

I agreed in tweets here and here, in which I argued: “I think it's worthy to ask if we should examine this need to cover everything as quickly as possible,” and "Sometimes I think we need to stop and breathe, let the world happen, digest it, and report on it when we're ready, if we're ready.”

We really do need to breathe. I've expressed similar concerns over time in posts here, here, and here, at one point noting that

"As we fret and flail we risk forgetting about the words we’re stringing together, the information we’re reflecting upon and sharing, and the stories we’re telling. Whether breath on our lips, ink spread across a page, keys hammering into a ribbon or electrons running through a circuit, I’m concerned with how thoughts are captured, contained, altered and disseminated."

This perspective was even acknowledged by a tweet from Portland Phlush during our small network discussion, the same discussion that evolved into talk of an incubator (more on that very soon).

What's crucial, of course, is that Sherwood opted for herself to disconnect from Twitter, as I noticed many others did as they closed their laptops (for what it's worth, there were plenty of people on laptops not sitting in the “Twitter corner”).

T.A. Barnhart, decidedly not a journalist, may have said it even better than I could (friends from the Annenberg Specialized Journalism program will recognize this as a far more articulately-worded form of the “different colors of paper” argument I often made last year):

“In the end, my real work is no different than an opinion writer of a century ago: reading, thinking, writing, responding, and then more of the same. I get books from the library, bookstores — and Amazon. I read newspapers and magazines — online. I correspond with friends, politicals, colleagues, etc — via email, Twitter, websites and even by phone and in person. I write notes on paper, and I write notes on my laptop, which is not really functionally any different than typing up a few pages of notes and storing in a manilla folder. I use print-outs to proof longer drafts. And I publish online, although I have begun the process of creating an actual book."

Despite my reservations about the projection of a twitter stream, about the distraction they might cause, I know something else. These sorts of thoughts, these backchannels have existed in one form or another since as long as there have been conferences, really since as long as we've had the ability to communicate (see my article here about how scientists at USC are exploring the crucial role of backchannels in interpersonal communication).

Though i agree with Hyatt that the resistance to technology by some of the core organizers was disappointing, I differ with his claim that “technology is journalism.” I'm left wondering, “how so?” He mentions code and reporting tools and new ideas, but I don't see how at least the first two are anything more than tools. Yes, new technology does open up new opportunities, but those opportunities are absolutely dependent upon what one does with the technology, what stories one tells, what messages one delivers. New technology still requires vision, tenacity, creativity and curiosity.

False divisions

Unlike Hyatt, I don't agree that “the corner” had no outreach or communication with the rest of the groups offering proposals at the conference. One of the misconceptions about “the corner” that has now been widely challenged on other blogs was that we were participating in an us-vs-them mentality. I think the fact I delivered via Twitter and this very Web site my own statements above about resisting the need to constantly stream information suggests that technology can be used in many ways. Technology by its simple existence as technology does not necessarily alter what's told.

Anyhow, I grew to enjoy “the corner,” despite my dabbling with slow journalism, precisely because it was welcoming, inviting, and open to divergent perspectives and challenges. Though it didn't emerge from there, I don't think the idea of a content-neutral incubator that would serve as a physical and virtual space for journalists took off among this crowd because we saw it as a radical alternative to the other proposals. Instead, it succeeded because we perceive it as a space where journalists of all forms, in all mediums, with all opinions about where journalism should go and how it could be defined could find a place to work. It is by nature encompassing. Such a space would be what we make of it, not what it makes of us, and it would cater to the evolving, changing needs of independent freelancers (or, with a nod to Michelle Rafter, entrepreneurial journalists).

As Jen Willis — who participated in the same small group I did — put it

“Even in our break-out sessions — I was in one about smaller, online networking groups — the ideas and comments floated in Twitter were often better, more focused and more forward-thinking than what was happening 'verbally.'"

Indeed. We were so caught up with process and rules and confusion over what we were supposed to be doing in that room that those of us who had an idea of what should be done, or at least what we wanted to see, didn't wait for it to happen. We took to Twitter to begin developing our own future and to further articulate many of the ideas that would, eventually, form the basis for the incubator proposal.

There really has been a false dichotomy set up between an “old guard” and young technophiles in some of the responses to the event. Responding to (and defending) the event was Ron Buel, who, disappointingly perpetuated the idea that there were two camps at the event (Buel's commentary is also available on OurPDX):

"The Old White Guys who believe in traditional journalistic values – thinking, reporting, open-mindedness, ethics, that kind of old-fashioned thing – and technology-hip independent young journalists twittering away as the discussion ensued, even though it is they, not the Old White Guys, who will make the new reality of journalism happen in the digital age, or not.”

This statement saddened me. Before the conference I enjoyed engaging both Buel and Barry Johnson on the discussion papers they prepared. Though I was critical at times, I welcomed the effort they put into the event's preparation and wish more people had become involved in the pre-event discussion. Such involvement — which might have required better publicity and outreach before the event — might have prevented some of the aimlessness and confusion at the day's outset.

Nevertheless, Buel's statement highlights exactly the attitudes frustrating to many journalists and conference participants. Categorizing us as either protectors of “traditional journalistic values” or “technology-hip independent young journalists twittering away” illustrates the core misunderstanding of our own industry. We are not either/or. We weren't at the conference and we aren't in life. We are not either relics of the past or dreamers of the future. We are far more fluid than we have been cast, and I think Buel's doing so shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the very people he wanted to involve at this conference. Moreover, he takes far too many assumptions into his piece. Why does he continue to insist that we “are not worried about what will happen to our democracy?”

Again, the proposed incubator offers an example of just how concerned we are about democracy and the quality of our journalism. We are proposing a space where we can cultivate professional skills, nurture community, constantly improve and respect individual independence and diversity simultaneously.

Buel instead dismisses the incubator as a “neat” idea.  Actually, it's more than a neat idea. It's also not wholly unrelated to championing “traditional values” and it is not unworkable. What we are discussing is setting up a space to develop core strengths among journalists of all stripes. We have concrete plans for next steps, just as do the other two work groups Buel claims are filled with old folks (though I think each is more broadly supported than he characterizes, as the incubator is as well).

It wasn't just the old guard (to use a characterization I just rejected) who created this false dichotomy. Many of the tech savvy participants did as well, though I think there may be issues of muddled communication here (and perhaps with Buel and Steve Smith and others who were more resistant to the Twitter corner too). For example, Steve Woodward describes a “cultural gulf” in his discussion of the “futures – plural – of journalism.” I agree with Michael Andersen, who responded in Woodward's comments area, arguing that despite the overall quality of  Woodward's “we should all be cautious of the stiffening narrative that the Young Twittering Turks have some monolithic point of view as a group.”

Continuing the discussion

These sorts of discussions — not just the event itself, but the chatter in blogs reflecting on the event, and in their comments sections, and on impromptu listservs and in “the corner” — should be happening everywhere. They very well may be. As far as I can tell, they are not happening here in Los Angeles, despite the presence of countless, passionate, hungry journalistic minds. Sure, Annenberg hosts a number of speakers and events related to the future of journalism, and similar events take place across the city, especially thanks to the efforts of the Society of Professional Journalists' local chapter, the Los Angeles Press Club and other groups (JellyLA and, to a lesser extent, Blankspaces and WhereMMM are working to change the way professionals collaborate and work with one another).

Though I've certainly found passionate journalists here, I can't think of a consistent group, an energized core. Those events that do bring journalists together feel more like pits of desperate networking, reflecting an L.A. attitude I'd normally dismiss as mythology. I haven't felt a part of something more interested in promoting the community and the field of journalism than individual career fates perhaps since I was at Annenberg. Even there, those of us who cared had to fight against the passionless vapidity of marketing ourselves, of style over substance, of figuring out how to sell our product instead of cultivating the product we hoped to sell.

But I haven't found the core, creative passion that electrified the air at WMTM. Again, maybe I'm not looking in the right places, but I can't feel it happening. Instead, we watch grudge matches (Though insightful, well-argued grudge matches) debating what happened to the LA Weekly and fret about the seemingly perpetual implosion of the Los Angeles Times. Perhaps I'm just heartbroken I can't get a foothold in a city that means so, so much to me. Nevertheless, as much as I worry about L.A., I'm so excited about the possibilities in Portland.

Again, I turn to Jen Willis:

“We came together as professionals interested not only in creating content, but in helping to craft and guide how that content is delivered. I'd like to think we showed up because we're proactive and optimistic, and because we honestly give a damn about what's happening (and not happening) in the media today.”

Really, there are possibilities. It's silly that some people were disappointed that the conference didn't reach concrete conclusions. No one should have expected the event to save journalism in Portland or elsewhere, though that seems to have been the attitude of some (though certainly not all) of those critiquing the conference. In any event, something was accomplished. Though there was a tremendous amount of wasted time and frustrating breakdowns in communication, the energy that emerged behind the concept of a news incubator is encouraging. I'm disappointed I can't make it right back to Portland next week for the Digital Journalism Portland/SPJ social hour to be part of the first next steps in making it happen.

Other reflections on We Make the Media

For more nuts and bolts breakdowns of the conference, different perspectives on its implications, and other thoughts about the direction of journalism and the media in Portland, please read these other blogs, listed in no particular order (my apologies to those I've left out, but this is what I've seen so far). I highly recommend reading the comments on these posts too, as they are incredibly insightful. Oh, and please comment on this piece too!