Northern Voice 09 – afterglow?

What’s the difference between a love-in and an orgy? While I haven’t looked it up on Wikipedia, I suspect the difference is that a love-in involves friends and friends of friends, while an orgy involves interaction with total strangers.

I’m not using these sexual analogies merely to be provocative (saucy, for my friends in the UK), but because – well – if the shoe fits, you really are Cinderella, aren’t you?

Even allowing for my widely varying moods while attending the last three Northern Voices, it’s been interesting to watch it evolve as a conference. Sadly, however, its evolution is incremental, and there was, for me anyway, a certain sense of going through the paces this year rather than genuine excitement.

Much of this, I’m afraid, has to do with the particular insularity of British Columbians in general and Metro Vancouverites in particular. Northern Voice is still not attracting a substantial crowd of out-of-towners, and without an influx of fresh voices it is becoming a little sad, slightly solipsistic, and – well – it now seems clear it ain’t ever gonna be TED. Which is fine – Northern Voice probably doesn’t want to be TED, and my longing for it to become TED, or even TEDNorth, isn’t going to make it so (hat tip to Patrick Stewart, Star Trek TNG, and the fictional character Jean-Luc Picard).

How dare I say this? Well – I dunno how I dare, but I do. I’ll recap the sessions I attended Saturday, but before I do that, here’s some food for thought. You’re not an expert merely because you proclaim yourself one. And Field of Dreams was a novel. By W.P. Kinsella. (See previous references to Cinderella and to Star Trek above, the theme is building here.)

There was a worried and subdued air at this year’s Northern Voice. While the quality of presentations seemed improved over ’08 and ’07, there was an energy lacking. I thought at first it was just the Friday sessions, but as I talked to more and more people, it seemed that many were there out of a sense of obligation that I doubt will persist for many more years. I caught myself wondering if today’s economic realities were a contributing factor – and if all the social media evangelists I met last year were getting a little frayed as the effort to make both ends meet becomes the dominant reality and escaping to Second Life’s avatar land no longer seems like quite such a viable option.

Because there does seem to me to be a fundamental lack of understanding amongst the presenters at Northern Voice (while those who share my point of view tend to murmur sotto voce rather than get out there and actually challenge not the fundamental premises of social media, but how it’s being used) of, frankly, how rarely it’s being used as effectively as it could be. And I think the fact that Northern Voice is still pretty much a local phenomenon is the most glaring proof that local social media evangelists are doing a lot more nibbling at their own tails than leveraging their reach.

What brought this home to me with force tonight was encountering a Melbourne venture capitalist (and recovering investment banker) on Twitter, Lars Lindstrom. Take a look at this little bit of his bio: “2006-2008: CFO and 8.5% shareholder in 365 Media Scandinavia, Denmark, who in 2006 launched a new concept free home distributed newspaper Nyhedsavisen which in 18 months became the most read newspaper in Denmark with over 600,000 daily readers.” Of course what the bio doesn’t say is that Nyhedsavisen ceased publication in 2008, crippled by pre-existing debt load and without sufficient investment capital to overcome that handicap.

Still it would have been interesting to have Lars on the panel of Tweeting Transformation: How social media is changing journalism. As CFO of a recent attempt to transform journalism, he would have had insights to add to the panel.

Not that Alfred Hermida wasn’t insightful. He was, despite leading with the phrase ‘paradigm shift.’ Some of us have been encountering this phrase since the early 1980s, and we’re a little tired of it. Paradigm paralysis occurs far more frequently, and is studied – and proclaimed – far less than it should be. Hermida has some serious credentials though, having been a BBC journalist for 16 years. So it was nice to hear him say some of the things I’ve been blogging here (that the 1:many model of journalism is dead, and that media that don’t yet understand that are – well – doomed now that money’s tight and debtload is crushing). He also said, very early in his six-minute presentation, that media has always been social – and he’s absolutely right about that. In a way. I had caught myself wondering last week how it is that I could have been so very deeply offended by the newspaper clippings my mother used to mail me and yet so sanguine about sending out links via email and Twitter and on my blogs. I do remember the past. Am I still doomed to repeat it? Ack!

So Hermida went on to say that as part of the 1:many model, mainstream media produced content for consumption. As part of the production process, the journalism was ‘done and dusted’ within a closed culture (or sausage factory), in which the ethos was, ‘we write, you read.’ And that in order to survive, the model would have to become participatory, one in which journalists had to become social with media, because audiences want to connect, engage, and participate. I couldn’t agree more. But I think Hermida may be wrong in a very fundamental sense and his analysis may be a little offbase. Because I’m not so sure that the ‘audience’ really wants to engage with journalists – or that it ever did. What made mainstream media social was people gathering around the radio in its glory days, people heading over to each other’s houses to see The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, people having Twin Peaks‘ viewing parties, people negotiating the sharing of a single subscription to their favourite newspaper, a transaction that involved not only who got the funnies first but various other foibles like refolding policies and the perils of living with a messy eater. Which of course links back to the comment I made about the conclusion Stewart Butterfield almost reached in his keynote: the excited, ‘did you see…?’ water cooler chat has been replaced by the ability to share information globally. Which may be an equivalence but is not identical, in the same way a pound of feathers and a pound of iron filings may be the same weight, but will rarely fulfill the same function. I’d like to see some discussion of this at some point, because it’s an important distinction unless you’re looking merely for a one-pound paperweight.

Next up was Kirk LaPointe, managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, who was surprisingly funny. His six slides:

1. Build sympathy.
2. Provide fleeting insights.
3. Defy odds to build collegiality.
4. Point to the future because no one can say you’re wrong, yet.
5. Delude yourself that you’ve won friends.
6. Try to exit gracefully.

Newspapers are locked in the prism of an existing business model rather than being in start-up mode, and they’re not getting the long tail, said LaPointe (slide one, we know we’re not doing it right).

The Sun’s distribution channels reach 500,000 people in the Lower Mainland, said LaPointe, with 175,000 subscribers. I like the math here and wish I could have used these figures when calculating media reach for blue chip clients. According to LaPointe, each newspaper printed reaches more than two people. The formula I’ve always used is 1.2 readers per copy, not 2.0, for Monday to Friday publication; a maximum of 1.6 to 1.7 for Saturday or Sunday editions. Perhaps this is a combination of web site hits, subscriptions, and newsstand sales – the distribution channels weren’t specified (slide two, throw out a few numbers but try to be vague about them).

The Sun has 30 journalists on Twitter now, a bunch of journalist blogs hosted on its site, and journalists are now sending, receiving, sharing, and requesting information, while collaborating on its production through the creation of wikis with content from ‘outside’ (slide three, you should be friends with me because I don’t have many and, well, ’cause.) Journalists have always requested information of me and of my clients, for whom I act as liaison in my role as a public relations practitioner, but the reason this seems like news to Kirk LaPointe will be obvious in a few more paragraphs. The Sun also has created databases on a variety of topics (who knew? not I), such as parking and daycare inspections. I’ll get right onto searching them. Not.

On to LaPointe’s vision of the future, with the newsroom acting as curator, dismantling and revamping, with a focus on topics rather than stories and increased use of the open source process (slide four, the future is now-ish). Here’s an alternate take on that issue, and a challenge to the expertise of the gatekeepers of that first draft of history that journalism used to be supposed to be.

Next up was Michael Tippett, who founded and launched Now Public four years ago at Northern Voice. Now Public was originally designed to be the world’s largest news organization; that goal has been transformed and it’s now best expressed as a ‘global intelligence network’ (readers of Now Public will have to work – and work hard – to come up with a new definition of intelligence, because when I last dipped into the site and looked at some of the ‘top-ranked’ Now Public contributors I became more than a little queasy at the sheer lack of any writing ability, the arrogant refusal to use spell check, and sheer incredulity at how low the lowest common denominator really is when we’re talking about the general public).

During the Q&A following the presentations, LaPointe said that the Sun is moving towards an ‘increased commentary’ model of the paper providing a basic framework and knowledge of events. Frankly he was unconvincing, especially when he was later asked by a PR person in the audience how journalists want to be communicated with these days – Twitter? email? phone? fax? What??? “You’ll reach us,” he replied wearily. “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” was my freeform translation, which is why he won’t be writing the 21st Century version of How to Win Friends and Influence People – lip service doesn’t cut it in The Age of Transparent Authenticity (slides five and six).

Hermida said something interesting in response to a question, which was that one of the differences between mainstream and social media is that mainstream media asks you to trust the brand, not the individual journalist, and that it isn’t widely known that one out of every two news stories contains an error. (I thought it was just me who’d noticed this! So it’s not just being made to jump through hoops that’s led to the great divide between PR folks and journalists: in fact it’s the combination of being treated like doggy doo on the bottom of media’s shoes and that 1:2 fail whale that’s made this arranged marriage leaving us so desperate for a divorce.)

All three panelists were in agreement that it’s difficult to move away from the transmission model. Frankly, mainstream media got into bed with advertising a very long time ago and with very few exceptions it’s one of those marriages that will only end when one partner dies, no matter how many affairs media has with the bright shiny bloggers who are decades younger.

What I would have liked to see on this panel:

  • Paul Sullivan of Orato, someone from a mainstream media background who’s embraced new media and has some exciting things to say about media business models, or had, anyway, based on the video I saw a few months ago of his presentation to the Vancouver High Tech Communicators Exchange. (It would have been nice to have had both Paul and Kirk on the same panel, since their careers ran in parallel for quite a while before diverging.)
  • Mathew Ingram, the Globe and Mail’s Communities Editor, who’s been mentioned here before and who’s walking the walk on behalf of his newspaper, not just talking the talk.
  • And someone like Lars Lindstrom, who could have talked about the very real challenges of trying to effect mainstream media transformation, what worked and what didn’t.

About ruthseeley

Ottawa born, Toronto educated, lived in the Lower Mainland and southern AB for more than a decade. Passionate about community, democracy, and good books. Fond of the Oxford comma.
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3 Responses to Northern Voice 09 – afterglow?

  1. Thanks for the write-up and glad that you enjoyed the panel. I actually agree with your comment on how far audiences want to engage with journalists. We need to recognise that there will be a scale of engagement, from organising viewing parties to collaborating online on fan fiction.

    But the media should acknowledge that there will be some members of the public who will want to contribute to the journalistic process. So the media should provide a variety of ways for people to connect and engage at different levels.

  2. Btw, you might be interested in this video interview I did with Matthew Ingram on his new role as communities editor:

  3. Ruth Seeley says:

    Thanks so much for stopping by and for the link to your interview.

    I’m glad to see the Globe leading the pack and hope it thrives, not just survives. My vision of a true national newspaper is sort of a Globe to the nth, where the print edition includes even more regional and hyper-local coverage (in the same way the CBC email news subscriptions are customizable by province).

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