Fear and Loathing in Phoenix – My 48 Hour Binge Experience at NewsFoo

I’m coming down from a 48 hour binge. Not one fueled by two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers…and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls, but a binge on the discomfort of immersing myself in someone else’s industry and the revelations and discoveries that come from escaping my own comfort zone.

I had the pleasure of sharing the last 3 days with around 150 hand-selected participants of NewsFooCamp, a first-time event organized by O’Reilly Media, Google, and the Knight Foundation. While the format of a self-organizing “unconference” is something I’m hardly new to, there were plenty of other experiences to this weekend that contributed to my altered state of mind.

what the hell am i doing here?

If I had to explain NewsFoo to someone BEFORE attending the event, I usually suggested that it was going to be an ad-hoc, self organizing conference focused on the future of news and journalism. This begged the common question: “So…how did you end up getting invited?”. Honestly, I haven’t the foggiest idea.

While I’m pretty sure that I’ll stick to getting in the paper by doing the things that I do best (including but not limited to shooting my mouth off), I have had some moments of clarity throughout this intoxicating experience, and thought I’d recount them here.

shutting up and listening.

First and foremost: I’m realizing how passionate I am about information. I’ve always been a bit of a pattern junkie, and I’m fundamentally fascinated by the human condition. I think it all comes down the fact that I’m a reasonably observant person, and I’m absolutely in love with the world around me and the information it provides me. From my obsessions with behavior patterns (of which my skill and understanding have been amplified by the last 4 years working on Indy Hall), to my love for people watching, I’m more than a bit of a voyeur.

NewsFoo gave me an opportunity to immerse myself in the meta-experience of a sea of information about the seas of information that are gathered, managed, and moved by the journalism industry.

As an aside, this is the 2nd time I’ve attended & participated in a conference that largely focused on an industry outside of my direct channel of expertise; last time, a corporate human resources conference, and this time, a conference about journalism and publishing.

I have to say, it’s liberating to be naive. If more smart people let themselves be naive instead of trying to know everything all the time, I think we’d all live happier lives. But I digress.

the “talking heads” really are burning down the house.

Outside of my own affirmations about my interest in the spread of information and ideas (and admittedly, my interest is often to a different end than someone in journalism or publishing), I got to spend this weekend looking at problems for the first time that most attendees of NewsFoo have been staring square in the eye for some time.

While I was in San Francisco last week, a good friend made the analogy to “building in a burning house”, and I feel that best describes the kind of problem solving that’s largely exercised by the journalism industry, at least based on what was represented this weekend.

crisis is a great a business model until it happens to your business.

News organizations seem to have designed their operations – and relatively, their business models – around crisis. It makes some sense, if you think about it, given the types of events and experiences that journalism historically has shown its most value. I think that the problem with this is that the only reason that some of these news organizations are still standing upright is because they’ve fallen and nearly smashed their faces at least once already, and they don’t seem to be any less likely to fall – or smash their faces – again.

It’s almost like the news industry is populated by people of a specific genotype of humans that are predisposed to chaos and crisis. In their work, that’s viewed as an asset, and allows them to cope with some pretty antagonistic working conditions. But from an outsiders point of view, I’m observing how this dynamic is being transferred over to the business side of the industry (the one that needs to be there to support the operations). The outcome seems to have afflicted the decision makers with some whacked out Stockholm Syndrome that keeps them from wanting to build something that resembles a sustainable business model.

And regardless of how innovative the people within the organizations are, if the leaders don’t want to change, the organization’s members are going to have a very hard time changing it for them.

and then tim o’reilly picked me up off the floor. thanks dude.

Another lesson I learned is that I need to stop trying new presentations that aren’t based on things that I’ve said or written about before. I’m awful at practicing a particular “speech” beforehand, and in fact, I’ve found that traditional scripted practice negatively impacts my ability to deliver a message as I intend to because I’m so caught up with what I thought I was going to say that I struggle to say it in the first place. I experienced this last night at NewsFoo Ignite, where I presented a new set of slides I titled “BUSINESSWEAK”, which was meant to be a critical analysis of the fact that news needs new business models, not just new versions of the old ones.

Given how supportive the group at NewsFoo has been, I don’t feel like I need to excuse myself for my awkward performance. Luckily, for all of my fumbling, one of the key points I wanted to make seemed to come out in an oddly important moment of clarity.

The train of thought that brought this idea into my presentation was more simple than I was trying to make it in my Ignite talk, but fellow Ignite speaker Andrew Walkingshaw pointed out to me, while JOURNALISM deserves a right to exist, the BUSINESS OF JOURNALISM doesn’t have that same right.

It’s pretty clear to me that the folks with the decision making power in these news organizations don’t see things that way, given how in another session, I watched some of those people actively dodge discussing hard questions in favor of the old and familiar.

why are we still talking about advertising?

Somehow, two sessions got jammed together: one was meant to address proposed laws to create opt-out techniques for reader tracking, while the the other was meant to explore non-advertising business models. While the former interests me from a technical challenge perspective, I came for the latter. I HOPED that they were using the former as a lens for the discussion of “ok, advertising as we know it really could be taken away from us and we’d be screwed, so let’s talk about creative alternatives.

And yes, there were a couple of ideas that I heard that were interesting. But the majority of the discussion kept coming back to models that still depended on a scramble for eyeballs in one way or another.

here’s where I rant.

Ladies. Gentlemen. Friends. Please get a grip on reality. ANY model that is reliant on the size of your readership that isn’t the placement of advertisements is likely just a permutation of advertising, and even if it’s not, it will suffer from the exact same problems that you’re experiencing with your advertising models!

And let me be clear and fair. I’m not in the camp of “advertising is evil”, “advertising doesn’t work”, or “advertising is wrong”.

What makes me want to slap the sandwich out of your hand and tell you to go make another one lest you go hungry, is that the time and resources spent hunting for the “missing variables” to make advertising work for this industry are a distraction from the option of exploring new concepts that don’t have the same dependencies that we’ve learned simply don’t exist in the reality we’re all lucky enough to call home.

I don’t claim to know how advertising works, but it seems to me that it works BEST when it provides sustained and balanced value for all parties involved (buyer, seller, recipient). But if it’s not working for you, why won’t you take a hard look at why it’s not working before you move onto something that doesn’t look the same but still has the same fundamental problems.

look inside, you’ll find what you’re looking for.

Tim O’Reilly was quoted by Sara Winge, FooCamp co-founder and organizer, by saying

“Have the courage to talk about philosophy and values, not just business models.”

I wasn’t in the room to know the context of this quote, but the most important word I see in it ISN’T courage, as some might expect. It’s just.

I spent the last 48 hours outside of my comfort zone being exposed to the current outcomes of those philosophies and values, and the sad reality is, that I don’t know how much longer those philosophies and values are going to be able to be sustained the way they are being funded.

What I do know is that when I’m faced with a really hard problem to solve, instead of trying to figure out what I don’t have, I figure out what I do have and how that will help me achieve my goals.

I believe that there are untapped opportunities to discover and implement new innovative ways for the news industry to stand on its own two feet in financial independence lie in those philosophies and values themselves.What the opportunities look like is still not 100% clear to me, but there’s some stuff in there that smells like real business to me.

I want to invite a discussion for the attendees of NewsFoo as well as those as passionate about news & journalism as I am about information and independence, to step outside of THEIR comfort zones for a little while and check your assumptions at the door. Bring those philosophies and values, though, because I think that by better understanding their value on contemporary society, together we can start finding some new business models that might actually rescue your asses from the burning building and let you focus on what you’re best at: finding amazing stories and making sure that they have an opportunity to be told.

That smell could also be remnants from the binge. But we won’t know unless we try, and I’m happy to be a part of that process.

  • http://asymptomatic.net ringmaster

    This sentiment could be said for most industries affected by the blight of information technology. I’m coming to the conclusion that the old guard isn’t going to pull it off, no matter how smart they are. Finding examples of companies that did more than weather the change, but actually improved with it, is nigh futile. I think there’s an undiscovered (but soon to evolve) recipe for newcomers to take over in any industry space where the establishment hasn’t embraced the change brought by technology.

  • http://twitter.com/Heuristocrat Kris Tuttle

    Great post indeed. Thanks for sharing your experience. I agree quite a bit on the advertising side however the size (and quality) of audience can be compelling for a business model because it can add lots of value to projects and partners who may not have anything similar.

    Advertising to me seems like a betrayal of an audience. Not that I’m dead set against it because I realize that many viewers would much prefer free and ad-supported versus paying for something. However by focusing on the needs of the audience that attention may be more precious than anything else and if it can be carefully incorporated the value can be realized.

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  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    Kris, thanks for commenting.

    My point is that capitalizing on attention isn’t enough to support the industry in the direction it’s heading (or even now, with that direction not fully realized), and the numbers prove it.

    The point isn’t that ads are a betrayal of an audience – because in fact, I bet you don’t even realize most of the information around you is advertising and therefore you don’t feel betrayed – but that if advertising can’t support the industre. Instead, the point I’m trying to make is that ads are providing whatever runway is left to discover an alternative (or alternatives) and get those models in place.

    The problem with advertising isn’t that it doesn’t work. It’s that it works – just not enough.

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    I tend to agree. The “waiting for the old dudes to die” approach just yields more old dudes who end up in the same situation.

    I also agree that a recipe for institutional overhaul is in the making, and not just for industries where technology is the primary disruptor. I’m personally excited to be tasting that recipe myself.

  • Jeremy Dunck

    FWIW, I think your quote came from a circulation of the meme recently; I see it Aug 26 here: http://www.metafilter.com/95152/Userdriven-discontent#3256046

    That said, I shared the frustration. I ran a session with the title “Starting Over”. It seems to me that the discussion of the future of journalism is dominated by concerns over how to adapt existing organizations to the new world.

    I thought it would be useful to have imagine that we were trying to accomplish the mission of journalism, but doing so starting from scratch in the world as it exists today. Not to say that porting the existings over doesn’t matter — but that it creates a mindset of incrementalism and conservatism that makes the destination unclear.

    The session was frustrating to me – there was some wandering, and I thought we didn’t get far enough. Obviously not going to be solved in an hour-long session, but I had a hard time getting traction.

    Even so, several people thanked me for putting it on, and I hope we can continue the discussion. Since there’s some overlap here, I thought I’d point out the people that were at the session:

    http://newsfoo10.wiki.oreilly.com/wiki/index.php/StartOver

  • Quentin Hardy

    (The comments below are entirely mine, and should in no way be construed as representing either the position of Forbes Media, or any future strategies it is undertaking. I am not kidding.) As the guy who proposed and led the session, “Are there any business models out there that aren’t advertising?” allow me venting space. First, apologies to all who got wrongfooted on the timing, location, and “concurrence with ‘do not track'” issues, massive apologies. I originally set it up for Saturday night, but after was reset for two hours I had to pull it. There were no slots left on Sunday, so the lads in “do not track” were kind enough to play chocolate to my peanut butter (or dessert topping to my floor wax, depending on how much you liked the show.) I put my notification on theirs, but it must have fallen off — someone replaced it on the slot for the room next door, adding to the confusion. Guess I was keeping the “oof!” in Foo. As to the meat of the meet: You must have been in the group that showed up late in the confustion. Twice at the opening I said that the business had made a common and understandable mistake; we had taken aspects of our old model, print- and video-type advertising, and transposed it to a new medium. That type of advertising was inappropriate, however, as (a) the content doesn’t suit the tools particular to this medium, and (b) there is enormous and unending supply pressure, in the form of new entrants and added pages, that exert inexorable downward price pressure. Some outfits, like mine, can command a premium to mass runs, by promising a more elite or well-defined audience for advertisers to address, but that is a relative good. Long term the price pressure is still there, and will affect the ability to fund a news dissemination operation with anything like stability. Worse, from my point of view, the relience soley on click-based advertising leads to some exceptionally bad editorial choices, including pointless slideshows, games and quizzes (all of which are designed to add pages, more than insight). It has also lead to excessive coverage of certain topics and companies simply because anything, but anything, on them will get attention. Looking at you, Apple’s white iPhone. Another big nod to Andrew Walkenshaw for putting some general numbers behind what I believe are the specifics of the matter. The solution has to lie in both thinking about what the distinct elements of this medium are (connection, duplication, two-way participation, an overload of impersonal data streams, personalization, a search for authority, plausible filters of reason or emotion, off the top of my head) and use them. This creates new valuable scarcities, as well as less valuable abundances. There are new businesses to be made here, as well as types of advertising, or sponsorship, or corporate involvement, that are more appropriate to the contexts of the medium. We must also recall and abstract what most of us (besides the really mass media guys) were selling advertisers in the first place — communities united by interest or geography. We offered them concentrations of data and/or insight, and they identified with us, hung around. We have skills at gathering, sorting, and filtering data, and presenting it in easily consumable ways that matter to people. There are other ways this can be sold. At the far end of this might be the example I gave of someone like CNN leasing a low-altitude drone, and flying it over a bombed site (perhaps a disaster area) and having a knowlegable analyst describe the conditions and implications — and selling live attendence via something like Groupon, offering this group a chance to ask questions directly. It could then be rebroadcast in a shorter form for other outlets. There might be paid question services. Naysayers might point to the lack of success of Yahoo Answers; bear in mind Wall Street analysts are also basically journalists. Facebook credits might be used, so people could directly pay 10 cents for some time or content-limited amount of information. There are still lots of experiments to try. The first thing is to realize we’re using outmoded tools and language.

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    Quentin,

    First off, apology accepted ;) Kudos to you for pushing through the organized chaos of the ‘Camp, and I’m glad that we’re connected enough to pick this up here.

    You’re right, I was in that second group that came in, so I missed the framing you’d provided. But all of that aside:

    What you’ve said here with experience and perspective that I don’t have aligns so tightly with what I hope can happen. This kind of introspective evaluation of the medium and how people actually use it is what feels missing to me. Can you point to anyone who is doing a particularly good job of experimenting?

    I really dug the CNN bomb drone event concept. And speaking of events, I think that “events” was taken too literally in terms of conferences. Place is no longer necessarily tied to a latitude and a longitude, or square footage of a convention center. Now we can consider an IP address + bandwidth a “destination”, and news can capitalize similarly.

    Bottom line: this discussion is important, and I was genuinely freaked out at the end of this weekend to have not heard anything like it. I think I’m a little less freaked out now, so long as you’re not the only guy out there thinking this way and with the balls to say it out loud.

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  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    Jeremy,

    “Starting over” is a tough context to provide for discussion; I can speak first hand in the fact that I consider a large number of the experiences at Indy Hall are the result of creating a “clean slate” of an office and letting emergent behavior take hold.

    I think it’s harder as a context for discussion than as a context for implementation, though. In discussion, it’s abstract. “Starting over” in the present assumes that everyone’s present is identical, which it’s not, because the perception of a given present is manipulated by the lens of the past (woah doc, this is getting heavy).

    It would, however, to put a bunch of journalism folks into something that looks like a newsroom but doesn’t actually have all of the usual expectations of a newsroom, to see what happens. Which old habits are immediately recreated, and which ones vanish in favor of new, emergent ones.

    Kudos to you for taking the swing at it in 60 minuts or less, though. I wonder if anyone that attended that session took notes or jotted down any takeaways?

  • http://twitter.com/140bill Bill Garber

    Quentin,

    Thanks for helping move publishing away from advertising-dependence.

    Suppose publishing comes to see itself as a community in much the same way a town is a community. Let’s think of residents as the proverbial consumer/reader/viewer.

    Where do the businesses fit into the community? Think Main Street. Oh, and schools, lodges, churches, golf clubs, and so on. Pretty much small town America.

    The economics of the community government are driven by a range of community revenue sources, such as service taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, utility taxes, cable television franchise taxes, and so on.

    As you can see, the key to revenue is the desire of the residents to live there and the businesses to set up shop there.

    The community is defined for revenue purposes by physical boundaries. If you want to be there, you pay.

    Now, of course, it isn’t the there that drives people to be in the place, to be in the community.

    What drives community membership is experiences specific to the place, and more specifically, experiences specific to the people of the place. These experiences are so compelling that annual subscriptions, if you will, already run into may thousands of dollars in most places.

    The good news here is that communities are collections of scarcity, and scarcity drives up prices.

    The community-based publisher will be delivering what has always and has always only been profitable, scarcity, not content.

    So it isn’t that the advertising model has failed, a common moan, it is that what was once scarce is now ubiquitous–content … oh, and advertising channels!

    People still value community, particular place-based community. When publishers go on to curate the communication about and between community members, and deliver the definitive chronicle of the community experience as an experience, in real time now, subscribers will pay, and will pay handsomely it seems.

    People pay $50-$100 a month for the personal phone experience. Households pay $50 to $100 a month for the cable television experience. Households pay $25 to $75 per month for the Internet connection experience.

    The money is there.

    What if we just showed people an irresistible ongoing experience in the context of their own community?

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  • http://withpretext.com/ Andrew Walkingshaw

    Thanks for the mention, and for keeping the discussion going – it’s one which needs to happen.

    (BTW, seriously not a big deal at all, but it’s Walkingshaw, not Walkenshaw. My surname gets misspelt by everyone!)

  • http://withpretext.com/ Andrew Walkingshaw

    Thanks for the mention, and for keeping the discussion going – it’s one which needs to happen.

    (BTW, seriously not a big deal at all, but it’s Walkingshaw, not Walkenshaw. My surname gets misspelt by everyone!)

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    Surname fixed. Sorry about that!

    Thanks for the inspiration, it was great meeting you.

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  • Quentin Hardy

    This is along the lines of several business models that existed pre-Gutenberg. Tom Standage of the Economist talked about this at some length, and I believe is working on a longer piece about it.

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