Last night I attended a nice gathering at the San Jose Mercury News, organized by Social Media Club Silicon Valley, called “Journalism and Social Media.”
The organizers put together a powerhouse panel made up of:
• Kym McNicholas, anchor/reporter, Forbes Video Network.
• Jolie O’Dell, reporter and editor, Mashable
• Chris O’Brien, business columnist, San Jose Mercury News
• Julie Watts, award-winning consumer reporter/anchor, CBS5
• Brian Shields, online news manager, KRON 4
I got a few nice photos in this Flickr set, though in general did a poor job with the settings on my new Canon 5D. (And a disclaimer: I’m friends with several of the panelists.)
And much of the discussion was intriguing and noteworthy, if thematically scattered. For instance, it was fascinating to hear Jolie O’Dell, the social media rock star who’s a journalist with Mashable, take down the recent trend toward opinion-driven news reporting. She went on to say, “Sharing is the wrong way to judge social media news content. The trashy lame content gets the most shares.”
Still, I came away disappointed, for a few reasons. First, because I’m giving a keynote in Santiago, Chile, in August to a group of journalists running the new media programs of Chile’s major news organizations and wanted to get some insights about where this is all heading.
And second, because I’ve moderated or participated in many panels like this one over the years and wanted the conversation advanced. Instead, we were moored in misplaced conventional wisdom and rivers of meaningless generalizations about “bloggers” as people who only spout opinions — a 2002 cartoon caricature of what bloggers are all about.
What the conversation could have been
But poor framing by the moderator, and an odd decision to rely on Twitter questions rather than the audience right in front of her, sidetracked what could have been a deeply thoughtful conversation about how social media is transforming journalism as a craft and as a business. So we got a half-hour discussion about press releases (are you kidding me?) instead of delving into the really key issues of the day:
• Where was the discussion about the real-time Web (there’s even an entire conference devoted to the topic!) and how it’s affecting journalism?
• There was only a passing reference, by Brian, to the need for news consumers to learn how to differentiate between trusted, credible sources of news and information vs. rumor and misinformation.
• I don’t remember hearing the term “citizen journalism” used once throughout the evening.
• While the Mercury News should be congratulated for launching the well-done Bay Area News app this spring, are news organizations putting too much faith in the prospect of subscription revenue falling from the pockets of Steve Jobs? I think so. Do the panelists? We don’t know. It was left to me at the end to point out from the audience, “It’s as if the Mercury News didn’t know there was a social media revolution.” In fact, in my presentations at the Online News Association and elsewhere I hold up the Mercury News site as an example of what news websites will not look like in the future. So why are so many news organizations clinging to an online news model from the 1990s when they’re losing mindshare — and respect?
I’ll go far as to say that if you took a half dozen of the Mercury News’ most talented writers — starting with Chris O’Brien, who was on last night’s panel — and set them loose to create their own news site on WordPress, they’d have a better news presence than the Mercury News within six months. And perhaps more readers.
• No mention of Demand Media and the rise of a new breed of dumbed-down article writing that’s manufactured
• No mention of Groupon and its imitators, which are hiring writers and journalists to create inviting little review capsules of deals of the day, which millions of people are now finding in their in-boxes each day.
• And a personal opinion: While Jolie and other panelists smartly suggested that aspiring journalists start a blog, even while still in college, several of the panelists — prompted by the moderator — said that, yes, they would encourage students to attend J school (graduate school) to study journalism today. Really? I can’t think of a bigger waste of talent than to roam the hallways of academe when young people could be learning skills to give them a leg up in the new media workforce, like Jolie did by returning to school to study Java and object-oriented programming in 2010. Create a WordPress plug-in. That would impress me more than a J-school degree from Columbia. And, yes, we’re hiring journalists over at our sister site, Socialbrite.
A few highlights
I’m being overly harsh here, because there were lots of highlights, including:
• Kym relating the incident where Diane Sawyer posted to Facebook (or Twitter?) asking for questions for Mark Zuckerberg — after her interview with him was over.
• @juliewattsTV said, “I would get fired if I offended anyone” by posting to Twitter. The obvious follow-up questions — what makes you say that? there are hundreds of TV anchors tweeting today, why the reluctance at CBS5? — were never asked.
For many in the audience, the conversation seemed fine enough. And you can follow other reactions on Twitter at #smcsv to pick out some of the pearls from Kym, Jolie, Chris, Brian and Julie.
But I agree with Michael Sean Wright, who tweeted: “my frustration w/ discussion @ #smcsv this is old news and not how we can empower each other to use all tools to express our voices”
I left thinking, well, we’ll have plenty of other opportunities to continue this conversation over the next five years. I just hope metro dailies like the Mercury News have some breathing room, because their corporate owners’ approach to the changing landscape is not encouraging if they want to survive in the age of social media.
This is not an evolution. It’s a revolution. And it’s far too late for half-measures. JD Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.