My Reflections On The Chicago Media Future Conference


July 5, 2009

It’s been four weeks since Scott Smith, Barbara Iverson and
I hosted the Chicago Media Future Conference, so I’ve had some time to think
about the event and outcomes. Because of interceding work and vacations (Scott
going on the freaking Oprah cruise) I have not really discussed these points
with Scott and Barbara, but based on our chats in the bar right after the
conference, I’m guessing their thoughts aren’t too far from mine.

Coming out of the conference, I think I learned about how to
put on a better conference and more on the state of the Chicago media scene.
Let me start with the conference:

  1. There is a clear hunger for more information

Among those whose lives are intertwined with the media, whether they develop the content or work to shape it, everyone wants to know more. Scott, Barbara and I are entirely agreed on this: There need to be more CMFC events, and we’ll be working in the next few months to get more together.

  1. Panel discussions have been exhausted on this topic

Between CMFC and the Chicago Journalism Town Hall (CJTH), we’ve seen that panel discussions are limited to what the panelists and moderators want to talk about and because nobody is an expert (see Media #2, below) on media these days, we miss out on all the great ideas just sitting in the audience. And that leads into…

  1. The audience wants to participate – and has good ideas

Between the number of people lined up with questions, Twittering during the conference and the number of thoughtful blog posts after the conference, there’s a lot of thinking going on off-stage. A much more productive event would find a way to involve all that thinking.

  1. There are clearly differing levels of interest, expertise and involvement

I’m an egalitarian as much as the next guy, but I now that we’ve got two data points: CJTH and CMFC, we now know that not everyone that goes to these things puts the same amount of thought into media, has as much experience in media or is as involved in media “change” as the next guy. This makes in-depth conversations about media difficult because some number of people in the room are either trying to catch up, or dragging the discussion down to a lowest common denominator. I think we managed to raise that denominator with CMFC, but some separating still needs to be done. How we create those filters is an important challenge that I think will determine the future success of CMFC.

  1. It is not clear whether the best conferences are free or fee-based

Following CMFC a number of people approached me or wrote to say that we should seri
ously consider making the conference a paid event. This advice is contrary to our original impulse, which is that CMFC should be free so that we can capture the bubbling entrepreneurism of new media – which usually doesn’t have much money, but lots of ideas. Thus holding the conference on a summer Saturday in a college building – it was cheap.

But while planning the conference, it became clear to us that we were missing a great deal of established media players, since they are usually older and have family obligations on weekends. “Why not have the conference on a weekday? I’d pay for that,” they would tell us. But we knew the cost of a weekday venue would require setting a not-so-cheap price, something many entrepreneurs would have to take pass on.

The other concern is that a paid conference requires some definitive return on your money. Up to now Scott, Barbara and I have been thinking that any conference we put together would have a real hit-or-miss risk. We have some better ideas on how to get more hits, but clearly a paid conference would require us to put in more assured value for attendees.

I think I also learned a few valuable lessons about the state of media in Chicago right now:

  1. The line between “get it” and “doesn’t get it” is blurry

Coming out of CJTH it seemed that there was a clear line between the “old media” and the “new media” people. Following CMFC, I’m not so sure the distinction is binary as much as it is a spectrum of interest and understanding. There are those who have little interest or understanding of new media and how it is changing the marketplace, but once you encounter those who are experimenting, it is hard to distinguish who the really forward thinkers are versus those who are not. 

For instance, at CJTH, Geoff Dougherty from Chi-Town Daily News has gotten a lot of flak for his estimation of a $3 million a year city news room. Many, including myself, think that such a high cost unnecessary contains too many editors and rewrite men – something you want when you’re the “paper of record” maybe, but not necessarily a profitably on-line enterprise covering local news. I think the flak directed at Dougherty for this idea is deserved. But does he “not get it”? That’s a hard accusation to make at the one guy in town trying to build a purely on-line newspaper.

At CMFC, Patrick Spain from Newser.com pronounced that, “unless you have 5 million daily viewers, you can’t build a profitable enterprise.” I think he meant to add, “that has a national presence,” to the end of that sentence, but boy did he tick off a bunch of people that want to create much more locally-oriented media. Many of those local media projects, I believe, are the future of new-media’s ever lengthening “long tail”, dooming the catch-all news sites like Chicagotribune.com. Does that make Spain a “don’t get it” person? Eh. That one doesn’t stick either.

  1. Nobody is an “expert”

There are so many different angles being played in new-media, it is bewildering. Chicagotribune pushing new, local content with ChicagoNow.com, hyper-specific content with CapitolFax.com, global aggregation with Newser.com, boutique writing with BeachwoodReporter.com, localized snark with Chicagoist.com – the list goes on and on. All of these models have differing success-levels and unknown “untapped potential”. And they are also all full of unknown pitfalls – most of which involve losing money.

The fact that few people are really getting rich on “new media” totally lays bare any
one’s level of expertise. Yes, there are people who seem to have a better understanding of what is working and what is not working. And there are people who are either making a modest living or guiding media companies through not losing (much) money on new media, but there really are not many raging success stories – and thus very few experts.

  1. There is a tremendous interest in experimentation

For those of us with experience in “old media” this is a big, big deal. Newspapers in particular have been hide-bound with all kinds of “that’s just the way we do it around here” thinking for a very long time. New media’s low barriers to entry have made it possible for all kinds of experimentation to occur – and be instantly rewarded for its success. As old media companies find their cash flow decreasing, they are waking up to their own need for experimentation.

In this environment, everyone is interested in trying something new. Maybe they don’t want to risk much money on too many new things – but that’s more a money problem than it is an attitude problem. This is a major sea change in the industry.

  1. There are many talented people willing to take risks

If anything, CMFC was filled with young, trained and talented people who were willing to risk their careers and livelihood for the sake of trying something new. Considering the state of the economy, I find this kind of energy and commitment staggering – and worth paying attention to. An incredible moment at CMFC was when Brad Flora from Windy Citizen announced with pride that he was closing in on making $60,000 a year with his enterprise.

This is not nearly enough money to excite someone like Patrick Spain, but big media companies and investors should note: There are a lot of talented people willing to take big personal risks in this arena. You should either harness them or fear the results. Remember Craig Newmark? Jake Dobkin? Remember how Best Buy slayed Sears’ electronics sales? You’re next.

  1. Investors exist – but they aren’t flooding the market

Let’s start with the obvious guy from CMFC: Patrick Spain. He’s got ’em. But he also made a killing with Hibeam.com and Hoovers.com. So he probably put in some money of his own. I’ve talked to potential investors myself, but every conversation ends with, “but we’re still looking for the right opportunity.” They’re looking, but they really aren’t sure where to be looking, because there’s still so much uncertainty in the market. So here’s the question: Do creative entrepreneurs know how to look for investors? Maybe this is a conference all of its own.