Finally, an Optimistic Look at the Media

View of Washington Square from the Kimmel Center at NYU

That’s basically how the mandatory The Case for Media Optimism panel was described to us NYU publishing kids. I was skeptical about how the panel last night would go. After all, for the past five years of so all I’ve heard is about the death of print, the death of journalism, the death of media, etc. But I was pleasantly surprised.

The panel was moderated by David Carr, the media columnist for The New York Times, and participants included Dennis Crowley, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Foursquare, Steve Grove, the head of news and politics of YouTube at Google, David Eun, president of AOL Media and Studios, AOL, Inc., and David Karp, co-founder and chief executive officer of Tumblr.

If this group of people accurately represents the current media and technology industry, then there are a couple interesting observations. First, this panel was entirely comprised of men. For the most part, they were men under 30 or at the most, in their early 30s. Only two of them wore suits, the rest were in jeans, and one even came in a hoodie (which seems promising for someone like me who doesn’t like getting dressed up but wants to get into the publishing industry). Also, three of them were named David. There was going to be a fourth David, but he had to cancel last minute and instead was replaced by Grove. So it seems in order to be successful in this industry, I have to be a young man named David.

But all kidding aside, the top people in publishing seem to be men. Publisher’s Weekly cites that 85 percent of publishing employees with less than three years of experience are women. And yet, woman on average make $64,000 per year whereas men in the industry make $105,000. In the case where media meets technology, I suppose it makes sense the top people are male, since it’s mostly men who do computer programming. Still…

Also, the publishing industry is getting younger. The lines between media companies and technology companies are blurring–each of these men considered their company to be a bit of both–and unlike the old days, no one starts small and works their way up the corporate ladder anymore. Which makes now a great time to be in the business. Instead of asking for permission, you just go for it.

“These are people who saw something and built it, who thought of something and made it,” Carr said.

Karp, from Tumblr, said that from the last 10 years, blogging has matured into Tumblr. In addition to sharing your own content, you can easily pull in content from other people and feature it on your own blog. Videos, songs, quotes, photos–you name it, you can easily add it to your Tumblr blog. Newsweek started a blog a while back called Equality Myth. At first it was just a feature story meant to run in the magazine, but the author decided to create a blog and ask the community for input. It has since turned into a huge hit, that according to Karp, “will possibly survive Newsweek.” The key to its success was that it was a great thing for the community.

Grove, from Google, called YouTube a “platform.” “We’re defined by our users who upload content to our platform,” he said. The point of YouTube is to increase access to information and to improve consumers’ experience. But it is also important to bridge technology and media. Writers are still important.

According to Grove, “No technology completely on its own is going to get news right. You need journalists.” (whew!) With this in mind, Google recently donated $5 million in grants to journalists. $2 million went to the Knight Foundation, and the rest will go to international news.

Crowley from FourSquare had, I think, the most interesting company. According to him, “it’s all about the places you’re at.” I’d noticed recently how people on my newsfeed on Facebook kept “checking in” to places, though it wasn’t until last night that I knew what it meant. Basically, FourSquare lets you tell your network where you are at any given moment, and if you happen to be at the same place, you can easily meet up, or you can learn tips from them about the place, such as whether the food was good, how to flirt with the bartender to get free drinks, etc. It’s all about the insider information, to make your night more interesting and turn your life into a sort of interactive game, where you pick up different badges depending on your activities.

However, “the side effect of having all this information is you know where all your friends are […] it’s like your Maurader’s Map on your iphone.” I’m not completely sold on this idea yet, I guess I still value some privacy.

On the bright side, by “adding a layer on top of the real world,” FourSquare has “found that if we made badges people wanted to get, we changed their behavior.” This means that because of FourSquare, more people have actually been going to the gym more regularly. Carr had mentioned earlier that he was at a media event in Austin, TX earlier this year, and he was at the bar, when all of a sudden 200 people just got up and left. He found out later they had seen through FourSquare that the after party had started, and he said he had never seen anything move people so quickly as social media.

Eun at AOL said the company has been revamping and he considers it to be a starter-up. They’re trying to get the best of both worlds: media and technology. “We’re really equal parts,” he said. “We’re taking a look at how we can bring media and technology together to serve our consumers.”

What was really surprising to learn is how, even with Twitter and people’s shorter attention spans, there is still room for in-depth content.

Carr expressed concern that writers want people to have an intimate relationship with their content. He asked, “Brevity may be the soul of wisdom but is it really for the word business, should we be scared of this?”

Grove agreed that “we live in a clip culture” but that most people, if they find a topic they care about, will delve deeper. He thinks the media has to think more about marketing, since there are more sources, people can be more selective.

Crowley said FourSquare uses the short-form as a filter, and that consumers “boil everything down to nuggets.” He said the next step will be to run these nuggets through algorithms, so consumers can make sense of all this information.

According to Carr, people spend on average 70 minutes a day getting their news and entertainment via various platforms. So are all these companies competing with each other?

No, was the unanimous answer. In fact, Karp described the web as being an “ecosystem” and all these companies are complementary of each other. Partnerships are key, and so is being open to trying new things.

“We’re competing for attention, for audiences, at some level,” Eun said. But, he also added, “In this day and age, you’ve got to be confident working with other folks and making a one plus one equal three.”

I think the main point though, is that everything is still changing. It’s an exciting time, and digital media is still evolving. The Internet may have been started by male engineers, but now it’s about enhancing the experience for everyone, making advertising and content work together, and reaching out to as many people as possible. The media is not dead. It’s just going through it’s adolescence.


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