Report from the Web 2.0 Summit: Time to Make Big Bets

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By: Maegan Carberry

Few would disagree that the impending Obama administration marks the arrival of World 2.0, or that social media will be a dominant force in the way our nation leads and solves problems across industries, including (and especially!) media coverage.

Fortuitously, I spent the latter part of post-election week with some of the country?s leading thinkers and entrepreneurs discussing what role the internet will play in the future of our society at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. Issues ranged from climate change and energy independence to food manufacturing and consumption, online dictatorships, the future of health, political accountability online, and the future of the media business.

Spearheaded by Federated Media chairman John Battelle and Tim O?Reilly of O?Reilly Media, the lineup included Al Gore, political strategist Joe Trippi, my old boss Arianna Huffington, Google.org?s Larry Brilliant, TechCrunch?s Michael Arrington, Digg?s Kevin Rose, Twitter?s Evan Williams, Current TV?s Joel Hyatt, Tesla Motor?s Elon Musk, Facebook?s Mark Zuckerburg, and many other innovators.

As I sat in the various sessions contemplating the extensive possibilities at our feet when bold leaders push existing boundaries, my Twitter feed continued to ding on my Blackberry with updates from Romenesko and Jay Rosen: reports of more of the same old MSM coverage of layoffs and predictable navel-gazing about election bias born of the hierarchical point-counterpoint inverted pyramid storytelling model. The irony was biting. What is a journalist if not someone who hopes to enable others with the information they need to solve the problems of our time? To connect individual citizens with their communities? Shouldn?t newspapers be the ones championing this enterprise?

The American Press Institute is huddled behind closed doors this week in crisis mode discussing how to save the deadwood editions that still turn a profit. You have to wonder if it?s just like watching the unplugged McCain campaign be pummeled by underestimating Web 2.0 technology. Since we won?t know until they publish a report what exactly they?re talking about, I am hoping the API conversation focuses less on redesigns and marketing gimmicks, and primarily on giving advertisers incentives to pay higher CPMs and invest in the redevelopment of dynamic, 21st century newsrooms that connect the distinct expertise of reporters with the emerging wisdom of the crowd.

This doesn?t have to be a crisis: In fact, it is a time of great opportunity for those who are willing to make big bets — and implement them.

?Big bets? in a sea of opportunity was a major theme at the Web 2.0 Summit. Shai Agassi, founder of Better Place, a company that?s developing personal transportation systems to end oil dependence, said something of the big oil companies that struck me as relevant to the newspaper industry. The audience was squirming at the radical concept of giving people cars for free while raising the price of sustainable alternative energy to fuel the vehicles, and he retorted: ?What? Do you think in 2018 Chevron is going to pack up and say, ?Hey guys, it was a good run.? No. They know they have to continue as a provider of energy.?

Innovation does exist in the news industry, I?ve yet to encounter the MSM leader who is willing to truly unleash it. Now is not the time for incremental efforts; technology does not leave the luxury of slow decisions. In San Francisco they were already salivating at the future of “cloud computing,” which will replace 2.0.

In 2003 as a graduate student at Medill, I remember meeting with one of the Chicago Tribune?s then-Senior Innovation Editors, talking about the straight-out-of-“Minority Report” interactive news devices that could eventually revolutionize the business. He also showed us mock-ups of bold redesigns that, when actually implemented, were reduced to nothing more than a switch to sans serif fonts.

Five years later, my old boss at RedEye, now-managing editor of design and graphics Joe Knowles, has boldly caused a ruckus in town by drastically departing from traditional expectations in the Trib?s latest iteration, and we?re starting to see that change can be executed, even if it requires some grumbling and readjusting.

Even this move is incremental, however, in the big picture. Consider the panel I attended at the summit called, ?The Media Business: New Approaches,? moderated by The New Yorker?s Ken Auletta and featuring Twitter?s Evan Williams and Current TV?s Joel Wyatt. The men discussed a partnership on election day that was forged between their companies, along with Digg.

Instead of relying solely on a controlled team of pundits to interpret the results, users could also experience reports and reactions from the people they follow on Twitter and collectively Digg the most compelling material up to reports on Current TV. This type of diverse real-time coverage is frequently becoming the way I now stumble upon MSM reports (as opposed to seeking them out), like a personalized wire service subscription and modern-day Bloomsbury Group living in my phone.

I highlight this example because it underscores the key principle that must guide innovation. It?s not enough that reporters simply use new technologies as ancillary content or an addendum to existing MSM infrastructure, it?s that they must embed themselves in communities and bring a distinctive quality to the discourse, whether it?s context, access or a good old fashioned scoop. And it is discourse now, not top-down reporting to a passive public. Follow @Maddow (http://twitter.com/maddow), @RachelSklar (http://twitter.com/rachelsklar), @ricksanchezcnn (http://twitter.com/ricksanchezcnn) or @MediaLizzy (http://twitter.com/medializzy) to get a sense of the difference between joining versus repurposing (like @romenesko or @thecaucus) in the Twitter community.

More importantly than joining an existing community, though, is the prospect of building them. Hyper-local is the way to win, and with their vast resources who better than newspaper companies to bridge the gap from offline engagement to dynamic online interaction? Let?s hope there?s some tech geeks in the room with the API leaders talking about overhauling the newsgathering process, welcoming user-generated content, enabling users to form groups and interact with reporters, data-basing old reports for search capabilities, and leading instead of reacting.

The ?change? has come, and it?s time to lose the massive paperweight that?s holding this industry down.

What would your ideal 21st century newsroom look like? How would you prioritize stories and dispatch reporters with respect to citizen journalists? Should news orgs leave their paper products untouched for the geezers and transition budget and operations to focus completely online? Email maegan.carberry@gmail.com.

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