A New Media Think Tank

by L. Carol Christopher

Reston, Va., has been home to nearly every major newspaper association in the United States. Now, it's also the home of the American Press Institute's recently created Media Center, where nearly 40 leading new-media thinkers gathered Oct. 26-28 for the first annual Founders Conference. The theme was "Beyond the Web: Delivering the News in the 21st Century," and the goal was to provide a short agenda of new-media issues on which newspapers should focus.

Intentionally or not, Media Center Director Chris Feola structured the conference to reflect the idealized, interactive nature of the Internet: hours of informal, freewheeling give-and-take. And although the conference program listed sessions in a linear manner, the actual discussions seemed nonlinear and hyperlinked--talk about storytelling merged seamlessly with conversations about business models, which likewise merged into talk about communities and new technologies.

The first session focused on building communities. Lydia Fish, professor of urban folklore at Buffalo State College, said that communities are inherently conservative and are often formed in opposition to authority. She encouraged newspapers to tap into existing, well-organized interest groups, many of which have been talking to each other in chat rooms for five or six years.

Participants generally agreed that success in addressing new-media communities will come through finding a balance that sustains the role of trusted information provider, but modifies the authoritative voice that newspapers have traditionally enjoyed.

"Society has changed," said Owen Youngman, director of interactive media for the Chicago Tribune. "We didn't want to say, 'We're the Chicago Tribune and we're here to help,' but 'We're the Chicago Tribune and we're here to listen.' We're not trying to take the authoritative voice of the newspaper out of the mix, but to add so many voices that you get a better idea of how the community works."

Participants were generally less clear on how newspapers can make money on the Web.

Chris Gulker, business-development manager for publishing, entertainment and new media at Apple Computer Inc., argued that newspapers often get stuck thinking about technological modes of delivery while losing sight of their core business as editors with an editorial voice. "People trust newspaper stories on the Web versus experts on other sites because newspapers [have traditionally positioned themselves] as uninfluenced by outside economic interests."

Bob Ingle, president of Knight-Ridder New Media, said newspapers have been "monopolists" for so long "that it has ossified our thinking." The Web provides an opportunity for newspapers to organize both virtual and geographic communities, and to put the customer in charge. "Then," he said, "we can figure out how to manage, organize and get commercial benefit from our sites."

Youngman photo The Chicago Tribune's Owen Youngman discusses online communities.

What online newspapers want from technology companies, said Ingle, is better database tools and integration, more bandwidth and better navigation interfaces.

He isn't the only online guru with a wish list. J.T. "Tom"Johnson, deputy editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wants a device to put a watermark on everything that goes up on his Web site. Retta B. Kelly, director of InfoVentures at the Austin American Statesman, wants to have better sound and video technologies. And Uzal Martz Jr., publisher of the Pottsville (Pa.) Republican and former chairman of the NAA, wants geocoding and an integrated database of users: "Then we can move from knowing the territory to owning it."

One participant who is dealing head-on with the problems encountered by Web users is Todd Rundgren, musician and entrepreneur, who has created a company and written a browser to help musicians reach their audiences directly. Rundgren, who met with the group via satellite from San Francisco, described his particular brand of "disintermediation" as a means for musicians to avoid retailers--via Rundgren's PatroNet. "People have subscribed to Reader's Digest their entire lives. We can get into that position for artists,"said Rundgren. By selling their music via subscription, for example, musicians can recast the notion of information deliverables to one of a relationship--a concept which he believes has a much wider application. Maybe even to aspects of online newspapers.

But first you have to get people interested: "You have to think like a drug dealer," said Rundgren. "Give people free samples until they're hooked--then the sky's the limit until they either get unhooked or run out of money."

To get people hooked into the online newspaper habit, Rundgren suggested "pre-flying the experience, then designing the technology and content. Articulate the audience. Find the technology that will help deliver the experience to them if it isn't already there, and then enliven the paradigm. But maintain the agenda, and retain your editorial grip."

The Media Center will host a series of forums for discussion of best practices and achievable futures. For virtual experience of this year's conference, go to the Media Center's Web site (http://www.mediacenter.org/founders).

L. Carol Christopher is president of Christopher Communications in Berkeley, Calif.

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