Monday, August 15, 2011

Observations from the AEJMC conference

A few random thoughts from the recently concluded AEJMC conference in St. Louis.

* The best line I heard all week in any session was Lisa Williams of Placeblogger during her talk at the J-Lab luncheon. In discussing the emergence of small news operations, Williams compared current large institutions (think: big metro daily newspapers) to the Titanic, and said that when you're coming upon the iceberg you're better off in a kayak (think: small, entrepreneurial organization).

In another terrific analogy, she compared the current media landscape to the high-tech industry of the late 1980s, which was dominated by large, centralized institutions who clung to outdated technologies and ways of working, and eventually went out of business. (One of those was Digital Equipment Corp., which she called "the Knight-Ridder of its time," drawing a laugh from the audience.) As companies such as DEC disappeared, smaller startups such as Google came on the scene using technology in innovative ways to better serve customer needs. "The future is small," she said, meaning many smaller organizations will collectively make bigger impacts than the large central ones that are now fading away. That applies to technology, and needs to apply to journalism as well, she said.

* The same session featured David Boraks of, an online community news site in North Carolina. Boraks talked about how he started off with a journalistic mindset, but quickly learned that success required a business mindset. The operation now employs three people, including one who is editor of a companion site in a neighboring town.

In a post-session discussion among me and several friends, someone asked about whether Boraks should be considered a journalist? Citizen journalist? Citizen who IS a journalist? My reply: he's a publisher, plain and simple. His operation is virtually identical in the scope and style of its coverage to any small-town weekly printed newspaper, led by an editor/publisher with a variety of responsibilities to the operation and the readership; Boraks just does it without printing his work on paper and stuffing it in the mail to readers.

When Boraks described his work, it seemed he is doing exactly what my good friend Howard did in operating the weekly newspaper in Seneca Falls when I lived and worked there 30 years ago. The main difference is that Boraks is able to publish on a more ongoing basis rather than writing and editing his stories for several days to meet a once-a-week deadline. And he doesn't have the expense of printing and mailing the product. But the journalism is the same, it seems to me. And so is the business side, with support from local business as advertisers and readers as "subscribers"/supporters. (Boraks doesn't have formal subscriptions but does ask for and does receive voluntary contributions, and said he might some day investigate a pay wall.)

* There seemed to be less talk at this year's convention about j-schools as community news providers. Last year, there were multiple sessions on that topic and I attended as many as I could. It's something I'd love to see my program get into, if at all possible. But no real mention of it this time around. It seemed to be replaced, to some degree, by talk about journalistic entrepreneurialism, as illustrated by what Williams and Boraks had to say.

* AEJMC did its usual fine job of organizing everything, but they sure have a knack for finding convention hotels that are confusing places to traverse. This one's quirks included:
  • Meeting rooms in two different places separated by a city block walk along the street, or underground passage between the two buildings.
  • One small suite of presentation rooms on the 21st floor of one of the buildings, reachable only by a particular bank of elevators that were well hidden.
  • A mezzanine level in one of the buildings up what should have been one short flight of stairs from the lobby, but with no stairs or escalator to it. Getting there required riding the elevator.
And next year we go back to Chicago. If it's in the same hotel that was used for the 2008 convention in that city, there is a a floor that cannot be reached directly by the escalators from anywhere: you need to go to the floor above it and take a set of stairs down. At least the St. Louis location didn't have that.


Lisa Williams said...

I'm really glad you liked it. Thinking back, I think the one point I failed to touch on was how long that industry transition took: it took close to a decade, and many people left the industry for good, discouraged by layoffs followed by what could be an entire year spent out of work. (Notably? A lot of them went into teaching, which we see in the news industry too).

Such transitions are undeniably painful, and they're slow, too slow, sadly to stop real and immediate disruptions in the careers of many journalists who lose their jobs through no fault of their own.

Lisa Williams said...

Oh, and I quoted this over at the blog I'm using to document my summer project, which is at

Jack Rosenberry said...

Thanks for the comments and the cross-posts, Lisa.