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Idea Festival – “The New New Media”

JD Lasica – founder of OurMedia – started the Idea Festival session on “The New New Media” off with a loud and fast video, giving a quick glance through different flavors of citizen media. His video features slides of Revver, Scoop, OhMyNews (though not Global Voices… :-), place blogs like Barista, Brattleboro.Net, Chitown Daily, podcasting through Odeo, ITConversations and Podshow, as well as newer media like stop-motion reallife photography, animation and mashups. The whirlwind tour ends with the Peanuts/Hey Ya mashup, and a dialog made of cuts between Bush and Cheney speeches appearing to show a disagreement between the two. (Funny, though Spooky’s recut of Bush’s state of the Union address, previewed last night, was significantly slicker…)

(JD tells us that he edited the video on the flight from Oakland to Louisville. Eventually the girl next to him said, “What are you doing? Because that blonde girl in the YouTube clip is my best friend…)

OurMedia, JD’s project, is a non-profit hosting site for citizen media. Started the same month as YouTube, he remarks it’s worth roughly $1.65 billion less. But it’s still the only site making it possible for folks to take advantage of this new way of expressing yourself online through a nonprofit site.

Buck Ryan, of the Citizen Kentucky project outlines a few different models of journalism: advocacy journalism, where writers are trying to achieve social change and justice; elite journalism, where paid professionals try to be objective and detacted; civic journalism, where writing about issues is a form of community problem solving. He notes that (Kentuckian) Bob Edwards discovered that his role as an NPR journalist became a facilitation and moderating role, helping citizens – who were often closer to the events than reporters – share their views of the events.

Bloggers, Ryan believes, have the potential to change the agenda – he offers the Trent Lott and Dan Rather stories as a way in which bloggers can act as a court of appeals for issues ignored by mainstream media (I’m using Jay Rosen’s term here, not the words Ryan used.)

Kevin Smokler offers his thoughts from the perspective of someone who’s watched computers change the newsroom. When he began working for the Baltimore Sun in 1994 – “the first year the internet was on the popular radar” – Kevin found that accessing the Internet involved “going out onto the internet.” Using beige computers and green text screens, using the Internet was an alternative to going to the clip library downstairs to check a fact. Since then, Smokler has found that blogging is a great way to publish “things too big for a notebook and too small to be published pieces”.

Trying to answer the question, “What is new media?”, he offers, was like asking “What is alternative music?” during the rise of bands like Nirvana. “What is it to whom?” New media is multisensory – smokler says he feels sorry for writers who have to describe a symphony orchestra in a newspaper piece – it’s better to listen to orchestras than to read about them.

At its best, alternative media embraces his favorite words in the English language: “Did you know?” When media gets closer to this paradigm – this informal, informative method of speaking – the easier it is for people to read. But there’s other complications that come with this way of speaking – the hubris of “of course I know better than anyone else”, the sense that we’ve got freedom of the press because we all own our presses.

Debra Galant, the founder of Barista.net, explains how she moved from the New York Times to being the online pundit of Montclair, New Jersey. Part of her 20 year freelance writing career included writing a popular column for the Times – she enjoyed being widely read in her community. Her editor moved her to writing features for the New Jersey section of the Sunday Times, and she discovered that she lost her readerbase, and was frustrated to no longer be reaching the community in the same way. Her husband bought her a URL for her birthday, and she discovered blogging, writing essays on debragalant.com.

She met Jeff Jarvis at a local blogger gathering and decided to focus on “hyperlocal blogging”, using the medium to report on her immediate community in suburban New Jersey. The model relies on hyperlocal advertising – selling ads to local merchants who’d never think of advertising online. The site now has over 4,500 stories, which generate large comment threads, often ranging into the hundreds on a controversial issue. The site was initially hosted on Typepad, at a cost of $15 a month – ads sell for anywhere from $20 a month for a classified ad to $1000 to a front page sponsorship. (Unsurprisingly, the site makes money…)

The competition for hyperlocal media is often weekly newspapers – when a “microburst” storm destroyed large trees in her community and knocked out power, Debra and her partner covered the story from the local Starbucks, which had power and connectivity. She was on the scene with reporters from the Montclair Times… but the Times reporters didn’t post stories until the week’s end, which meant that the realtime reporting came from Barista instead. She tells a story about reviewing a nightclub from the “Red Cheetah” chain of clubs – they gave an unflattering review, and the club owner came on the site to berate them in comments. Her readers responded by critiquing the club owner, and he eventually ended up realizing how much bad press he was getting and invited all Barista readers to come to the club, cover-free, for an evening…

One of the best audience questions struck right to the heart of uncertainy about blogs: “What impact has all this new media had on healthcare of welfare reform?” JD responded immediately: “Next question.” In other words, that’s a hard standard to hold citizen media up to at this point – it may take a while for this medium, with a narrow reach, to have impct on this political level any time soon.