Tracking media reform in Minneapolis with Craiglist's inventor, Phil Donohue and 3,000 buddies
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- I knew things had gotten a bit surreal here at the National Conference for Media Reform, when, five minutes after walking inside the Minneapolis Convention Center, I bumped into one of the three or four guys most blamed for killing off the modern newspaper, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark.
You see, it is Newmark's free online ads which have helped decimate the classified ads business for newspapers -- a place where most of us earned up to 60 percent of our advertising revenue. But in person, Newmark is a shy, unassuming guy -- walking in with no entourage or sense of ego, dressed in a simple sportcoat, open shirt and West Coast geek hip thick black glasses. Because I'd interviewed him by phone a few times, I introduced myself and we chatted about the state of media while walking to the conference's opening plenary session.
"Figuring this all out will take greater brains than mine," said Newmark, after I gave him the Reader Digest version of recent reductions at the Times. "In a place like this, that won't be hard to find."
He had a point. Since 10 a.m. today I've been wandering the halls of the convention, mingling with 3,000 other people concerned about the state of modern media. Most of the folks here are seriously opposed to corporate and mainstream media -- representing community owned media, small independent efforts and a range of grass roots organizations, from Amy Goodman's Democracy Now show to filmmakers from Switzerland.
It's a decidedly lefty crowd, energized by speeches from liberal media thinker Bob McChesney and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress who had the dubious distinction of seeing his patriotism challenged by conservative talker Glenn Beck on his CNN Headline News show two years ago, simply for his religion ("We cannot be well informed, if all we have to listen to, is that guy," shouted Ellison about Beck during the opening plenary, to thunderous applause).
I was invited here today by organizers to talk about the role of the media critic in modern times, and I'm heading back to town tonight. So i'll miss the main event stuff today and tomorrow featuring PBS host Bill Moyers, blogging queen Arianna Huffington, former CBS anchor Dan Rather, a screening of a new documentary by Phil Donahue and a keynote from Goodman. I have been able to hobnob a bit with critics and media thinkers from across the country, which I hope will help my future work a bit.
Unfortunately, Tim Wu, a media law professor at Columbia University and chairman of the board of Free Press (the non-profit advocacy group which organized this weekend convention), had little good news when asked about the future of the news media.
"It's clear the media world we have now is not going to exist many years into the future," said Wu, who is credited with coining the term "net neutrality," to describe requiring companies which own parts of the Internet to allow all data to travel at the same speed through its pipelines. "I wouldn't be surprised if we had a major media collapse, where every media platform we know now went away."
Wu thinks we'll either wind up with a small group of one, two or three companies controlling all commercial media in America, or a system where all media is small, community based and non-commercial, outside of media funded by foundations and the government. Neither eventuality sounds very good for someone like me, who hopes to earn a living practicing journalism professionally for a business which is not owned by the government or an ideologically skewed foundation.
Still, its heartening to see so many people gathering in one place to advocate for the continued health of a socially responsible media -- even if they are a bit tough on the same corporate owned outlets that manage to inform them of the world's events every day. I expect to come back with a raft of great ideas and contacts and at least one more cool blog post!