Recap of Social Media & Journalism Panel

Aspen Ideas Festival Panel: Living Digitally: Is Social Media Transforming Journalism?

Um, duh?

Here are the key players:

With Moderator Charlie Firestone, executive director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, we have:

  • Vivian Schiller, current President and CEO of NPR, former SVP of The New York Times Company and General Manager of, former SVP of CNN Productions, winner of three Peabody Awards, and producer of dozens of Emmy-winning documentaries and series.
  • Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post.
  • David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect and former senior editor at Fortune magazine
  • Strauss Zelnick, co-founder of Zelnick Media LLC and former President and CEO at Twentieth Century Fox and former President and CEO at BMG Entertainment.

These are some heavyweights, and they were not afraid to express their opinions. Interestingly enough, the panel seemed far more optimistic than the audience. Of course, their livelihoods may depend on that optimism, though journalists are not known for being glass-half-full types.

The most surprising moment for me came when, at the very end of the panel, Vivian Schiller said that you can’t underestimate the intelligence of the American public and the crowd booed. Is it because the people in the room are elitist? Is America actually dumb? Someone pointed out that NPR has a more intelligent audience than most, to which Schiller replied, “We have a 35 million member audience across all channels. Unduplicated.” Which implied that 35 million members are at least a good sample of the 309.7 million people in the U.S.

Here are some other bullet points of my top takeaways from the panel:

  • Amazing stat: 46 YEARS of YouTube videos are consumed ON Facebook EVERY DAY.
  • Self expression is becoming the new entertainment.” – I think this is one of the most important points from the panel (I even tweeted it). People are increasingly going online and writing, blogging, videoing, twittering about THEMSELVES as a form of entertainment, as opposed to (but also in conjunction with) watching others. This is a huge shift in the way information is consumed.
  • Readers want to be part of the story.” – Arianna Huffington. Involve readers as commenters, data sources, experiential sources, experts, and more … let them contribute as much as possible. HuffPo saw THREE MILLION comments last month (June), across all its platforms (site, facebook, twitter, youtube).Vivian Schiller told the story of the NPR commenters who tackled a complicated calculus problem related to the Balloon Boy coverage in mainstream media (NPR blogged about the story – where everyone believed their was a boy inside a balloon in the air), and before it was reported that there was no boy in the balloon, concluded that it wasn’t physically possible for the balloon to support the boy’s weight at that altitude. Pretty cool example of the value of commenters and community.
  • We’re headed for a “hybrid future” as opposed to a new media or old media model. It’s a convergence. I feel like this is obvious, but then again, I’m a younger journalist who has always used social media. Craig(‘s List) Newmark’s comment “trust is the new black,” is tongue-in-cheek but, like many jokes, also very true.
  • In fact, David Kirkpatrick said, “Social media is a truth serum for the media.” He went on to talk about the profound shift the mainstream media has experienced as a result of having a whole new set of voices that hadn’t been heard before. The panelists all agreed that commenters serve as fact-checkers, and while they shouldn’t replace staff fact-checkers, readers are now an important part of the journalistic process.
  • “Social media creates more empathy, something the world needs more of. We’re also seeing the creativity that social media is generating,” said Arianna Huffington, who cited the Huffington Post’s use of personal stories as one of the keys to its success, and one of the ways it differs from mainstream media.
  • I do stuff people pay for. I’m serious, I sell video games and people pay for them,” said Strauss Zelnick. He talked about the content model being upside down (users get content free, advertiser-supported) but cited Bloomberg as an example of a news source that people still pay for because it’s a must-have (it’s also data and information heavy as opposed to reporting). His presence on the panel was really interesting and a nice foil to the rest’s strictly journalism backgrounds.
  • David Kirkpatrick closed by saying, “Quality information is proliferating. It can always be better, but [social media] is not a tragedy.” In contrast, after saying that it’s easier than ever for marketers to wag the dog, Strauss Zelnick closed by saying, “Beware misinformation and manipulation.”

A rousing, interesting discussion of social media and journalism, though nothing was ground-breaking. I did really enjoy the fact that people hung around after the panel in small groups of people, furthering the discussion.

But for a generation (mine) that grew up with social media, to some extent these questions seem silly. OF COURSE social media is a part of journalism. Of course people want to be connected to the stories. Of course people want to express themselves–facebook is the #2 site on the whole internet. The question for a media company isn’t “do we embrace this shift?”, it’s really: “HOW do we embrace social media?”

2 Responses to “Recap of Social Media & Journalism Panel”

  1. Two very interesting topics that I mined from this great recap:

    America IS dumb. And millions/billions will be made by those who can successfully help others find their way in this ever-changing landscape.

    Point #1: Social Media helps us to realize just how behind we are. We seem to be a nation of young people that are slave to that high school/college feeling and I honestly believe that it retards our progress to be functional, inspirational, and revolutionary. The things that people don’t know astounds me. The things that people don’t CARE to know wrecks havoc on my soul.

    More and more, there are people who jettison Drudge, HuffPo, NPR, WashPo, etc for Bossip, TMZ, Perez Hilton and so on. Of course, there can always be a balance but in this age of social media, we become connected to more and more individuals throughout our day. It is amazing to me that it is difficult to find others (often enough) who have no idea what current event you’re referencing, political agenda you are blasting, or economic figure that you’re fearful of. In ways, we have become a nation to eager to be entertained. No longer narcissistically entertained by our own ability to grasp the happenings of the world but rather, entertained by the mishaps and missteps of reality show stars and C-List celebrities.

    Point #2: I do believe that the future will foresee a hybrid of conventional and progressive social media advertising. The future is in finding how to meld the real world with the virtual to fully immerse the consumer and keep them engaged by motivating them to advocate for your brand or product.

    Just my (possibly controversial) .02.

    Web Smith


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