Community chest: Tackling online's context-driven learning curve at Media09

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If there was ever an opportunity for digital media, it was to help change the course of history through the election of US president Barack Obama.

No surprise therefore that Ben Self was the star attraction of this year’s Media09 conference in Sydney.

Recruited only days before Obama’s run for president was announced, Self “worked with a politician who couldn’t do it the old way”, planning a programme which focussed on money, the message and mobilisation, to involve 68 million Americans.

Vidoes prepared by his Blue State Digital scored 15 million views, while Self led an online donation drive that netted more than half a billion dollars from 3.2 million donors.

He devised the MyBarackObama social networking website, which led to 25,000 support groups being formed, and provided tools for doorknockers which mapped and targetted voters, providing helpers with scripts, videos and advice. The result was a ‘hockey-stick’ graph of growing support.

His advice was to communicate regularly with your audience, “be relevant, authentic and transparent”, making it easy to get engaged with the campaign. And raise your expectations – “why not ask ... you’ll find people are willing to do more than you expect,” he says.

But don’t expect technology to solve every problem: “It just focuses passion ... and if you don’t have that passion, you’ll need to create it.”

If Obama’s was the ultimate community, the potential of social networking was a theme developed by other speakers.

As a former anthropologist, the Guardian’s Meg Pickard was better qualified than most to comment on how people act, and “the herd is not always right,” she warns. “Social media doesn’t need to be a sociable act.”

Pickard, who is head of communities and user experience, suggested to Fairfax’s Brian McCarthy that context, rather than content, was king, and urged online publishers to use all the tools at their disposal to get users to “consume, react, curate and create”.

Acknowledging the ‘tipping point’ of 2008, in which more people in the US had got their news from the internet than from newspapers, the BBC’s Nic Newman moved the discussion on to mobiles: “Things are changing at an extraordinary rate,” he says. He painted a picture of iPhone users in a range of new applications: A quarter more likely to access email than those with other smart phones, and some even watching online TV in bed on the device.

The BBC was already active with its iView service – “making the unmissable unmissable” – and podcasts, 70 per cent of which were accessed from outside the UK.

“We think IPTV will come faster than anyone imagines, and are looking at this opportunity to futureproof TV,” he says.

Of course, while the Fairfax-driven programme pushed the communities message, it had no role in equipping potential competitors. The exception was Will Price from San Francisco-based Widgetbox, whose address covered both why and how.

He explained the concept of the need for a ‘third place’ (beyond work and home) and also had some of the technology – at a mentioned $30-a-year” – to create it.

“Users want to decide where they consume content,” he says. “Our focus is to allow them to take content to sites they want to spend time with.”

But others were still mindful of the baggage weighing down newspaper publishers: Caroline Little, former publisher of washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive and now heading North American operations for ‘The Guardian’ was excited by what she saw as opportunities in journalism, despite the “unprecedented period of gloom and doom”.

But she says understanding the web is transformative is not enough. The role of the ‘newspaper of record’ has now gone, and advertisers now face a myriad of choices.

“All we have to lose by being too conservative is everything,” she says.

Little believes the business model of advertising will hold, but “in the age of free” new sources of revenue were needed.

She urged analysis of each of a publisher’s assets so that the best use might be made of them: Multimedia storytelling, ‘database journalism’, reader engagement and ‘pure’ journalism were all key areas for online publishers.

“And think of the talent you have at your disposal – your rock stars are journalists, each authoritative on their subjects,” she says. “TV stations have to bring talent in but you can produce for perhaps $140 what it would cost them $300,000 an hour to do.”

Publication of a story was just the start: “It kicks off the conversation,” she says. “You should understand how important all the twitter engagements are.”

Opening what he says had first been conceived as an internal event, Fairfax Digital chief executive Jack Matthews told the story of English mountaineer Joe Simpson who, let fall into a Peruvian crevasse and assumed dead, opted to dig himself further in.

It’s that sense of doing the counter-intuitive that Matthews and Fairfax were encouraging with the Media09 event: That the solution to the newspaper industry’s well-publicised ills may not be the obvious one.

Ills? Matthews’ boss, Fairfax Media chief executive Brian McCarthy was prepared to acknowledge some problems with share valuations. Fairfax stock *might be down 60 per cent, but so was “high flyer” Seek ... and others were faring worse (notably McClatchy in the USA, down 90 per cent and the UK’s Johnston Press, down “almost 100 per cent”).

Struggling with hardcopy notes at an overwhelmingly digital event, he turned to the hunger for news – “relevance, engagement and understanding” – demonstrated by a 50 per cent increase in traffic to on the day following the worst Victorian fires.

Curiously, he also thought a five per cent increase in sales of the flagship Melbourne metro itself worth celebration.
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