Monday, July 1, 2013

Peres Conference Day 1 -- Post 2 -- Media Session

After the euphoria of the program with Bill Clinton, President Peres, Tony Blair and Rahm Emanuel, I attended a breakout session entitled "Has Traditional Media Been Caught in the Web?"

Moderated by Jane Eisner, Editor of The Forward, the panel included Aluf Benn, Editor of Haaretz (Israel's NY Times-ish liberal literary newspaper); Phil Griffin, President of MSNBC; Ed Morrissey, a Conservative blogger; Renana Peres (Assistant Professor of Marketing at the School of Business Administration, Hebrew University of Jerusalem); and Richard Piepler, CEO of HBO.

Here is the whole panel -- l. to r. Aluf Benn, Phil Griffin, Ed Morrissey, Richard Pepler, Renana Peres, Jane Eisner.

At the outset, the panel was asked to examine what it means to present the news in today's world.  The moderator asked at the beginning of the discussion how many people had received/read a printed newspaper or instead consulted an online version or had watched television news.

Dinosaur that I am, I receive two newspapers daily (at home) -- the Columbus Dispatch and the New York Times -- and I receive the Forward (the leading Jewish weekly newspaper) in print every week.  I consult the online version of the Times quite a bit.  The others -- not so much.  I do read the Haaretz online edition every day -- it's one of my 3 home pages, and I probably read 2-4 articles every morning before I even step in the shower (partly because Israel is 7 hours ahead of the US most of the year).  It's sad for me to think about how few people in the room -- or in the next generation -- do receive a printed newspaper.  Saves ink I suppose, but definitely the end of an era.  A very long and significant era.  Really a change in the way of life.

Aluf Benn of Haaretz talked about what a revelation it was to him to see how the world had changed so completely just before he took over as Editor-in-Chief of Haaretz.  "I saw that we had more readers on-line than in print.  You realize as editor you need to learn a new language and a new way of storytelling.
Gathering and dissemination of news becomes continuous.  At the same time, you can't just tailor your product only for the online only readers.  You've got print readers who expect a certain reading ritual.  They don’t want to change that, and they pay plenty to get what they want.  Haaretz LOOKS conservative but has always been the R&D (research and development) end of the business.  The first ones to do EVERYTHING."  

A daunting challenge:  How do you provide content to viewers that advertisers want to support?

Phil Griffin of MSNBC described how MSNBC found its niche.   In the broadcast news business, cable was the first disrupter.  The first wave in this regard was CNN.  Then other networks tried to respond.  The next big change was the web.  MSNBC was started in 1996 with the intention to be a general news and information outlet.  It turned out that people weren't really looking for general news and information -- at least not in large numbers.  FoxNews and its architect, Roger Ailes, soared because they reached an audience that felt ignored.  MSNBC succeeded when they found their niche – a political channel with a progressive point of view -- one opposed to the Fox News view.

He stressed that success in the emerging media is based in part on having a point of view, but even more with doing a good job with good content, and having the right personalities.  He particularly highlighted the case of Rachel Maddow -- who went from being almost unknown to being nationally prominent in almost a weekend -- and by word of mouth among viewers.  Old-fashioned advertising turned out to be neither necessary nor pertinent.

HBO CEO Richard Piepler spoke with Master of the Universe confidence about what made HBO a huge power player with a mix of entertainment that included significant documentaries.  "We were the ultimate disrupter."  Breaking up the network broadcast tri-ish-opoly.  "Our storytelling needed to be utterly original.  We are not an ad-supported business.  Ratings aren’t our #1 criterion.  What’s important for us if we’ve captured the imagination of the public.  People don’t just LIKE our stuff. . . they are obsessed with it.  They’ve got to see it."

He pointed out that, from the beginning, HBO was TV that people PAID for -- a huge departure.  This is why it has been important to create content that people are so connected to.

He spoke about the future -- which in his mind is that you will (soon and partly at present) be able to see HBO in every possible platform -- on all your devices.  A crucial element for HBO's success has always been content --and it's no accident that they now own all of Warner Brothers, Universal and Fox movies.   

Very interesting presentations all around -- by people who have kept ahead of the curve and made decisions that have really shaped media, entertainment and news in our time.

But -- it seemed ultimately out of sync with the inspirational message I heard upstairs.  I asked in the discussion that followed the initial presentations of the panelists -- "It seems like the speakers upstairs (Blair, Peres, Clinton) are calling for us to unite -- to create a growing US and a diminishing THEM.  But the news outlets, especially FoxNews and MSNBC, rely on creating a sense of anger about THEM.  And seem to be very much dependent on keeping us apart and not bringing us together.  If this is the way that we get news (which means that we choose the kind of news we want and avoid the kind of news we don't want), won't it be almost impossible for us to move forward?

In the time devoted to answering the question, MSNBC's Griffin indicated that they had indeed found too much anger to be destructive even within their medium, and had pushed aside a small number of too-angry voices.  But the challenge remains.

My hope is that somehow we develop a habit of listening to a variety of sources -- try to develop some empathy for those whose opinions we think we despise.  I know that, over the years, I try from time to time to listen to those with whom I'm likely to disagree -- spend some time with Rush Limbaugh, follow some Fox News, listen to some Catholic Radio, pick up the Wall Street Journal, peek at the National Review.  It can be hard; maddening; make me want to yell at the TV or radio.  

When Bill Clinton became President, I thought we might have arrived at a time that people could work across the aisle and find the middle -- because he was a more conservative Democrat than I was -- because he was such a powerful people-person -- because it would be good for the country.  Unfortunately (my recollection is that the) first thing that happened in his first administration was "don't ask don't tell" -- and it just sent everything in the wrong direction.  Interestingly enough, although we have never recovered from the negativity that followed, what was such an incendiary issue approached with lack of conviction THEN is almost a non-issue today.  Amazing to think how this matter ultimately HAS been accepted throughout the military -- and that the Supreme Court ruled on the gay marriage issues the way it did last week.  We've come a long, long way on policy-- but we've also fallen down a deep, deep hole in terms of the way that we regard each other.

I thought that Barack Obama might have the smarts to bring people together -- but he doesn't seem to have really had the interest to do so.  He seems to be content to be right -- and that's just not sufficient in today's world.

Is there any way that we can fix this disconnect between left and right in a world in which people are more and more separated from information that challenges their own information?  And at a faster and faster pace?

I guess I'll keep praying and keep trying to work on it.  And I hope you will, too.

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