From Desk to Dais: When Journalists Take the Stage

Pressland Editors
Dec 2, 2019 · 10 min read

Why have so many publishers become event producers, and what does it mean for journalism?

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The Media Live Event: A place to network, see breaking news, buy access, or just be bored?

By Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

An hour into the Future of Everything Festival, I began to wonder what I was doing there. I am a journalist who writes about economics, and like all journalists, am on a constant hunt for leads and stories. I suppose a subway advertisement for the festival subtextually intoned that this was an event for me. Three days of panels about the future of “everything,” hosted by the Wall Street Journal, the country’s leading newspaper of finance and economics, sounded like a potentially rewarding, if also large and risky, investment of time and $1,800.

The first tip off should have been the title. What could “Everything” possibly mean? It turned out to mean five things, as the brochure listed talks organized into the categories of Culture, Style, Tech, Money, and Health & Humanity. The talks were held on two floors at Spring Studios, a handsome and modern event-space in downtown Manhattan. Each was structured as a seated conversation between one or two featured speakers, and a WSJ staffer. On the floor below, booths lined a trade show-style room called The Lab, where businesses hawked futuristic wares, from an algae and mungbean protein paste, to an augmented reality drum machine, to a new Bulletproof brand coffee drink that tasted like a Powerbar.

Given the cost of attending the festival, I had thought that it must be aimed at a wealthy demographic. I was wrong. The Future of Everything, it turned out, is the budget-priced, consumer-facing version of a much pricier event named Tech.Live that costs upward of $6,000. The second annual gathering of the Future of Everything was intended for an audience the Journal’s Nikki Waller summarized as “students, entrepreneurs, doers.” What you might call the pre-wealthy.

Of the three, I suppose I was a doer, and what I had done was wandered into a fresh instantiation of a decade-old trend: media companies hosting pricey live-talk and networking events. In a 2015 study of this phenomenon, Journalism professor Christine Larson describes the rise of what she calls “live publishing” as an “onstage redeployment of journalistic authority.” At a time when journalism is in crisis, concludes Larson, these redeployments are “easy to explain: events make money.”

The list of digital and legacy publications hosting these money-making events is long and getting longer: The Atlantic’s Aspen Ideas Festival, the New Yorker Festival, VoxConversations, CNN Names Not Numbers, OZY Fest, and The Economist’s Open Future’s Festival. National Geographic has been hosting live events for a century, but has recently made them central to its business model. The New York Times lists a growing panoply of events on the dedicated “Events Hub” section of its website, from phone calls with journalists to expensive conferences. Smaller regional publications have started to join the list: In 2013, the Texas Tribune made around 20 percent of its revenue from conferences.

This redeployment of journalistic authority raises questions as well as cash. Namely, what does the rise of media festivals say about the future of the ethics and methods of journalism? What does it mean when publications offer high-priced two-way access to the people who make the news and the people who write about it?

Upon arrival to the Future of Everything, I was greeted with a Klik wristband. It was a typical festival-style ribbon wristband with a goofy, soft plastic watchface-looking device on it. Pressing down on the face caused LED lights under the surface to light up. I was told I needed the band to get into talks, and that if I clicked the face near another attendee who was also clicking their face, our bands would swap contact information. The introductory email I received from the WSJ publicity team referred to this as their “New Networking Feature.” Soon after I received the band, I passed two older men in blazers tapping their bands in the hallway. The more senior of them exclaimed, “Wow, we’re networking!”

So was everyone else. This, it soon became clear, was the entire point of the event. The journalist Maureen Tkacik once observed that the only thing a person could write about the Aspen Ideas Festival was an “angry elegy for the massacre of meaning,” but nobody had come to the Future of Everything in search of meaning. They had come to rub elbows with some of the world’s most future-oriented minds. They did so at the event’s nightly onsite happy hours, during long breaks between talks, and at complimentary breakfasts and lunches. They networked during field trips that brought attendees to the new Equinox hotel and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, among other locales. Then there was even a recessed area with complicated furniture and an ample spread of food and drink that I came to think of as the Networking Grotto.

As Larson points out in her study, networking is woven into the DNA of the modern media festival. The origins of today’s live events are found in the Silicon Valley conference circuit of the 1980s. Then, events like Comdex and MacWorld Expo provided a place for tech workers and entrepreneurs to learn about advances in the field and network. This was particularly important for tech workers because an adherence to lean management tactics had made employment increasingly precarious in Silicon Valley, a trend that would soon be replicated across the country in almost every industry. Because workers couldn’t expect decades of reliable employment before happily collecting a pension, networking became a requisite self-woven safety net. Also, by focusing on the future, tech conferences helped workers anticipate the effects of rapid technological change. They provided a useful service. Today’s media conference circuit mimics this function by providing a site for connecting people across sectors.

General interest conferences rose to prominence in the 1990s. This, too, influenced the model of live publishing, Larson explains. Such events, of which TED is the most famous, were desirable and could command high prices because they kept industry players up to date with what influential people were thinking and, once again, gave audience members the hope of running into influential people who, we now know, were being rebranded — seemingly by their participation alone — as “thought leaders.”

The Wall Street Journal added their own TED-style event when famed personal technology columnist Walter Mossberg launched D: All Things Digital in 2002. The WSJ conference division has now expanded to include CEO Council, CFO, CIO, and CMO Network, Women In Series, Global Food Forum, WSJ Tech Health, The Future of: series, and of course, The Future of Everything Festival. Tickets to these events are often high-priced and obtained by invitation only.

As they facilitate, modernize and give new meaning to the age-old practice of networking, these conferences also signal a fundamental change in how news is produced. The traditional mode of news production is hierarchical and siloed. Advertisers, sources, and readers interact with the media organization individually. Advertisers buy ads from the paper, sources talk privately to journalists, and then the organization presents it to readers. In this model, the media organization is a trusted broker in the process of delivering what each group wants. The media festival, however, allows advertisers, sources, and readers to get in the same room together.

For all of the players in the equation, this is an enticing proposition. For advertisers especially, Larson notes, it provides targeted access to a very specific market, a coveted “segmented” opportunity. At the Future of Everything, Phillip Morris pressed informational packets of their new “Unsmoke” campaign into our hands, IBM demonstrated how their AI Watson lost a debate to a human (“The point wasn’t to win,” the rep told me), and ADP had their own private suite just off the Networking Grotto where attendees signed up for a raffle.

If networking and segmented advertising are the twin thrusts of media festivals, are these conferences producing journalism? WSJ editor for Live Journalism Nikki Waller said that part of her job is to “make sure we break news on stage,” indicating that WSJ sees their conferences as extensions of their journalism. They even produced a special section of the newspaper available on-site, a now have a new year-round newsletter, podcast, and magazine. (Some recent headlines: “Can Jeff Bezos Make Money in Space?” “What’s Next For Weddings” and “Lab-Grown Kangaroo Meat: It’s What’s For Dinner?”)

As Larson points out, it’s Wall Street Journal’s reputation for news that allows it to convene and profit from a networking event at all. The media festivals must be considered a facet of Wall Street Journal’s journalistic program because producing these events without a news element would debase the brand. Just like any other news outlet, live events must balance the interests of advertisers, sources, and readers in order to maintain their legitimacy.

Media festivals are new enough that this remains an unresolved balance, but not so new that these concerns have not been around a while. As early as 2004, a profile of journalist Walter Mossberg discussed the problematic journalistic ethics of the live event model. Mossberg was an influential personal technology columnist who helped launch Tech.Live. An event like Tech.Live needs to attract high-profile guests who presumably are not paid for their time. This year’s event hosted CEOs from Facebook, CBS, Alibaba, Lyft, Uber, Slack, Dropbox, and DoorDash. (The opacity of speaker fees aside, CEOs often appear on panels or give keynotes without disclosures that their company is a sponsor.) Paid or unpaid, does their participation change how they and their businesses are covered in the Wall Street Journal, or even treated on stage? Will the interviewing journalist really ask the tough questions live, when they might need their cooperation for future events? In many ways, this strikes at the core of one of journalism’s oldest questions: will the journalist risk access in pursuit of truth?

The short answer, based on my experience, is probably not. The talks I attended were genteel, milquetoast affairs, hosted by journalists that enthused and bobbed along with their subjects. The only speaker who challenged any of the shared premises of the gathered was the economist Stephanie Kelton, a one-time advisor to Bernie Sanders, who suggested that because deficits don’t matter the government ought to guarantee everyone a job and spend liberally on infrastructure and social programs. This was too much for some in the audience. Throughout her talk, two older women in the back conversed at almost full volume, and a handsome bald man repeatedly shook his head and grabbed his forehead. Still, the moderator was exceedingly polite.

There is also a risk, highlighted by Larson, that live publishing “creates a two-tiered system of journalism.” The top tier is live, expensive, and interactive; the bottom tier consists of the (often free) derivative products, such as online videos of the talks. The Future of Everything festival operated along these two-tiered lines, posting videos of the interviews online after the festival had ended. This followed the model of TED conferences. Larson finds Tom Reilly, director of fellows and community at TED saying, “In my mind, it’s not a bad thing to have what some people would call an ‘elitist’ conference — which I term an ‘expensive’ conference — if that is the engine that powers the rest of the ecosystem.”

But what does it mean for journalism when the wealthy (or even just ticket holders) get one kind of news, and everyone else gets a portioned, derivative product? In comparison, the newspaper, even at the WSJ’s high-price of six dollars, looks mighty democratic.

Media companies have always relied on various forms of advertising to fund themselves, and there have always been concerns about how this affects the news. In the 1920s, early media theorists argued that an adherence to objectivity was crucial for journalists because it would reassure readers that they weren’t distorting the news for or against advertisers. It was the journalist’s authority — which arose not only from their rigorous objectivity but also from their access to high-level sources, and their technical skill — that prevented the corruption of news by public relations and government propaganda. In short, consumers bought news because they knew that journalists were bound by a code of ethics. If journalists kowtowed to advertisers, they would first lose the public’s trust and then their money. This trust and acknowledged authority provided the basis for the news media’s business model.

What’s happening today, Larson explains, is that live publishing takes the classic elements of journalistic authority (objectivity, access to sources, technical skill, and brand legitimacy) and reconfigures them to profit in a different way. Live publishing should reignite old discussions about the place and function of journalism in relation to their advertisers, audience, and sources.

I called Larson up to find out what, if anything, she believes has changed since the publication of her study in 2015. She noted that until recently there were few mentions of live events in journalism textbooks. Now they are included as a matter of course. She also emphasized that the subject still contains plenty of grey areas that deserve closer study. For one, live events are almost impossible to fact-check. And while newspapers traditionally do less fact-checking than magazines, the content that is produced by live events is categorically different than other news. In fact, it is in a category of its own. Larson thinks this category — whether called “live publishing” or, as The Wall Street Journal calls it “live journalism” — will need to be scrutinized until norms, standards, and rules are as established as they are for print journalism. “The best practice is truth in labeling,” she told me, “every piece of content that comes out of these conferences should be labelled: this is a live event.”

An engaged negotiation about the boundaries and norms of live publishing will be necessary going forward. Meantime, these events are making money in the most un-digital of avenues, and for all those hoping that legacy outlets will not all die at once, they represent a so-far successful model of repackaging journalism in profitable way. Even if it is awfully boring.

Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein is a journalist who writes about economic life. Find him on Twitter @robinsreport

Production DetailsV. 1.0.1
Last edited: November 27, 2019
Author: Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Wall Street Journal's "Future of Everything" conference

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