Blog different? BlogHer participants illustrate diversity of the Web

Between live blogging and real-time chats, by the time the sun set on the first BlogHer conference in Santa Clara, Calif. last weekend tens of thousands of words already were twisting around the globe — and the posting barely had begun.

It wasn’t long before I realized what we’d taken part in was as much a group Rorschach test as it was a communal experience. No matter how much we shared or talked or had in common, each attendee arrived with a personal agenda and, even though some contents shifted in transit, each left seeing the majority-female conference through that same personal prism.

And, in the end, that may have been the most valuable aspect of all, a unique chance to come as you are, admit you’re not there because you know everything but because you don’t.

I was there, not as a reporter observing events a step or two removed, but as a reporter and registered participant working as a news blogger, trying to find my way around a new personal blog, looking for answers of my own while I learned more about what others needed and wanted to accomplish.

It definitely was different than any of the conferences I’ve attended or covered over the past year — from Bloggercon, ONA and BlogNashville to the combo conferences/trade shows like CES, CTIA , the national cable show and Digital Hollywood. It would be easy to ascribe the difference to the overwhelmingly female majority, but it goes deeper than that.

Part of it came from the cross-section of bloggers self-selected as participants or attending as invited panelists. We could — and did — break into smaller groups (one time slot was set aside for “birds of a feather” groups) but we were there for reasons that pulled us together more than they pulled us apart. Plus, we were determined to make it work.

It helped that the prep for BlogHer included an emphasis on finding ways for people to participate via registration scholarships, sometimes in exchange for live blogging or audio recording. It also helped to have much of the groundwork laid out online before we walked through the door.

BlogHer co-founders Lisa Stone, Jory Des Jardins and Elisa Camahort along with an advisory panel and numerous volunteers pulled off something incredibly difficult: a conference with many of the usual trappings that felt out of the ordinary.

This wasn’t just a kumbaya moment — or, as Nancy White joked afterwards during the informal Saturday night dinner, kum-blog-ya. Many attendees had business on the mind. One was looking for the right way to publicize her mobile accessories. Some people were business blogging or looking for ways to get started in that field. Others wondered how far to go with advertising or sponsorships. One session focused on venture capital.

Vendors mixed in as sponsors — Google provided mini-messenger bags with the BlogHer and feminized Google logo, a notebook, computer kiosks and the WiFi that didn’t deliver always-on; Yahoo sponsored the closing cocktail party; sponsored lunch — and attendees, listening to comments about their products, answering questions, offering up their own experiences. (I wondered if I’d have even noticed the interaction had it not been for the heated discussions about vendors during BloggerCon; I think I would have because I’ve been sensitized lately to the way sponsorships can be considered an exchange for access — not action, mind you, as in a quid pro quo, to people they might not otherwise be able to reach the same way.)

And it wasn’t all sweetness and light. Anger, frustration, disagreement, disappointment – all made frequent appearances during the weekend and after.

The first full session of the day unleashed some of the emotion that had started this all in the first place. Back in March, several women moved past venting about the lack of online visibility for diverse voices and into action. Halley Suitt urged people to look for new voices and publicize them. Lisa Stone responded with her challenge: “Shall we up the ante and build a global gathering place, online and off, virtual and real, for women bloggers: Bloghercon 2005?” She had been discussing the idea with Elisa Camahort, so the two were poised for action when people urged them on and began volunteering their own services.

Stone framed that first session as a debate over playing by the rules of a male-dominated game — creating different ways of gauging success and value beyond A-lists, traffic and the beleaguered Technorati 100. Panelists/debaters Halley Suitt and Forrester analyst Charlene Li stepped back and, along with Stone, let the room become part of the discussion.

Recalling the session now brings to mind the scene near the end of “War Games,” where the computer realizes nuclear war is as winnable as tic-tac-toe. Between the frustration over how links are counted and valued, the assertions that linking is gender-based (or biased), and the desire by many to be recognized within a system, finding a win was about as likely.

I finally piped up when it became clear that people bent on un-stereotyping the net couldn’t get past some of their own stereotypes. Such as the notion that journalists only pay attention to the top 100 — a faulty list, at best — and A-listers. Some journalists start there, some rely too much on usual suspects and some spend a lot of time seeking out other resources through search engines, referrals and other means.

People of the same gender aren’t all alike. Bloggers aren’t all alike. Neither are journalists. Paint with too broad a brush and a lot of it will end up on the carpet.

No real answers but one true fact: if you don’t call attention to yourself, don’t be surprised if you’re not noticed. This theme came up repeatedly. One of the concerns I had going in was getting the right readership for my newish personal blog, a space established for thoughts that don’t fit in here or my other professional haunts. Like many of the people I met at BlogHer, I’m uncomfortable asking for links. I’d like to think the work speaks for itself but the work can only do the talking when people know it’s there.

Halley Suitt urged us to read “Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide” by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. She said ask three times; I heard someone from the audience shout “seven.” But here’s one of the perception problems I can’t shake: men who ask are assertive; women are nags. Then there’s the link-whore issue – that the description of a person begging for links is a pejorative for women didn’t escape this group’s attention – and the fear that of having someone I respect not link after I send a “this may interest you” note. (Suitt was confronted by someone who had asked her for a link and didn’t get it; she has since rectified the situation.)

Now just imagine how daunting is for someone coming in cold, without media or networking experience.

One of the oft-repeated complaints was there were too many choices when it came to sessions. Luckily, between intense live blogging, chat transcripts and the eventual podcasts coming on IT Conversations, it should be possible to get a good sense of the sessions. I skipped the “birds of a feather” session on citizen journalism for one called by the Newspaper Association of America’s Melinda Gipson to talk about fixing traditional media, traded political blogging for blog design, venture capital for “how to get naked” and moblogging for Suffragette Journalism, where I tried very hard to remove the term “citizen journalism” from the lexicon.

The blogging naked session moderated by Des Jardins may have been the greatest eye opener – and not because of the subjects covered. The panel featured three identity bloggers, people who are trying to blog their true self through the reality of their lives and are coping/thriving with the consequences. Exposing yourself so completely is beyond the pale for most of us. Heather Armstrong, who blogs as Dooce and whose firing over her blog created the Internet verb “dooced”, threw me a little by talking openly to a room full of people about details she decided not to publish on her blog. Armstrong, who is number 10 on the Technorati 100, uses a PO Box and obscures pictures of her home but posts photos of her toddler daughter.

Koan Bremner was a portrait of courage as she explained how she unveiled her transgendered life using her blog. “I’ve already outed myself in every respect that could possibly hurt me,” she said, during an exchange about how much to post. She warned would-be naked bloggers to think it through very carefully and to make boundaries they will keep. Ronni Bennett actually started a private blog in addition to her public writing about aging after a family member figured out who was who in her public posts using initials.

Many in the packed room became part of the discussion. Six Apart co-founder Mena Trott, who has taken grief for everything from software decisions to going on vacation, warned, “For people who are looking for traffic be careful what you ask for because you may regret it.” It’s more rewarding to write for people who care about you, she added. Lots of advice came through about how to decide when not to blog about something — imaginine it on the front page of the New York Times or think of the worst person possible finding it. (It’s easy for me: I know my mother reads everything I write online.)

I hit a TMI wall – too much information – when Amy Gahran of Contentious mentioned her plans to add a sexual preference description to her professional web site. She and her husband are polyamorous, open to relationships beyond each other. I admire Gahran and knowing this doesn’t change that but the idea of injecting that kind of information into her work setting still strikes me as, well, distracting. Gahran since has backtracked, opting instead for a new personal blog called Mass of Contradictions. She was surprised by the controversy. “Some of the people who advised against this move I respect greatly – others frankly appear ignorant, fearful, or mean-spirited.”

Earlier, explaining her decision to go public at BlogHer, Gahran wrote: “I outed myself in that forum in order to make the larger point that humanity is not one-size-fits-all — that many people who are out of the mainstream in one way or another, or who or endure difficult circumstances in silence, often feel alone and vulnerable. That not only hurts them worse — it hurts society by allowing us to remain less aware and compassionate.”

So I should have been the tiniest bit prepared when I read about someone else’s reaction to Koan Bremner. “What I didn’t expect was a male dressed up as a woman (commonly referred to by the progressive society as a ‘transsexual,’ a term I will not use because it consciously validates our society’s dysfunction),” wrote Ambra Nykola. It gets worse from there, saying a lot more about the author than the subject.

Like I said, it wasn’t all sweetness and light.

Take the lunch session “Flame, Blame & Shame,” about some of the most difficult aspects of blogging. Moblogger Debi Jones suggested using anger as a tool. “There are times when I use anger to get attention for issues that are important,” she said. She also said that she “finds it easier to get angry with men. … Men won’t take it personally.” (She must know some very different men than I do.)

The most perplexing member of that panel moderated by Liza Sabater was author Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, the former LA Times staffer whose 4,000-word resignation letter reverberated around the industry; she spoke of learning communication skills to deal with her online readers and of worrying about the effect her blogging could have on sales of her novels. She talked, sold some books, left the conference and shut down her blog. Worse – from my perspective – she literally deleted it. Now she’s asking if it she should start blogging again. (The responses.) “It was a certain kind of release for me. Doing this blog. And I think the good vibe people far outnumber the bad. I didn’t realize that before,” she wrote a few days later. Valdes-Rodriguez also has an active Yahoo group so by dropping her blog she wasn’t disappearing; still, the timing of her act on was a tad odd and offputting enough to make me think twice about buying her new book.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the “Suffragette Journalism: Op-Ed Pages Of Our Own” discussion led by Lisa Stone with political journalist Chris Nolan, youth culture blogger and Current TV staffer Anastasia Goodstein and consultant/blogger Evelyn Rodriguez. One of the questions that bubbled up was whether personal narrative is journalism. The answer from Nolan and others: It depends.

Rodriguez learned this first-hand when she switched course in December after surviving the tsunami in Thailand. She wound up reporting about it and being reported about, knowing that her first-hand experiences and those of others she could share were more real than most of the “journalism” being done. Why should it have to be funneled through mainstream journalism to be considered news? Her coverage helped raise money for tsunami relief. She tried to apply for a follow-up fellowship from a media organization but it was limited to professional journalists. Now she’s starting a micro-fund “to support ‘real people, real story’ artisan journalism type projects.” The first one will be an anniversary trip for her – and possibly others – to the tsunami zone.

A chunk of the discussion went to ways to break through the barriers between those who want to have a voice in mainstream journalism and the news outlets. Goodstein urged those looking for experience to “Work it out on your blog and get your writing chops up.” NYU professor and blogger Jay Rosen suggested they contact local news outlets about blogging their communities. (I was reminded of the very different worlds represented at BlogHer when I read a reference later to Rosen as “some journalist dude?” who “greatly needs feminism 101 class.”) Stone gave pitch advice and solicited some from the room. Much more in media lawyer Cathy Kirklands’ live blog.

One of the most difficult aspects of journalism for me is knowing that just my presence — even if I don’t say a word beyond identification — can alter events, sometimes in imperceptible ways like someone choosing not to say something, sometimes more noticeably.

That affect isn’t limited to journalists as Latthanapon “Ponzi” Indharasophang of Ponzi’s Schemes realized after BlogHer. Part of it boils down to definitions: when she asked if she could podcast the hiphop session featuring Spin/Vibe GM Lynne D. Johnson, other people heard her asking to record it. That’s not her podcasting style, though — she is an active participant, not a recording observer.

One perturbed blogger wrote: “Instead she proceeded to take over the session, interrupting Lynne to ask questions, and otherwise being rather intrusive. Even I felt uncomfortable. Brave new world indeed.” Ponzi explains her thinking on her own blog but wonders post mortem about the difference between her proactive podcasting (my term) and asking questions from the audience. “Would it still be considered ‘taking over the session and being rather intrusive’ or is just amplified because of the mic in hand? … If I choose to hold a mic again does that mean I have to forfeit my place to ask questions of the speakers who speak into my mic in order to please those who do not hold the mic?” (The protesting blogger, Justin, later amended his post to say he wished he’d offered constructive criticism.)

Taking on the role of a journalist comes with baggage.

Did 24 hours in Santa Clara change anything?

The creation of BlogHer ’05 may have ignited as much — or more — change than the actual gathering. I don’t say that lightly. This post from co-founder Elisa Camahort illustrates the kind of chain reaction that starting to organize the conference set off by explaining how the nearly 60-person roster of speakers came to be through a mix of organizer ideas, suggestions, research and self-recommendations. Broken down by stats, about 20 percent volunteered; 30 percent were recommended from the community of people interested in BlogHer; 25 percent came from “traditional ‘power’ channels” and 25 percent were “blog crushes” — bloggers the organizers didn’t know but wanted to have on board. Providing the ability for people to create their own topics at break-out sessions increased the mix.

Expanding the speaker roster at conferences beyond the usual and all too-often white male universe is one of the hottest topics going. (The BlogHer roster still had usual suspects — some of “the” women at those male-laden conferences.) Here’s how the thinking goes: expanding voices will expand interest; people who feel represented are more likely to attend, which will change the tone and the impact; various circles will widen and new circles will be formed.

One of the concrete results from BlogHer: Mary Hodder started the Speaker’s Wiki as part of her post-BlogHer to-do list. The database is completely self-selecting with no parameters other than this description: “A listing of speakers, their websites and affiliation, contact information, past speaking engagements and other important information to help conference organizers choose speakers to talk on important topics.” (Want to contribute? Think of someone you’d like to see on the list and send them the link; share the list with various conference organizers; add constructive comments about speakers you’ve heard.) At the same time, the organizers of SXSW Interactive sent out a call for submissions and suggestions from BlogHer attendees and already are getting feedback.

Conversations sparked by the conference are continuing. Online communities have been extended or are being built. Plans for BlogHer ’06 are in the offing and a survey is being conducted. People left with ideas about how to do what they do better or how to do something news and lots of contacts. Post-BlogHer to-do lists are popping up all over and items are being crossed off.

As Evelyn Rodriguez wrote with a thank you to the organizers, “I think all the lights went on for me Saturday.” Personally, I don’t think it had to be majority women for me to leave with more energy but that majority is what made it stand out among the plethora of conferences and it’s what got a lot of voices heard beyond the event.

Nancy White identified these measures months ago:
“– We each hatch plans to support/mentor other women who want to blog (but not guilt them into it. We have enough guilt, eh?) We have a way to share what we learn/do in the process.
— We tell the stories of women bloggers in all their diversity, richness, and messiness – and hopefully we unearth stories that fall on the long tail, not just the spike.
— We identify and point to blogging resources that are useful to us – no matter our technological savvy. We celebrate what what we know and learn what we don’t.
— We identify strategies for second wave adoption (which follows on that last point.)”

So far, so good.

Lawyer's plain-language blogging on Schiavo case a refuge for many

A reporting lifetime ago, I was part of the often intense coverage of the similar Nancy Cruzan and Christine Busalacchi cases in Missouri. But they played out on a different media stage than the Schiavo case with its wall-to-wall cable coverage and relentless attention online. News organizations were still the primary gatekeepers — and if people wanted to get their message out, it went through us or usually went unheard.

Today, it’s the opposite — anyone who has something to say has access to a digital printing press and a shot at being read. True, the noise-to-quality ratio is high, and the amount of misinformation masquerading as fact can be scary. But the opening in the gates also makes way for those with something significant to add.

Take Florida law blog AbstractAppeal, where appellate lawyer Matt Conigliaro combines passion for the law and a talent for explaining points like hearsay or case law for feeding tubes. Once it turned up on my radar, it quickly became invaluable, an oasis in the frenzied coverage and polarizing posts; as soon as a ruling came in or a new legal issue was raised, I clicked right in. I spend more time with his resource page than those at news sites.

When Conigliaro started Abstract Appeal, billed as “the first Web log devoted to Florida Law & The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals,” in 2003, he thought he’d be writing primarily for other Florida lawyers. But Conigliaro wound up in the eye of a category five legal hurricane — the battle over Terri Schiavo. The combination turned him outward, to a lawyer explaining the law in language it doesn’t take a law degree to understand.

While other bloggers following the case tend to side either with husband Michael Schiavo or parents Robert and Mary Schindler, Conigliaro stuck with his initial focus — Florida and appellate law — and, in the process, created a port in the storm for those seeking a coherent, comprehensive understanding of the legal issues without a bias toward either family. Conigliaro’s primary bias, freely admitted, is toward the law. He came up for air long enough for a conversation about that bias, media coverage and the definition of a “citizen” journalist. The following is an edited transcript of our discussion.

Online Journalism Review: You have devoted an enormous amount of personal resources to doing this. Why are you so compelled to do it and what kind of role do you think you’re playing?

Matt Conigliaro: It’s, I guess, a fairly easy answer. I started this weblog regarding Florida law. I’m an appellate attorney, so that’s what I do, follow case law for a living so it does merge pretty well with what I do for a living. When this case started to become news I had done relatively few postings on it, other than to just sort of comment on what was going on but didn’t really try to be very insightful. What made me try to be more detailed — I ended up creating that information page; I literally did it overnight — I was in the middle of a trial … and I happened to catch a radio show as I was traveling from spot to spot that had the host just screaming about what the case was about, and I knew much of what the host was saying just wasn’t true. I knew from reading the appellate proceedings in the case that’s not what happened. I was somewhat fed up, and I ended up going home that night, didn’t sleep and stayed up all night to write that page.

It was really done as a way of trying to give people that were curious some basic explanation of the procedures, because as I first heard it, “Well the husband wants her dead so the Florida courts have just listened to him.” That’s not what happened at all. “She’s not really in a vegetative state; she’s talking and walking and thinking and communicating.” The court decisions were exactly to the contrary. There had been a whole trial on what she wanted. The decision was not made by the husband; it was made by the court based on what everybody said about her, her life, her wishes. The representations about it being a decision by the husband were just wrong, and they were inflammatory, too. The statements about her not being in a vegetative state, well, you can still debate that and apparently people still are — there had been a whole trial on the issue. The court had heard from experts on both sides, heard from an independent court-appointed expert and reached a decision. My original goal was just to get that kind of information out there so that if people were curious there’d be somewhere to go. Also, as I started to get e-mails on it I could refer people to the page.

OJR: You started out by doing little posts that would say so-and-so had a column, so-and-so has a story, and then you had this shift and you started to become the explainer.

MC: Because nobody else was. At some point it didn’t do much good to just keep referring people to articles because stories didn’t do a good job of explaining what’s going on. And stories are written by reporters, who generally aren’t lawyers. It’s no slight against them; they get their information by usually talking to lawyers, people involved in the case, people who often make for good quotes and certainly give you their client’s spin on whatever’s going on, but it doesn’t necessarily make for an objective look at what’s happened.

OJR: It becomes very “he said, she said” and doesn’t get to go very deep, does it?

MC: It’s very troubling to people because they end up being very misled. And if a reporter makes a mistake, then everybody who reads the story or hears the report gets misled. What eventually happened is I started to appreciate just how much misinformation was out there and how much people had questions that media never answered. I started trying to answer.

OJR: Was this the responsibility of local media? Did they miss out on this?

MC: To a great extent, yes, I think so. Although far more, I think it was both a missed opportunity and a bit of a train wreck for the national media because the local media has had this case around for 7 years; at least since 2002, this has been a big deal in Central Florida. Everybody has heard about this case here for years. The local media pretty much figured out the basics of what was going on years ago, and they were being fairly reliable in their reporting in the sense they didn’t get things wrong very often. Sometimes — but not very often. What they didn’t do was give much insight into what was happening and what the law was. The stories mostly consisted of some quotes by one side and some quotes by the other side, which leaves the average person clueless about what the law is.

It’s understandable a reporter who’s not trained in legal matters might not want to be writing stories that firmly declare what the law is, they’d rather quote a professor who says something. They just don’t feel they have the ability or the standing to be declaring what the law is — and maybe that’s appropriate. On the local level, it left a pretty big hole in the coverage. On the national level … I used the term train wreck and I mean it. The misinformation from the national media right through today is still appalling.

OJR: What kinds of perceptions of yours have changed – or have any — about the way the public approaches information and news?

MC: I’m not sure anything has changed. I think I’ve learned a lot, though.

OJR: What have you learned?

MC: I’ve learned that there is just a broad cross-section of people out there who have different levels of interest in the law. I have been pleasantly amazed at the number of people who have contacted me who are genuinely interested in learning what the law says on these different issues and understanding why it says that and how it works. At the same time, there are people who have also contacted me that don’t care at all about the law, don’t want to know what it says, don’t want to understand it; instead, they simply want to blame people for results – like the judge.

This case cut almost no new legal ground in Florida law. To a lot of people this was new and that this could happen was news to them, but, in terms of the law, if you look at the decisions in this case, there’s almost nothing new that’s come out of it. The basic framework of what happened here was already the law. A lot of folks out there don’t want to hear that, they don’t want to know the judge followed the law … they just want to blame the judge and say he’s corrupt, power hungry and other derogatory terms they want to throw at him.

OJR: What have you learned about the media? Anything that surprised you?

MC: Generally. I’ve been unfortunately disappointed. I think there are a lot of well-meaning reporters out there and well-meaning hosts who just don’t have the time to learn what’s involved in a case like this or the law that surrounds a case like this. Maybe the people who prepare them are just doing a poor job but, in the end, the country has heard very loudly from a number of people who just didn’t know the facts of the case, who just didn’t know the law when they talked about it. They talked about things being true, being factual, that were just incorrect.

OJR: Back in the days of Cruzan and Busalacchi, you had the usual parties, you had the media, but you didn’t have a way to hear from people like you. How much does this ability you have change things?

MC: I don’t know. At times, it spooked me because I was concerned if I said something on the e-mail or posted something on the blog that it might make it to the parties in the case …or make it to a judge. Part of what has kept me restrained me from wanting to speak about issues before they were decided was I didn’t want to be accused of having that kind of influence. … I didn’t want to be telling either side what they should be arguing or suggesting who was wrong. I didn’t want to have that kind of role. I just wanted people to understand the issues.

OJR: But 10 years ago you’d have been reduced to writing letters to the editor or an op-ed piece. You’ve been able to build a body of work that anybody who goes online and search certain things can end up looking at. You have become a significant resource in a case that before you would have just listened on the radio, said what an idiot and driven home. That ability to go home and actually do something with this, how significant a change is that in the way the law can be covered?

MC: Good question. It’s hard for me to answer because I’m on the wrong side of it. I would think it’s a positive development, and I would hope that will happen in the future is that more people who are responsible for covering this types of events will consider using these sorts of sites as potential resources. Now, the trouble is how do you distinguish between good resources and bad resources? That’s hard to say. That’s a credibility issue. I think in the end that’s going to be the real trouble. …

OJR: You linked to a site [Monday, March 28], The Empire Journal

MC: That was kind of me, believe me. The person who runs that site has maligned the judiciary in Florida more than is imaginable.

OJR: But they had the information you thought people should read. … At the same time, they have a very one-sided view of what they think is right and wrong.

MC: Unfortunately, they also have a very mistaken view of what the law is. It’s one thing to say this is my opinion that this is right or wrong. It’s another thing to say something is illegal and unlawful when it isn’t.

OJR: Are they sort of the antithesis of your site?

MC: (laughs) I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that one enough. I won’t say yes or no. But they are very different. They have an aim, that’s fairly clear. The aim doesn’t bother me. I’m not so troubled that someone has an agenda. Lots of folks have agendas. At some point, it’s hard to find someone that doesn’t. What does bother me is they make representations about factual things and I’m including the law here as a set of facts. It would be like if someone had a Web site that said there is no such thing as freedom of speech. It’s just wrong as a fact. Those kinds of things are what you find on these sites – this happened and that’s clearly unlawful and because it was allowed to happen everyone involved is corrupt.

OJR: How has your traffic changed?

MC: I started this in the middle of 2003. Within six months, it had managed to build up to a couple of hundred people a day; after a year, year-and-a-half, that had grown to maybe a few hundred people a day — and I really don’t know who they are. I know it’s lawyers, some media, some ordinary folks who have time on their hands. Then, at the end of February, when the order came out saying when Terri’s feeding tube would be removed – it spiked at a thousand, couple of thousand a day. As the publicity started in March it kept spiking. Last week, it was 55-60,000 per day. I expect it’s going to go back down to a more nominal level although hopefully some people who started reading it will keep reading it.

The e-mail has been rewarding, as much as it has been disturbing to get some very antagonistic e-mails from people who accuse me of all sorts of bad things. It’s been really rewarding to get as many positive ones as I have.

OJR: I noticed you don’t have comments on.

MC: Thank God. I cannot imagine what kind of disaster it would have been had I had comments up with 50-60,000 people a day coming by to see things. I’m not sure the site would have survived it. That was a decision I made very early on to go with something that didn’t have comments. Now Blogger offers comments, but I don’t use them. It’s completely intentional. To me, comments are very distracting. There are enough forums out there for people to post their comments. I thought all it would do would be to detract from what I said. It’s time consuming, too. If you have comments you’ve got to watch them. There’s a certain editorial responsibility that comes, I think, when you have those because people assume if you leave them up they can’t be too crazy or you’d say something about them, do something about them.

OJR: It’s enabled you to keep some equilibrium when it comes to atmosphere on the site.

MC: I hope so. Part of the goal was I wanted it to have the tone I set — not the tone some other people might inject.

OJR: Would you like other lawyers, other experts to know they can contribute this way?

MC: I think it would be great if others contributed this way, I think it’s inevitable too, maybe not as common as you’d like to see it. … If there was another Schiavo case next month I think I’d collapse. I’m personally lucky that I don’t have kids and work three blocks from where I live.

If more people would do it would be good. The danger that I have seen come from this — I have learned how much the public at large does not know about the legal system, even some of the most basic principles are fairly foreign to a lot of the public, and one of them is the notion of finality, that cases come to an end, that when a trial is held, an appeal is concluded, there are very few ways to try to undo that judgment and start over. The other thing is not so much a principle as an observation — it’s almost impossible to judge a trial that you weren’t there to see, whether it’s a jury or a judge making the final decision, they make those findings based on body language, tone of voice, all sorts of strange things that you’ll get when you’re there that you’ll never see later.

OJR: Other lawyers are trying this as publicity for their firms. You don’t seem to be.

MC: I never have been. I do appellate work; I particularly do big appellate work with big companies, and the people who make those decisions about who to hire aren’t surfing the web for anybody they can find through a blog. If you’re the kind of lawyer who gets your business from the street … there’s something to be gained from doing this.

OJR: What have you gained from this?

MC: I’ve just gained some satisfaction that I’m filling a gap, which is to help give people a resource on the law so people who want that resource can find it somewhere. Most of the time there aren’t these big cases like Schiavo. Most of the time I’m discussing cases that are really only of interest to lawyers. What I try to do is describe them in ways that to a certain extent people who aren’t so educated can understand. …

OJR: Have you been following the discussions about citizen journalists, that certain bloggers — not all bloggers because not all bloggers want to be in this realm – are providing a journalistic function as citizens? Personally, I think I’m providing one as a citizen – I’m a citizen and a journalist. But, I mean, in the sense that you feel you are reporting and serving a function journalists traditionally serve.

MC: That’s a real mixed bag – be careful how strong you hold me to this so it doesn’t sound like the product of great thought — it is mixed because there are competing priorities, and, I think, competing interests. For instance, the local newspaper is usually in business to make money and does want to follow stories that attract attention and may have an interest in sensationalizing. It needs to speak at a fairly low level because in the end that’s the reader base for most publications. It’s not always true. But there’s a set of interests and values that go with that whereas someone sitting in my position, I don’t really care to a certain extent about keeping readers or making people happy. I’m writing things that interest me because they interest me, not because I think they’re going to interest the people who might read it. At the same time, I have no financial interest in it. I don’t have ads on the site.

OJR: A lot of journalists don’t have a financial interest.

MC: No, but a lot of editors do.

OJR: But in the purest sense, that you’re taking information, analyzing, getting information and pulling it together …

MC: There’s definitely a component of journalism in this, I think that’s very fair to say. It may not share all of the aspects of journalism that some people think are essential to being a journalist. For instance, objectivity is probably a hallmark of journalism.

OJR: In some cases.

MC: Objectivity in the absence of a stated bias … Here, in my personal case, I tend to be very objective because there aren’t too many things I really care about other than the institutional credibility of the legal system. One of the hardest things for people to believe is that I really don’t have an opinion on all this stuff. It’s mind-boggling to a lot of people that somebody could not really care. You don’t want to say you don’t care in the sense that you’re cold and harsh, but it’s legal training that leads me to that point of view. Judges, appellate judges, can’t be consumed with trying to figure out if every criminal defendant was really guilty or not; they just sit back and look at the case and decide was due process followed, was there error in the trial. You learn to be detached from the more emotional components.

Two Cities, Two Gatherings for Two Kinds of Content Creators

Sometimes brainstorms work. BloggerCon III was Nov. 6 in Palo Alto; the Online News Association was holding its fifth national conference in Los Angeles the following weekend. For someone flying in from St. Louis, that was as good as next door. Why not do both?

The result is the kind of compare-and-contrast assignment English composition teachers love: Attend two disparate conferences with overlapping interests a week and a few hundred miles apart. Meet very different people with widely varying goals. Learn.

Then explain what works and what doesn’t, keeping in mind that you know the people who put on each conference and that you hope to be back next year.

Online News Association
ONA Founder Rich Jaroslovsky with one of the names in his Rolodex, Fred Mann. (Staci D. Kramer photo)

More photos: ONA | BloggerCon

A veteran of dozens of conferences, a planner of several and a moderator or panelist at many, I was looking for ways to improve on the panel-driven, formal model I encounter most often. I also hoped to find ways to get people who couldn’t make it in person more involved.

I didn’t find any one answer to the former, which makes sense because there is no such thing as a conference that works for everybody. I heard plenty of quiet grousing at each — although BloggerCon attendees also tend to disagree publicly — about the choice of speakers and discussion leaders, the make up of panels, food, topics, location. (My favorite may be the person who complained about the free lunch at BloggerCon.)

I see lots of hope for the latter — bringing more people into the conversation during the event and in other locations by thinking regionally or locally.

The two conferences start with very different personalities but the goals are similar — bring people with an interest in publishing on the Internet together to share, learn and move forward.

BloggerCon has lots of cooks, but the chief chef is technologist Dave Winer, co-founder of RSS and the patient zero of blogging. BloggerCon exists because Winer wants it to happen.

Like BloggerCon, the Online News Association (ONA) was fueled by one person’s energy: Rich Jaroslovsky pulled people together from his Rolodex to found the organization. Jaroslovsky and his colleagues in online journalism wanted to be taken seriously, to have their work recognized and to create a network.

That’s pretty much where the resemblance ends. BloggerCon is a single annual event drawing people together for one weekend. ONA’s conference rests at the core of a year-round effort. ONA has a part-time executive director, a board, a formal committee structure and members, while BloggerCon does not.

BloggerCon III 2004 ONA Conference
Setting Stanford Law School / No official conference hotel or rates. Renaissance Hollywood (at the Hollywood and Highland complex, home of the Academy Awards) / Great $129 room rate.
Support Sponsors (usually vendors), donations via PayPal and in-kind contributions. Sponsors don’t get anything except thanks and brief mentions on Winer’s sites, in rare conference e-mail and at the conference. Unlike some tech conferences where a sponsorship guarantees presence on a panel, vendors aren’t even allowed to plug their products at BloggerCon. Sponsors get space in an exhibit area, sit on panels, and get prominent mention in the program and during sponsored sessions.
Cost Free registration and lunch/snacks. Two pay-as-you-go conference-organized meals. My cost for a non-stop experience from dinner Friday to dinner Saturday excluding travel and an after-dinner drink at Trader Vic’s: $65. (First BloggerCon was $500.) The least expensive rate for non-members is $499 and for members, $339. The biggest chunk of the cost by far for ONA was the food catered by Wolfgang Puck, the hotel’s exclusive caterer. Also, audio/visual and setup costs at hotels generally run high. Registrants get a t-shirt and a bag with some swag, two continental breakfasts, one lunch, a poolside reception sponsored by, a cash-bar reception, the award dinner and snacks. Total from Friday a.m. through Saturday night excluding travel: approximately $400. It would have been higher if I’d bought my own lunch Friday. (Thanks, Jim.)
Session Format Designed as an “unconference.” Instead of moderators leading a panel in front of an audience, one person leads a discussion and what had been the audience becomes the panel — contributing ideas, comments and questions. BloggerCon starts the discussion before participants arrive with posts by discussion leaders and comments about where the sessions should go. The discussion leaders were mostly well-known bloggers. Full group meets for opening — The National Anthem (at Winer’s prodding, attendees choose a different song each year; this year’s was Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, prompted by the popular JibJab animation — atrue bonding experience at 8:30 a.m.), where the discussion centers on what to expect and what people want — and closing — The Fat Man Sings (a self-reference from Winer) where people sum up their experiences, report whether the conference met expectations and brainstorm about future plans and continuing the conversations. Four clusters of breakouts, three sessions each, during the day. Sessions were webcast. IRC was available but not well-used. Primarily formal moderator/panelist format. Even one of the informal sessions required the panel to sit at a dais. Three breakout slots with three sessions at a time. Three breakfast discussions. Two keynotes: AP CEO Tom Curley opened the conference and Ana Marie Cox was the lunch speaker. One exception to the format: some of the group split into teams for a “Master of the Web Universe” competition to design a mock web site. The finalists presented their plans to the full group and a panel of judges. No webcast; two sessions recorded by C-Span.
Logistics Free WiFi, although spotty at times. Plenty of electrical outlets, desks for computer note-takers. White boards. But the rooms were often too formal for the discussions. Ideally, participants would be able to see each other instead of all facing the leader. Students brought microphones to speakers, which caused a lag at times but ensured decent webcast audio. For those staying at the hotel everything was easily accessible. Free WiFi in the conference area. But sessions weren’t set up for computer note-takers, and electrical outlets were hard to find.
Discussion Quality The four breakout sessions I attended were uneven but each had a pretty high quality-to-noise ratio. One inherited a group that escaped from another session. One measure of success: After every session people connected as though drawn by magnets to continue the discussion. Equally important, I felt like I learned something and made a new, lasting contact in every session. The session topics and session leaders were a big draw for me. There was a session for newbies, but a hands-on lab where people could learn how to podcast or how to do other things would make a great addition. I also think a lot of people could benefit from a seoparately organized user-vendor con — not a sales pitch-o-rama — held before or after BloggerCon, where they could talk about problems with software or services or express their needs directly to the vendor. The leader format doesn’t always work. It might be worth trying some other options — for instance, use one person as a table setter and another to move the discussion. Have someone monitor the IRC discussion and act as the rep for off-site participants. Consider having someone responsible for the white board in every session. I thought Curley set the table well with his keynote and heard similar comments from others. But not everyone agreed — they’d heard it before, it was too much about AP, etc. I thought Ana Marie Cox, aka Wonkette, was amusing and interesting but too lightweight for a keynote tag. Some people agreed with me, some didn’t like what she had to say and others thought she was a good choice. The super session with other high-profile bloggers — including BloggerCon’s Winer, Joe Trippi, Arianna Huffington, Mickey Kaus and Rock the Vote’s Jehmu Greene — went much better than I thought it would but had a gaping hole where at least one conservative blogger belonged. I was told later they’d tried to make the panel more inclusive but it hadn’t worked. (Should note that Andrew Sullivan was one of last year’s keynoters.) Most of the panels were carefully aimed at newsroom managers; the law panel devolved into a libel discussion. Maybe next year they can do one ask-the-lawyer session and another looking forward at emerging legal issues. The biggest learning experience for me was the Web competition Not everyone liked it but I’d vote for Master of the Web II after a few tweaks.
Social I arrived in Palo Alto that Friday afternoon as a first-time visitor. I knew lots of BloggerCon attendees by email and phone but hardly any in person. Those circumstances made me very grateful for the two organized social events: a large sign-up dinner in a banquet room at a Chinese restaurant (way too noisy but fun) and the informal hosted dinners Saturday night. I think more conferences could benefit from offering the latter — it’s a great way to meet people with similar interests. If you plan one, though, be sure to ask for a round table or a square table; long, narrow tables don’t work. Plenty of time for schmoozing and networking. Lunch and dinner were open Friday; one of these slots would be a good time to try a topic-oriented option. It’s easy for people who already know each other to find opportunities but can be a bit lonely for newbies. The hotel bar didn’t have a lot of seats, which may be one
reason why I saw less socializing than usual going on there. One suggestion: a BYOB hospitality suite.
Participants A good mix of different types of bloggers ranging from hobby/personal to professional/commercial. Also a number of journalist bloggers. Enthusiasts who don’t blog but wanted to know more about it or wanted to have an influence on the direction software, services and organization. Would-be bloggers. Vendors. All ages from hip to former hippie and beyond. Multiple countries. A larger tech crowd than the last two because of proximity to Silicon Valley. More women than the last two but still a male majority. Some people complained that there weren’t enough conservative bloggers but since anyone can register as long as space is available it’s not like they were being kept away. Still, BloggerCon could do a better job of reaching out to the wider blogging community. Those who want more diversity in any area should do their share. Primarily professional and student journalists, vendors, others with an interest in online news. I was told by some who didn’t attend the conference — bloggers, journalists and others — that the cost was a barrier. I understand the costs are high for putting on this kind of conference. Unfortunately, it may be keeping the conference from being more diverse.
Hot Topic Podcasting (session audio) Blogging
Takeaway Free MP3s of every session are being posted by; a morning-after thread; posts from discussion leaders summing up their sessions; conversations in the blogosphere as people digest the experience. A CD containing recordings of every session and PowerPoints is available for $129; a conference blog; coverage by student newsroom.
What next? Tweak the national BloggerCon. Encourage and seed grassroots regional and local BloggerCons in the U.S. and in other countries. Encourage people to see themselves as the doers instead of waiting for BloggerCon, which is an event, not an organization. Given the way the blogosphere works that should be easy. Set up guidelines about what’s required to call something a BloggerCon if need be. Explore ways to change the cost equation. Shake up the format a little by experimenting with different room set-ups, different kinds of sessions. Look for ways to involve people who can’t make it — webcasts, MP3s, IRC. The open blog was a good start. Encourage and seed informal free or low-cost regional conferences and local events. Take the students who suggested it up on the idea of a student branch.