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August 5, 2004

Convention De-Briefing Rolls On: August 4-5

Wherein a reader asks: what is good event blogging and how is it done? Author responds: "So if you bring local knowledge, which is always people-based, into an event, the blog will produce local knowledge about the event-- and that's what you want." Plus: The Manchurian Candidate and the Kerry convention. And the post I wanted to write, but didn't: the song list.

August 4. Cedar Pruitt is the Online Content Manager for the Center for Media & Community at EDC, an educational nonprofit in Boston. She joins in the de-briefing with a practical question. “I’m writing a short article that attempts to be a primer for Event Blogging.”

Can event blogging be done well? If so, what is the framework for bloggers reporting on an event? What are the crucial elements that will aid the delivery of information of value?

An excellent question. I’m not an experienced event blogger, but I have tried it twice with two sprawling events: the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (see this) and the recent convention in Boston (see that.) Others have done much more of it, and you should ask them.

Rebecca Blood recommends as high practice in event blogging the Daily Summit, a temporary weblog by David Stevens. His was done at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg in 2002. See also Rebecca Blood’s tips on blogging the convention (which apply to many other events) and her own reflections after Boston, where she volunteered as a celebrity “minder.”

Now your questions: Can event blogging be done well? I would say the only premise under which it is worth doing is just that: we can do this really well if we… No one knows that it can’t, so just assume that it can be done to a high standard and that you, somehow, will figure it out. If not this time, the next.

Next question was: what is the framework for bloggers reporting on an event? What are the crucial elements that will aid the delivery of information of value? Safety tip: you really shouldn’t ask professors about “frameworks.” They have way too many for your practical needs. Plus, half will suffer from the strange defect of looking obvious. Still, you asked. Now I’m obligated.

The solution to “what is the right framework for event blogging?” begins with a prior problem: finding, attracting and “holding” in one place—hopefully, at your blog—a motivated and interested-in-this-event user base. Who are the users, and what do you know about them and their stake in the event? should precede: how do I blog this thing? Solve the first problem and it will give out answers to the second.

I say this for the transparent reason that users and their needs offer basic guidance in “how to”—- like… make it useful and absorbing to them! But how are they going to find it, and who’s going to tell them where to look? And how will they still be using it six months after? And where will it take them? Solutions to those problems point you toward an initial approach.

Know your audience: isn’t that a bit obvious? Yes. (And I warned you.) But there’s a subtler reason for starting with users. Mary, our event blogger, will find it easier to succeed if Mary knows who sent her to this place— which user community she serves. And the more intimate she is with those people, the better her lines of communication, the easier it will be to do a great job.

If Mary thinks of herself as delegated, not just designated, to blog the Ajax Summit, then she has to be blogging Ajax for someone, a population, a public, a community, a “crowd.” Her success depends not only on her ability to extract knowledge, insight and story from the summit itself, but also the quality of her connection to that user crowd and its obsessions. For example, she might be one of them, a full-fledged and full-time member of the mini-public she is reporting back to. That’s a good connection.

An event blog is thus a four-way transaction: there’s 1.) the summit or similar event, attended by 2.) Mary, the author, recorder, and blogger, who is reporting back to 3.) users with their shared obsessions, and sending the results into 4.) the blog sphere and online world, which either will or will not react to the site and hook it up via linking and commentary to worlds unknown. No “framework” is worth anything if it cannot handle those four factors, and allow them to feed answers to one another.

Who are the likely, certain and possible users, what do they need to feel well represented by our presence at Ajax, and how well wired is our blogger to them? Often the users for an event blog will be people who can’t be there, but want someone there for them— their eyes and ears, yes, but also the hand they cannot raise, the question they don’t have a chance to ask, the astonishment they cannot experience directly.

So if you bring local knowledge, which is always people-based, into an event, the blog will produce local knowledge about the event— and that’s what you want to send back. I don’t believe in “covering” things in the abstract; there is no such activity. Same with blogging things.

Doesn’t mean you have to solicit questions from readers and ask them because you’re their on site rep. I mean you could, but there’s nothing magic in it. Good answers to: for whom am I blogging this? can derive just from thinking about it, by writing to one person as a representative of the whole, or by having really good data about traffic into your site. The important thing is to feel sent, and in a sense deputized to blog.

Some other things that strike me as crucial:

I haven’t talked about inviting comments at the blog and feeding those into the coverage; using audio, video and still images; tapping Technorati, Feedster, Google and other services to enrich your account; pulling guest bloggers in, and other things that could make all the difference. One more factor to close this out: (I warned you.)

I think there is great value in putting your blogger into event situations that are strange, puzzling, unfamiliar, “from another world,” or just hard to understand— meaning: initially opaque and confusing. My final advice to Mary and the Center for Media & Community in Boston: Get yourself into those situations. Write your way out.

August 4. That hyper-local Jersey blogging diva with reporter’s chops, Debbie Galant, (see her nifty experiment here) writes in with what she admits is “off off topic” and not really a question. It began with her asking if I had seen Manchurian Candidate, a political thriller that seemed to rush from the headlines to the theatres .

In the same way that “Wag the Dog” marked a particular moment in politics and cynicism, it seems that this [movie] will too. (Particularly in light of the 2000 election and current speculation that this latest orange alert was actually political). It seemed very real, even for a thriller. But the convention seems so much less true to the spirit of the times. Like some terribly formal, old-fashioned parlor drama, or some kabuki dance. A form needing to be filled, but having no real relationship with our time. (My teenager was amazed to hear that they once actually picked candidates at these things. And a friend of mine who’s 41 only vaguely remembered that that was the case.)

“No real relationship with our time.” There’s big truth in that. However, conventions do have a real relationship to the politics of our time. For example, conventions are fluent in message-speak. Politics and politicians are fluent too.

It’s the politics that is sometimes tone deaf to the culture and what sociologist Raymond Williams called “the structure of feeling” in a given age. Awkward phrase for an elusive thing, but this, I think, is what Debbie gets at in her lament. Norman Mailer was, I believe, saying the same thing about the Democrats’ of 1960: “The life of politics and the life of myth had diverged too far.”

One could say, however, that it’s the job of the speeches, especially the “big” speeches, to address this head on. In at least one case—Obama—it actually worked that way.

Matt Welch, the blogger and writer for Reason, wanted to do the same story I wanted to do out of Boston. Neither of us got it. Welch writes at his weblog: “Of all the stories I wished I’d done last week, that one ranks near the top.” Me too.

It was the story of the musical choices at the convention— the songs they played, when they played them, and why, and what it might have said on the planes of politics and culture (not to mention logic.) In order to do that story the right way, the responsible way, we needed complete data about the songs—a play list—and access to the people who programmed it: the DJs for the Dems.

Well, I asked. I asked every office I had access to. Nobody had the list. Nobody knew how to get the list. Nobody had the necessary pull with the Kerry operation to get the DJ’s and producers to talk to me. I failed, and never wrote the post. (Andrea Harris of Twisted Spinster did: about one of the song choices.) Meeting in the corridors of the Fleet Center, Matt Welch and I talked in our “what if…” voices about stuff we would have said if the DNC press operation had been competent enough to provide us—two very interested writers—with information and access. (Of course, maybe I wasn’t competent enough in hunting it down.)

I mention this as an example of how the convention was tone deaf to itself, just as some of the musical selections were tone deaf— sort of like using “When a Man Loves a Woman” in a mattress ad.

A pop song cliche, “We are fam-a-lee,” one of the most played songs at the convention, is an occasion to ask about the limits and uses of family to describe a nation of 300 million or a political party of millions. It’s a very insidious comparison. In fact, we ought to ask if a theme song like that is an example of “family values” or an insult to them. Are we fam-a-lee? Or is politics more about the needs and interests of strangers?

Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender,” a tune I have memorized, contains this insight: “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.” My idea was to ask someone from the teachers’ union about that. My other idea was: wanna know how important African Americans are to the party? Read the song list. It would have been a great post. Matt and I knew it. But bloggers at the convention couldn’t make the convention any smarter than it wanted to be.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

This post began with another, which led to another. See PressThink:

Post Convention De-Briefing: You Ask the Questions

Convention De-Briefing Begins: August 2-3

Matt Welch, Beautiful Day, Wretched Musical Choice.

For an example of a participant (presenter) blogging effectively from an event he’s a part of, see: Jeff Jarvis, Transparency and the news: Notes from Aspen. Here’s Jarvis adding new knowledge to Aspen, then sharing it with readers: A blog list for media guys. Here are his presentation notes, reproduced from Power Point online. Jarvis puts into practice a model of the transparent presenter.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 5, 2004 4:45 AM