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Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

Essay in Columbia Journalism Review on the changing terms of authority in the press, brought on in part by the blog's individual--and interactive--style of journalism. It argues that, after Jayson Blair, authority is not the same at the New York Times, either.

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Town square for press critics, industry observers, and participants in the news machine: Romenesko, published by the Poynter Institute.

Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

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Ed Cone writes one of the most useful weblogs by a journalist. He keeps track of the Internet's influence on politics, as well developments in his native North Carolina. Always on top of things.

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Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

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Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

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Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

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Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

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Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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March 17, 2010

How the Backchannel Has Changed the Game for Conference Panelists

The bar's been raised. Use of the backchannel--years ago it was IRC, today it's Twitter--lets the audience compare notes and pool their dissatisfaction if the program misfires. Here's what we did to avoid that at SXSW.

If you follow me on Twitter, you will occasionally hear me mention “audience atomization overcome.” I’ve been using this phrase to describe something that has changed in our world because of the internet.

Audience Atomization Overcome

The people formerly known as the audience, once connected up to big institutions and centers of power, but not across to one another, have overcome their own atomization, which was a normal condition during the age of mass media. With the rise of social media and mobile devices they are now connected horizontally, peer to peer, at the same time as they connect vertically: to the news, the program, the speaker, the spectacle. Simple example: Tweeting during the Academy Awards. More intricate example: Pet lovers find each other on affinity sites when the major media isn’t attentive to their concerns.

The horizontal flow changes the situation for speakers and producers in any communication setting that retains the trappings of one-to-many. The change is especially dramatic in an arena I know well: the professional conference where I might sit on a panel or attend a presentation. The popularity of the backchannel—years ago it was IRC, today it’s Twitter—has empowered those in the audience to compare notes and pool their dissatisfaction during a performance that misfires. Audience atomization has been definitively overcome, raising the bar and increasing the risk for speakers who walk in unprepared.

Especially at risk are “big name” speakers whose online or offline status is such that they may complacently assume their presence alone completes the assignment and guarantees success. Organizers may be so delighted to have landed the CEO of the hot company or the thought leader in a particular space that they fail to ask for much in the way of new material or a carefully thought-out ideas. This was always a problem at conferences; what’s different now is the audience is able to do something about it, and they will savage you on Twitter if you falter.

These facts were clearly in view for me and my colleagues as we prepared for our recent panel at South by Southwest: The future of context. We were acutely aware that the bar had been raised, especially at a conference like SXSW where everyone is wired. When Twitter CEO Evan Williams appeared at South by Southwest for a keynote interview, the answers felt so thin to so many in the room that he had to post this after.

Here are ten things we did in recognition that audience atomization has been overcome. I must say: our plan worked. The Future of Context was the most well-received panel I have ever been on. (A good live blog of it is here, a reaction post here, a sample tweet here. The room—Hilton H, a big one—was full and people were turned away. You can list to the event—panel plus Q & A—here.)

How to avoid getting killed in the backchannel

1. Unfamiliar to them, super familiar to you. First, you need a subject that hasn’t been picked to death at conferences. But it’s also got to be something you grok or the thing won’t rock. I wrote my first post on background narratives vs. newsy updates in 2008; I’ve been thinking about it since then. Co-panelist Matt Thompson introduced the phrase “the future of context” in 08, as well. He spent a year on the problem as a fellow at the University of Missouri. In a sense, we had two years prep time. But to most of our listeners, the problem was new. That was our edge.

2. Go for intellectual diversity. We had a mainstream journalist (Matt Thompson of NPR) an academic (me) a software developer and entrepreneur (Tristan Harris of and a tech writer and media reporter (Staci Kramer of The youngest panelist was less than half the age of the oldest. We had an African-American and three whites, a woman and three men. People notice.

3. Get serious about advance planning. One conference call (“So Sally, what do you want to talk about?… Is Sally still on the line?”) is not what I mean by serious. We had five calls over four months. We worked out a beginning, middle and end that made sense to all of us: Frame the problem, drill down on a few specifics, float possible fixes, then go to the crowd.

4. Blog it first. Eight days before the SXSW panel I posted News Without the Narrative Needed to Make Sense of the News: What I Will Say at South by Southwest. A few days later Matt Thompson posted The Case for Context: My Opening Statement for SXSW and Tristan Harris came in with Context: The Future of the Web. By blogging it first we could promote the event with something juicier than “come to my panel!” We could use early reactions to hone later presentations. We had three comment threads active before the panel started. Here’s how I curated the discussion my pre-post engendered. This pre-tweet told me to underline a key distinction between informative and informable.

5. Create a dedicated site for the panel. Invite your crowd to it. See, which Matt Thompson pulled together. Anyone can write a post for it or comment. And it says to the audience: welcome, we’ve set a place for you.

6. The title you pick should be “write once, run anywhere.” (Why that phrase?) Thus: the future of context is simultaneously the name of the SXSW panel, the domain name of the site, the hashtag on twitter and the search term we wanted to claim.

7. Watch the backchannel like a hawk during the event. This chart shows that hashtagged tweets were coming in at a rate of almost 300 an hour. It’s your moderator’s job to monitor that flow, sense where it’s going and react when necessary by talking directly to the backchannel and letting the crowd know it’s being watched. This takes someone who can scan posts, type quickly and think across multiple streams. Staci Kramer did all that. After the five phone calls and the three blog posts and the dinner the night before to go over the plan, she already knew what we were going to say, which allowed her to focus on the incoming. (Umair Haque, who interviewed Ev Williams at SXSW, said he should have done what Staci did.)

8. Adjust on the fly. We didn’t have time for our third section, float possible fixes, so we skipped it in order to…

9. Leave at least 40 percent of the time for Q and A. Anything less than that and people start resenting you for hogging the mic. It’s amazing to me how many panels cannot manage this simple feat of timing.

10.Arrange a meet-up directly after for those who want to continue the discussion and interact with the participants face-to-face. This was something I wish we had thought of. (It was suggested to me by Jeremy Zilar of the New York Times, who attended.) That way no one walks away wishing there was more time.

Now if you’re thinking that none of these ideas is particularly original or ingenious— well, I agree. My point is you need a complete approach to avoid getting killed in the backchannel and give demanding conference-goers what they have come to expect.

Of course there’s another alternative: the unconference, where the room is the panel.

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 17, 2010 11:17 PM   Print


So, when/where will the unconference be? :)

Posted by: knowtheory at March 17, 2010 11:39 PM | Permalink

I think that the quality panels I went to at SXSW followed this model, more or less (except having a dedicated URL, this is super smart, and your panel was the only one I saw do this). I compare your panel to the one I went to the prior day on the NYTimes. Night and Day. And, I think the reasons you outline above explain why.

One thing to add here that your moderator, Staci Kramer, did that was important, she made us aware that she was reading the Twitter stream. There were several panels I went to where panelists and/or moderators were actually engaging the Twitter stream during the presentation (@acarvin in particular comes to mind). During our panel I did this as well, commenting while one of the co-panelist was talking. Since the audience can see that you are responding to the Twitter stream I think they are less likely to use it to snark and complain about your panel, and more likely to see it as an extension of what is going on. Of course you can only do this if you are prepared, as you suggest, and you know what your co-panelists are going to say, allowing you to switch attention to the Twitter stream.

Posted by: David Parry at March 18, 2010 12:08 AM | Permalink

Thanks David. I added that observation: "she made us aware that she was reading the Twitter stream."

Posted by: Jay Rosen at March 18, 2010 12:12 AM | Permalink

Great ideas. We used many of these during our Twitter Tools panel (Guy Kawasaki ran it, I ran the screens during the panel). One other thing? Highlight dissent and don't fight it, but use it to guide the conversation. It totally gets the audience on your side.

Posted by: Robert Scoble at March 18, 2010 2:02 AM | Permalink

Excellent, thoughtful article - wish I had been there!

Posted by: Ken Burgin at March 18, 2010 2:56 AM | Permalink

Hands down the best panel I have ever watched. Staci Kramer was such a good moderator. Definitely, you four have raised the bar. I do wish you had had the post-panel hour because my brain was ginning along "possible fixes," as I'm sure others were, too.

Posted by: Mayhill Fowler at March 18, 2010 4:09 AM | Permalink

The "Design Fiction" panel I was on followed many of these precepts and preparations, and was one of the best panels I've had the pleasure to be on.

We used the twitter stream as a Q&A front-channel, with our moderator @thevalueofpie tracking it throughout our prepared presentations (only 30 of 60 minutes!). It was both a generative and filtering technique for audience questions and comments, and worked wonderfully IMO.

Posted by: Jake Dunagan at March 18, 2010 4:12 AM | Permalink

Thanks, Robert, Ken, Mayhill.

That's a good point about working dissent in, Scoble.

It occurs to me that almost all the errors I am seeking to help readers avoid in this post arise from... vanity. So maybe that's no. 11: get over your vanity.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at March 18, 2010 11:01 AM | Permalink

This is an awesome post, I'm going to send it to a couple of conference organizers I know.

People have no idea how much the whole "panel discussion" game has changed. I think this post will be the cornerstone of panel prep for many years to come.

Posted by: Scott Yates at March 18, 2010 11:48 AM | Permalink

Sheesh. I'm sitting right now at the University of Minnesota listening to Jane McGonigal's presentation. It's the same presentation she did at TED2010 (published on the TED website yesterday). At least we'll actually get to play one of her games, "World Without Oil."

Posted by: Michael Fraase at March 18, 2010 1:31 PM | Permalink

See-- that's another thing. Before the Internet, an audience in one locale wouldn't have seen you do a certain "show" in another locale. But now...? The bar has been raised.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at March 18, 2010 1:41 PM | Permalink

And here I was thinking you were all geniuses at the top of your game.

You all rehearsed? It showed.

Thanks for putting on one of the best sessions in an otherwise disappointing SxSW.

Posted by: Brian Alvey at March 18, 2010 3:06 PM | Permalink

Very informative, helpful and practical advice upon which I will rely in April.

Thank you.

Posted by: Catherine White at March 18, 2010 6:54 PM | Permalink

Just a splendid post, Jay. And as I just tweeted, a guide to good panels, period, not just for avoiding getting clobbered by the backchannel. Question: How much can you apply to a solo speaker gig? Can't talk and twitter at same time. Perhaps have a friend track the tweets to mine them for Qs at end -- and, as noted above, let the audience know you're doing this.

Anyone deal with this?

Posted by: David Dobbs at March 18, 2010 9:23 PM | Permalink

You say "intellectual diversity", but then you rattle off a list of descriptions of people's skin color and their gender. Sounds racist and sexist to me.

Posted by: bob at March 19, 2010 7:25 AM | Permalink

No, "bob" you are wrong and your charge is bullshit which is probably why you didn't attach your name to it. I "rattled off" the different roles and knowledge bases they come from: mainstream media, academe, programming and entrepreneurship, tech writing, thus suggesting diversity of perspective.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at March 19, 2010 9:06 AM | Permalink

A so-called moderator cannot possibly moderate yet also read and understand 300 Twats an hour. Bankruptcy in the attention economy is a great way to get pilloried, perhaps deservedly.

Posted by: Joe Clark at March 19, 2010 12:34 PM | Permalink

That's amusing, Joe, since what you said cannot happen did happen. The moderator's performance has been repeatedly praised for its effectiveness. So who should we believe: you, or our own experience?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at March 19, 2010 12:51 PM | Permalink

There were a number of other panels and discussions that could have desperately used your advice this year. I felt a number of times that they were ill prepared or didn't have any idea what they were talking about. I wish that I was able to attend your presentation but, unfortunately, I was one of the unlucky few who were turned away. The #opensci panel also used the Twitter stream effectively to scan for questions and key bits of information from attendees during the presentation. It proves to be a very effective tool for interacting with the audience and showing that you're engaged with them.

Posted by: Puzzlehead at March 19, 2010 2:40 PM | Permalink

Thank you for hreat tips...the blogging realease is a very good idea! The back channel is definitely raising the bar....AND the pressure on speakers....AND the result of that is that people have to invest a great deal more preparation time. AND the consequence of that is that they will either command a higher fee for appearing or become much more selective about accepting speaking engagements. Maybe that's not a bad thing...but time is the thing we all have in finite quantity, both speakers and don't expect that the cost implication for speakers won't have a cost implication for the audience.

Posted by: Annalie Killian at March 21, 2010 5:43 AM | Permalink

Excellent, thoughtful article - wish I had been there!

Posted by: Joanne Williamson at March 22, 2010 4:36 PM | Permalink

wow, people who care enough to do their homework and consider the audience...I love any tips on how to get my time and money back from some of the panels I have previously attended?

Posted by: Memrie at March 26, 2010 11:15 AM | Permalink

Thank you very much for this article. I am using this advice next week in Chicago.

I have sent this article to other speakers, hopefully they will get as much out of it as I did.

Posted by: Jeff Rodgers at March 26, 2010 12:26 PM | Permalink

You've invented a wholly new model for turning what would have otherwise just been an effective conference talk into the launch of a far-ranging, distributed conversation of substance.

Posted by: Graham Lampa at March 28, 2010 1:43 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Graham. That is much appreciated. I hope it's true. "A far-ranging, distributed conversation of substance" is certainly what we were trying to create.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at March 28, 2010 2:47 PM | Permalink

From the Intro