Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor, has mixed feelings about the first DealBook conference, which took place on Wednesday. Her job is to worry about such things, but it’s worth taking her post seriously, because conferences and other live events are one of the few bright spots in the media business-model world right now.
The DealBook conference was in some ways the platonic ideal of the form. It had a banal and meaningless title (Opportunities For Tomorrow), it had a bunch of CEOs (Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, Eric Schmidt, Dick Costolo, Indra Nooyi), a series of celebugeeks (Marc Andreessen, Jared Bernstein, Glenn Hubbard, Paul Krugman), and a passel of famous-for-being-rich types (Ray Dalio, David Rubenstein, Stephen Schwarzman). It even had a 15-minute stump speech from Charles Duhigg about his bestselling book. Something for everyone!
Of course, the real reason that conferences succeed or fail isn’t in their programming but rather in their audience: the trick is to get enough boldface names on stage that a lot of important people want to come and mingle with each other. I didn’t go to this conference, but I have colleagues who did, and they were impressed by the quality of the audience. If conferences develop a reputation as a place full of people you want to meet, it pretty much doesn’t matter any more what happens in the panels.
The NYT put a lot of effort into curating the audience for this invitation-only conference: like Davos, you needed an invitation and money before you were allowed in. (Because the Times Center is relatively small, filling it up is the easy bit.) It’s especially important to get a high-quality audience when your conference takes place in New York City, because the on-stage headliners are likely to stay only for their own sessions, rather than mingling with everybody else. And of course, as at all conferences, it gave the audience every opportunity to mingle and network and gossip: having real conversations with interesting people is nearly always better than listening to the interesting conversations of others.
The one thing the audience didn’t particularly come from was for anybody on stage to commit journalism. Conferences can be lucrative brand extensions, for news organizations — the D conferences, in particular, are by all accounts insanely profitable — but it’s rare for them to be particularly newsworthy in and of themselves. For journalists, they’re more of an opportunity to meet a lot of potential sources, and also to get to know those sources a little bit outside the context of formal news interviews. And there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you think that access journalism has any value at all.
DealBook in general, and Andrew Ross Sorkin in particular, is a prime example of how access journalism can have real value. His crisis book, for instance, is a genuinely important historical document, and could probably have been written by no one else. The rich and important have power and influence, and if you want to understand that power, and document it, you need access to those people. The conversations that Sorkin has on stage with the likes of Dimon and Blankfein are not exactly the same as the conversations he has with them off the record, for obvious reasons. But they do have value, especially because it can be hard to duck a direct question if you know you’re being live-streamed across the internet.
So what were Sullivan’s problems with this event? Firstly, she doesn’t seem to like access journalism at all:
Here is what the conference did not have going for it: A great deal of distance between sources and those who cover them — something traditionally thought to be a bedrock journalistic idea.
This is far too facile. Carol Loomis has been covering Warren Buffett for half a century, and by Buffett’s own admission they talk pretty much every day. He’s friends with her family, and she with his: there is essentially no distance at all between Loomis and Buffett. But Loomis is a first-rate journalist all the same. Or, if Sullivan wants to stay within the NYT, she need look no further than Gretchen Morgenson, who became so close to her source Josh Rosner that they ended up writing a book together.