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.
I think that Sullivan thinks that the DealBook conference, far from being a smart way of monetizing the NYT brand, was meant to be some kind of public grilling: a live Meet The Press for the Wall Street set. Such an event would certainly be interesting, although it’s hard to see why any potential interviewee would say yes to such a format: while politicians have to be out in front of the public, CEOs do not. And in any case, it’s far from certain that anybody would actually get more value out of watching hard questions than they currently do out of watching relative softballs. Last year, for instance, I moderated a panel where I asked a pretty tough question of NYSE CEO Duncan Niederauer; he got a bit flustered and angry, but didn’t really say much of substance, and I can’t say that the audience was particularly well served by that question.
Sullivan’s next beef is even less comprehensible:
More than anything, DealBook is one of those creatures of 21st-century journalism - as much about “brand” as anything else.
Sullivan never explains how this distinguishes 21st-century journalism from 20th-century journalism or even 19th-century journalism; it seems to me that journalism has always been about building brands, and probably always will be. But Sullivan, with her creatures and her scare quotes, clearly thinks there’s something newfangled and distasteful going on here: I would love to see a future post where she explains exactly what that might be. In this post, she just counts logos, which tells us exactly nothing about anything. But she did worry about the fact that the conference was sponsored:
Such sponsorships are another creature of 21st-century newspapering, eroding the sharp line between advertising and editorial content.
Huh? This I just don’t get at all. The editorial content surrounding the conference was clear: there was a DealBook newspaper supplement, and a live blog, and I daresay there might even be a separate article or two somewhere on the NYT website. But all of that content had exactly the same line between editorial and advertising that any other NYT editorial content has. Yes, some of the ads were for BlackBerry, which sponsored the conference and I’m sure got a big package deal. But I don’t see BlackBerry infesting the editorial content anywhere; the BlackBerry product demonstration, for instance, didn’t even get a mention in the live blog.
I suspect that what Sullivan is implying here is that the conference itself is editorial content, and that since Blackberry was on stage during the conference, that makes it seem editorially-endorsed, somehow. That’s a stretch: it’s exactly the same adjacency tactic which drives the age-old model of having advertisements in the newspaper. When the BlackBerry presentation is introduced by the Chief Advertising Officer of nytimes.com, it’s pretty clear which side of the editorial/advertising divide it lies.
Sullivan wraps up her complaints — the things she says “can’t help but make me a little queasy” — thusly:
Given the lunchtime rollout of a new Blackberry device, the overall friendly questioning of prominent newsmakers, the reception afterward - featuring wine, hors d’oeuvres and the incessant rubbing of journalistic and corporate elbows — the word “adversarial” did not come to mind. Nor did the word “watchdog.”
The fact is that Sullivan could pick any NYT story at random, and the chances that she would consider it “adversarial”, or performing any kind of “watchdog” role, would be very low indeed. There are always some stories which fall into that category, of course, but very few. On the front page of the website right now, for instance, is an assiduously-reported piece by Annie Lowrey, one of the presenters at the DealBook conference, headlined “High-Tech Factories Built to Be Engines of Innovation”. There’s not a hint of the adversarial or the watchdog about it, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable, and I’m sure that Sullivan doesn’t feel queasy when she reads it. So why is she holding the DealBook conference to a different standard?
And is Sullivan really going to complain about the fact that a conference, where some attendees paid $1,500 apiece, dared to feature wine and hors d’oeuvres at its reception? Journalists rub elbows with this crowd every day — that’s their job — and it’s utterly commonplace for there to be some kind of wine and food in the vicinity.
Sullivan thinks that the conference debases the NYT’s editorial independence: given that you can’t run a conference without boldface names, she says, “the Times’s indebtedness to these sources lurks in the shadows”. To which I would say: quite the opposite. When you’re running a conference and your sources are right out there, in the open, on stage with you, that’s the limelight, not the shadows. The shadows is what we’re given the other 364 days of the year, when innumerable stories are written on the basis of off-the-record conversations with these exact same sources.
Very few readers suspect, I think, just how much senior executives talk to the press. There’s an ultra-sophisticated way of reading the business press, which generally starts with the dual questions “who is the main source for this story” and “what is that person trying to achieve”. But the overwhelming majority of readers don’t read that way.
Which means that public conferences like this one, where everything is live-streamed and on the record, actually constitute much more transparent journalism than the vast majority of what you read in the paper. Sullivan might not like the fact that if you want senior executive sources to talk to you, it generally helps to be reasonably polite and respectful. But at least at this kind of conference that kind of thing is out in the open, rather than being hidden in the back channels.