I went, I saw, I ate little finger foods and learned fascinating things about the New York-area magazine softball league, which has been dominated by High Times for the past decade. We eventually settled on this theory: at some point in the hazy past, the High Times staff sat around, high off their gourds, and someone said "hey… you know what would screw with everyone's heads?"
A report ensues. What follows could be interpreted as excessively critical, so some positive words first: I'm astounded that HHR managed to put this together and pull it off so successfully. The room was packed and the people who spoke were terribly impressive on paper. There was an after-party with an open bar sponsored by GQ. This was such a vastly inexplicable accomplishment that when I asked one of the roving, frightened-looking GQ writers why the magazine would do such a thing he was as lost as I was. Roping in all these different people with different interests is so far beyond my ken that I spent a large section of the day in silent awe of the power of being a nice friendly driven person who can sell other people on your point of view. The mere existence of the thing is a tribute to HHR Media.
This is a power I lack utterly, though. Posts like this one, all sun and exclamation points and so forth, are grating things designed for buttering up more than honest evaluation. I prefer the bitter truth, and there were a lot of rough spots. So here goes.
Note: Yes, MSM is a frequently-deployed term below and it's hard to separate it from its pejorative connotation; I don't wish to come off like a snotty blogger as I use it. But there are huge differences between journalism borne of an institution and not-journalism borne outside of institutions, and MSM remains a useful catch-all.
"The Future Of Sports Media"
This was not a good start. Various venture executive suit type people sat around and gave their talks. They apparently got together and bet each other which of them could say "Twitter" 2000 times in 10 minutes. Kathleen Hessert, who runs Sports Media Challenge, won. Each speaker focused on the changing media landscape from the perspective of an agent/handler. Now athletes can interact directly with their fans. Okay. How does this pertain to me? This was not explained.
I remember zero from the presentations of the guy who runs sports agency Octagon and the guy who runs Fantasy Sports Ventures, but Richard Ting from R/GA had a interesting power point presentation that was unfortunately compressed given the pointlessness of the rest of the panel. Factoid: if Shaq's twitter was a newspaper, it would be the country's third largest. (And shortest, and most likely to talk about ass-tasting.)
If this was actually about the direction sports media was going with an angle on, you know, independent sports media often purveyed in blog form, it might have been worthwhile. It wasn't; looking around the room towards the end of the panel I saw glazed eyes and discontent.
Confirm or Ignore: Leveraging Social Media
This was the nadir. At one point Dan Levy spent five minutes explaining RSS to a room full of bloggers. Much snark befell him in the back room. The rest of the panelists weren't much more enlightening: Twitter! Social media! Etc.! There was a long discussion about whether or not following 30,000 people on Twitter was a good idea. Conclusion: maybe if you're a marketing droid. Not if you're a real person.
Hi Mom! Claiming That Earned Media
This is where things started turning around. Matt Ufford, aka
Unsilent Majority Captain Caveman of KSK and then the guy behind With Leather and now the guy behind Warming Glow—who I was disinclined to like because my impression of his work was "hey… tits!"—turned out to be awesome. He expressed a desire to move away from tits, even. He moderated a panel with Michael Tunison, AKA Christmas Ape, one of the guys behind WhoDeyRevolution, a Bengals blog dedicated to the proposition that the Bengals are basically owned by William Clay Ford, and Sarah Spain, who is famous for some reason or another.
Spain spent a lot of time complaining about how people judged her on her looks. The irony of her skirt hitting mid-thigh as she said this escaped her. She was intent on justifying herself, and by this point I was really tired of people with no interest in talking to the audience. I mean… seriously, own up to what you're leveraging (right). If Ufford was posing for cheesecake pictures people would start talking about it, yo, and possibly questioning their sexuality.
This panel was mostly a discussion of what happens when something you do catches fire, and the answer was "watch the carnage and buy something flame-retardant."
The WDR guy talked about some of their Project Mayhem stunts—placing urinal cakes with ignominious Bengal records in every urinal at a home game—and about how they've galvanized a fan community around their cause; that was the best part of the panel. A discussion of what happens after your post about Allison Stokke gets shot across the internet doesn't do much; a discussion of how you can get yourself some notoriety without resorting to 1) dumb luck, 2) hot underage chicks, or 3) getting fired would have been appreciated.
Ufford did have a salient point on Digg: it takes a huge amount of effort to penetrate the byzantine Digg community and the traffic you get from hitting the front page is ephemeral. That was a bit on social media more useful than anything in the actual social media panel.
Making It Big: The Secret of My Success
Strange selection of folks for this panel, as Tunison moderates:
- AJ Daulerio, whose secret is "be a close personal friend of Will Leitch"; no offense to his talent, but come on now: getting handed the keys to Deadspin after your BFF leaves for New York magazine is not a widely replicable strategy.
- Ufford, who did indeed turn himself from a crazy nickname into a professional writer via the dint of hard work.
- Dan Shanoff, whose personal brand got a major kick in the ass from his time as a prominent writer on Page 2 back when Page 2 was relevant, and
- Jimmy Traina, who writes Hot Clicks for SI.
Exactly one of these people—Ufford—did not have a major kick in the ass from an existing brand when they jump started their own, and KSK's close association with Deadspin was maybe a half kick in the ass. (Spain actually would have been a good selection here.)
As per usual, this topic didn't really come off like the title and description intended it. Instead, the highly influential linkers on the panel discussed how to catch their eye and how not to be ignored when you send them your awesome link. Worthwhile discussion despite the bait-and-switch.
Power In Numbers: Content Networks
Burned by the earlier panel without any bloggers on it, I missed most of this one in favor of talking with some folks I knew via their blogs but not personally. I did catch the last 15 minutes or so, which mostly justified my decision to skip the rest. Again, I don't see what the relevance of this is to most in the crowd: sure, it's nice SB Nation and Uproxx have blogs, but either they want you to sign up with them or not. My problems with Bleacher Report are well documented; anyone who's serious about establishing a career for themselves should avoid it like the plague. By posting there you associate yourself with the overall opinion of BR. This is not something you want to do. (This Get The Picture post is fortuitously timed; I wanted to ask the Bleacher Report CEO "do you know that your median post is horrible?")
This would have been much more interesting with a devil's advocate of some sort instead of just five guys who were trying to sell you something. I think certain members of the audience sensed this too, because the first question was a long rambler that boiled down to "don't you people have any souls, man?" It was overheated but I saw where that guy was coming from.
But, right: didn't see this whole thing so I could have missed something enlightening.
Make It Your Job
Clearly the A-1 panel, with Orson—in full WP Mayhew sartorial/drunkenness splendor—and Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski hilariously holding court. There was also some quality thinkin' injected, but it was the hilarity that stood out after a day sorely lacking in it. Also around:
- John Ness of NBC Local and a former boss of mine when we were both at Fanhouse, was an odd inclusion since he's not a writer. He didn't say much, though he was good when he did speak.
- Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead. TBL attracts a large share of the sports blogosphere's catty derision and this panel made it clear why.
- Matt Cerrone of Metsblog; he was overshadowed by the two cards but when he said something it was considered and on point.
The first questions from this panel linger in my mind as emblems of a conference-wide lack of focus on the audience. Paraphrased, they were "what was the thing about your old job you hated most?" and "what's great about being a blogger?" Neither question has anything to do with the process of going from Some Guy On The Internet to a professional writer, and while the guys on the panel eventually roped the discussion around to some useful advice the moderator didn't have much to do with it.
McIntyre is a highly unpopular character in the blogosphere and it's not hard to see why: most of his answers were pure MSM. There was a question about whether the panelists were rooting for a specific outcome or a "good story"—another question that had zero to do with the putative panel topic—and he went right for the cynicism of traffic and pageviews. In a later panel an ESPN reporter cited Deadspin and TBL as things the MSM reads; I think the popularity of TBL is largely because of the site's decidedly newspapery mindset: as many things as possible in as little detail as possible. You could see other people on the panel chafe as he talked.
That only added to the overall entertainment, though. This was engaging, interesting despite the questionable direction provided, and a welcome relief after some soul-deadening previous panels.
Show Me The Money
This was about turning posts into money and was moderated by Mike Hall, a baby-faced guy at NESN running their new media department; he was terrific. His questions were focused and audience-directed. This panel also had one blogger—the guy behind WOO TITS AND SPORTS (NTTAWWT) blog Uncoached—paired with a couple of business-side guys, which provided an interesting mix. Hall delved into specifics, attempting to ferret out a solid number of pageviews that would provide a livable wage. The answer, worked out in detail by Yardbarker CEO Pete Vlastelica, was about a million per month. I can tell you that 1M per month is in the ballpark, but it's at the beans-and-rice-daily end. (MGoBlog is averaging around 2M of late.)
Other parts of the discussion were about how swearing like a sailor makes you tougher to market to some brands, and something called Lijit, which remains mysterious to me. This panel was okay but lacked a discussion of ways to monetize other than the banner ad, save for some comments by Vlastelica about moving display/brand advertising more into content a la Gawker.
I had a side discussion with Bethlehem Shoals about his frustrations trying to monetize his content which would have made for great fodder here; it's not all sunshine and lollipops.
Why We Hate You
This was posed as a rehash of the Buzz Bissinger stuff. The panel was a strange melange, with Hall and Dan Steinberg clearly caught between worlds, and the woman from ESPN whose name escapes me largely silent. Only SI's Jeff Pearlman really took up the MSM flag.
A large portion of this panel was spent explicitly rejecting its premise. Every panelist took time to explain that no, they don't hate blogs or the mainstream media, with Steinberg and Bethlehem Shoals holding forth convincingly on what a stupid conversation it is to have. When the panelists did get into some of the rifts between large institutions and independent mavericks—"blogger" was dismissed as a term of art—Pearlman made a case for the really good reporters who seek out stories instead of following time-worn paths through the season, much of it in response to Wyshynski's earlier assertion that in 20 years bloggers would be the only game in town. He came off very well, and posted on his blog about his appearance.
This was the second-best panel of the day once it got past the disavowal stage.
I find people like Gary Vanyerchuck kind of depressing and tuned him out after he literally said "if you're not spending 20 to 50 times more effort promoting your content than creating it, you're an idiot." For the record, this blog has become a living for yrs truly and what I'm pretty sure is the #1 college football blog of any description with vanishingly little effort applied to marketing the content. His model is not the only model. I don't go in for rah-rah, and I don't want to own a professional sports team.
Suggestions for BWBII, which is in October in Vegas:
Avoid college football season. Because I can't go.
More. I may have tripped a fine line between being honest and being a dick, so to clarify: spectacular win for HHR and something that now has the momentum to self-perpetuate. That's a huge accomplishment.
More bloggin'. It's not a coincidence that the best panels were heavily populated by bloggers and the deadest ones were the province of corporate types. I understand that the corporate sponsors want some face time for their promotional considerations, but full panels of these guys talking adjacent to each other, not to each other, isn't particularly good.
More diverso-bloggin'. There's a huge difference between a blog that covers sports as a whole and one that covers a specific team, but by my count only two team-specific blogs were represented: WhoDeyRevolution and MetsBlog. Both of those inclusions were valuable, and in the future more team-driven sites should be highlighted. It's a totally different world.
More focus. The first panel probably should not have happened at all, as even when it flickered towards interestingness it remained irrelevant. Other panels wandered back and forth with little guidance; sometimes the guidance was an active hindrance to the topic at hand.
If this Lijit guy is going to talk someone should be asking him pointed questions about why a blog should slow its pageloads down and hand over valuable real estate to him. If the corporate types are going to be talking about the shift in media the person moderating the panel should be a blogger trying to figure out why this is relevant to him.
More breaks. People got increasingly antsy as the day dragged on and opportunities to interact with people were limited to lunch (and the afterparty). Everyone took a half-hour afternoon break at some point, which caused several interruptions as panelists asked people to quiet the din in the back.
For The Win. The panelists most full of win:
- Orson Swindle
- Matt Ufford
- Greg Wyshynski
- Dan Steinberg
- Bethlehem Shoals
- Jeff Pearlman
I will forgo a full conference UFR.