Why I’m Attending FOCAS 2009

As I mentioned, I’ve been in Aspen this week at The Aspen Institute’s Forum on Communications & Society (specifically titled: Of the Press: Models for Preserving American Journalism). It’s been a very interesting couple of days, and I’ve got a lot of new ideas to make sense of and synthesize. First a bit of background, then a little bit on what’s gone on here and what interesting ideas have been put forward, then I’ll try to pull it all together with some thoughts. As I’m writing this, it’s getting a little long, so I think I’ll split into 2 posts: this one about why I’m attending, and the next one about the meeting & some thoughts.

Why I Came

I don’t know very much about journalism — next to nothing, really. But I do think that some aspects of journalism are critical if you want to have an engaged citizenry — a strong & free press is essential for any of us to know and understand enough about the world we live in to participate and engage. I think, too, that there are aspects of our American press that have historically served  us extremely well and are worth preserving. And of course, it’s impossible not to see the turmoil and change that the whole sector is going through — the disappearance of major papers is only the most visible. One thing I think I hadn’t really internalized is that the global economic crisis is really changing the situation much more rapidly than usually happens. Because of the financial pressure, old institutions don’t have the buffer that they might have had in better times — leading to much shorter time frames to layoffs and shutdowns. I think much of this was coming anyway — the crisis just accelerated all of it.

I’ve also been struck lately by some of the parallels of  mission of journalists (roughly, to enable engaged & informed participation) and Mozilla  (to insure an open & participatory Internet). So that’s one reason I decided to come — to learn as much as I could.

The third reason I decided to come is that there’s something new afoot in the world: lots of organizations are being created to serve a public interest — on very low cost models (enabled essentially by the Web) — and competing with traditional profit-oriented ventures. At Mozilla we call that type of organization a “hybrid,” and Mark Surman has been writing about that idea a lot lately. For that, I came in the spirit of sharing what we’ve learned at Mozilla as we’ve become a sustainable hybrid company — maybe some of what we’ve learned can be helpful to others.

But I have to say that mostly I came, as with any event, is because of the other people who were planning to attend and participate. I was invited by Alberto Ibargüen, CEO of the Knight Foundation, and all around awesome person. He’s done much since coming to Knight to reform the way they supported and funded new organizations, starting programs like the Knight News Challenge, as a way to create a sort of prize economy around innovations in journalism. (They’ve also provided funding for work at PCF, where I’m on the board of directors.) What they’re doing at Knight is a model to be emulated, I think — lots of experiments, lots of support, lots of provocative questions.

But beyond just Alberto, here’s a sampling of some of the 50 or so people who are here: Vivian Shiller (CEO of NPR), Esther Dyson, Jeff Jarvis (CUNY Professor), Marissa Mayer (VP Google), Dean Singleton (Chair of the AP), Marcus Brauchli (Exec Ed of The Washington Post), Walter Isaacson (biographer & CEO of Aspen Institute), Madeline Albright (former US Secretary of State), Reed Hundt (former Chair FCC), Jon Leibowitz (Chair FTC), Michael Kinsley, Sue Gardner (ED of Wikimedia), Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist), Robert Rosenthal (ED of CIR), Paul Steigler (CEO of Pro Publica).

And those are just a few of the names I picked out looking at the list just now — it’s neat to be a part of such a small & accomplished group — and is especially great when it’s on a topic I’m just learning about. 🙂

Finally, and beyond all the basic reasons for coming, I’ve learned that it’s important to try to pop out of operational work from time to time. It’s easy in the day-to-day of Mozilla to get obsessed with solving problems, with getting roadblocks moved out, with the details of trying to make things work. But being too much in those details for too long means, for me, that I sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture — being around others in a new context helps to reframe the things that matter in work and in life.

So that’s why I’m here: to learn and to participate and to help where I can. It’s been a successful event from that perspective for me.

One comment

  1. John some names for you…@digidave -David Cohn (spot.us)Knight Found recip., @Jayrosen_nyu – Jay Rosen Prof at NYU, @newmediajim (Jim Long understands the difficulties of legacy media production on the ground with democracy at it’s core), @katrinskaya Katrin Verclas Kight found winner mobile citizen jounalism toolkit creator)…

    these are the people that I reached out to to bring into or listen to for im2b and the Hyv to design the news shows and they are top of the line. If when you leave you still find interest in what they are doing…follow em….