Having just returned from the Medientage in Munich, my head is still buzzing. Being a German cross-media conference, there was a lot on offer: TV, radio, books, news, social media, business models, big players like Google and Facebook and examples of hyperlocal journalism. Overall a promising mix.
As an organization that sits between news, radio and books, local and global interests and between free (open source tools) and business realities (our business and that of our clients), it was difficult to choose which sessions to attend. But what I was hoping to walk away with was an understanding of the status quo, some facts, some examples of innovation and some inspiration for the future. Status quo and facts I got, innovation and inspiration were few and far between.
The German Media scene as a whole is fully aware of the need for change, largely driven by shrinking profits, but the ability to translate this knowledge into action, to take some risk and be the first at something radical, is something very different. Talks of better 'multi-channel distribution' and of new ways of converged working were of course music to my Superdesk ears, but seeing the people in power, the actual decision makers for whom Twitter is still something optional, did not fill me with much confidence that things will change any time soon. Especially compared to the UK, where the BBC, the Guardian and many others are racing ahead in the digital, cross-channel game, these conservative and traditional German media players looked like dinosaurs.
It was cute and sad at the same time that nobody seemed to have even begun to understand the potential and power of Twitter. As Facebook's Policy Director, Dr.Gunnar Bender said: "Social Media has not yet arrived in Germany". Very sad but very true. Having lived in the UK where every corner shop has a Twitter account, and knows how to use it, this is something that I continuously shake my head at, but it also meant that it was pretty easy for me to claim a big space on the conference's hashtag channel. I have never had as many RTs as today.
It was of course reassuring to hear from the Bavarian Head of State, Horst Seehofer, that "Users are important,... [that] their needs are endless... and [that] we should not underestimate them". What that actually means was not really discussed. I sometimes wondered whether anybody from the big organisations had even spoken to 'a user' recently or even knew what they look like. I genuinely believe that most of the speakers' teenage kids have a better understanding about what 'users' want than the suit wearers themselves.
Also encouraging was how the majority of big players were present at the conference - including Google and Facebook, who were naturally pretty often the subject of harsh questioning and who did a fairly good job in telling people that they were absolutely in favour of more data usage transparency. Sure. It is fair to say that without Google present, some conversations would have been a lot less interesting and relevant. Talking about a big player is different than talking with a big player. (Do you hear that Amazon and Microsoft?!). But what could have been very interesting panel discussions often ended up as pure Google bashing. As amusing as that can be, it is an easy way to opt out of the much more interesting questions, for example about the quality of content.
A big topic, that came up in a few sessions was the need for the harmonization of copyright and other laws on a European level. The fact that selling an ebook from a server based in Luxembourg is subject to 3% VAT, where in Germany the same would be charged with 19% VAT, is something that is not sustainable. Not to mention the data protection situation with regard to Ireland. But looking for new laws to save the day is not a strategy that will work out. Nobody pointed their finger at themselves to offer some new thinking and some new solutions.
Another huge topic, and often a hot one when Google was on the panel, was data transparency. What happens with all the data that gets collected about us? How does it all get connected? – were some of the questions that came up time and time again. Google of course claims transparency by mentioning the fact that you don't have to login to use their services, or you can use fake details, or you can change what ads you want to be exposed to. But of course they did not really give an answer to the relevant question about what they do with all this data. One comment I especially enjoyed was made by Hans-Jürgen Jakobs, Chief Economics Editor at the Süddeutsche Zeitung: „Data are traces you leave behind as a way of payment. It's like virtual currency that gets converted into real money by somebody else".
And this brings us to Business Models. There was a lot of talk about multi-channel content distribution and about the fact that content should not be given away for free. Nodding heads all around. Seehofer convincingly said: "Culture needs Business Models". And author and journalist Robert Levine told us the secret of the most successful business model of all times: "Sell stuff for more than it costs you to make". Laughter all around. And that's how far things got. Yes to charging for content, whether through paywalls or subscriptions. But nobody seemed willing to make the jump and charge for online content, mostly because there are still too few examples (if any) of this proven to be a successful model. In connection with this, as always, was the discussion around ownership and copyright. And being amongst the big traditional German media players, I was not surprised to hear a loud call for strict copyright laws. Only one panel person (I won't name /shame) timidly suggested a more balanced view on this. Unsurprisingly, the mention of Creative Commons or the like was nowhere to be found.
Encouraging was the strong-voiced need for new ways of cross-platform working and cheaper, more agile technology to support this. Superdesk! was all I wanted to shout at this point, but I decided to shout via Twitter and got a couple of retweets. Small victories!
A small light was the session on hyperlocal news. For the first (and only) time I saw working journalistic examples where distribution channels are secondary to content creation (this is where I wanted to shout Cope! and Superdesk! again) and where citizen journalism is a reality. Also liveblogging was mentioned. Given that these examples were hyperlocal and not national, they did not get that much attention and most people would probably find reasons why this would not work on a bigger scale – Sourcefabric would of course disagree.
What was painfully missing from Medientage was inspiration and innovation. I want to believe that somewhere deep inside the German media institutions, there are young bright people who have the potential to shake things up, to challenge the system, to challenge the users. Creative producers with ideas, creativity, drive and energy. Where are those kids, who did not go to university, but who started filming, writing, making music when they were 12? Every single person on every single panel looked more like a lawyer or banker than a creative content producer. More than a fifth of all panel speakers (i.e. decision makers) have at least a PhD and I would argue that at least 90% have some sort of university degree. Nothing against education, but diversity looks different.
As a conclusion: The role of Google is still unclear and them insisting on 'we are just a search engine' is getting fishy. The balance/battle between freedom and regulation continues to be a tricky one. Nobody knows how to make money and nobody felt the need to talk about content. Structures must change and technology is important, but no traces of new ideas and new people. Oh yeah, and Twitter is going to be big (you heard it here first!).