At last week's We Media conference in Miami titled "We Media: How Audiences are Shaping the Future of News and Information," one of the few statements that participants could agree on was that new voices, new technology and new platforms have leveled the media playing field.
Although We Media, a think-tank organization, has been established for several years, its events and reports are now having an increasingly larger impact on the media industry and its participants. Not only are they spawning innovation and collaboration that is creating new businesses, they are supporting people and concepts that aren't necessarily for profit-making purposes.
Hosted by the John S. and James. L Knight Foundation at the University of Miami, the conference attracted leading journalists, bloggers, publishers, entrepreneurs and investment professionals.
As a writer and internet media executive, I attended the event with the purpose of hearing not how old media and citizen media are continuing to struggle against each other, but rather how they can work together to benefit society as a whole as well as create change in our communities.
Perhaps one of the most lively panel discussions over the course of two days, titled "Soft Power," began with moderator Chris Nolan, founder and editor of Spot-On.com, stating that the internet is changing everything -- our work, our speed, our communication -- basically, our entire lives.
A New Form of Expression
Nolan and the panelists pointed out that interactive media is giving end users information, access, control and dialogue unlike anything we've ever imagined. Whereas, blogging is a revolutionary concept because it gives individuals control and a platform, but it's not a new expression; it's just a new form of expression.
"The emergence of self-publishing tools is having big implications because it means the wisdom of the audience can be brought together," Jay Rosen of PressThink and NewAssignment.net said.
But are these new tools enabling consumers enough to gain more power and influence in society than government and businesses?
"The internet is reducing the cost for like-minded people to locate each other and share info and collaborate," Rosen said. "Only now are we able to generate a wider influence and create this type of soft power."
"I think the definition of real power is being heard," said David Sasaki of Global Voices, an aggregator of international writers. "Participatory media lets everyone make themselves heard. New media is being structured so that the audience participates at will."
But is being heard enough? Like the question about a tree falling in the forest, if a blogger writes his opinion about a subject he considers important, does the rest of the world care and do anything about it?
"The way people organize is the true power," a panelist said. "Soft power is social, as in 'people power.' When people connect by a commonality, like a task or a hobby or a belief, they are infinitely stronger than if they were standing alone,"
Sanjeev Chatterjeev, a documentary filmmaker and vice dean of the University of Miami School of Communication, added a different perspective. "But the vision for connectedness has a challenge," he said. "If we are to build collected authoring, as we see with Wikipedia, the power ends up being in the hands of an editor."
The conference producers displayed CNN.com's homepage on a screen that featured Anna Nicole Smith's headshot and the headline, "Anna Nicole Smith Dies."
Looking in disgust at the screen, Nolan asked, "What if an editor decides that this is the most important news story of the day and we as the audience have to rely on his decision? How can we improve the news industry to include stories that will truly be in demand?"
Put another way, can news outlets provide added value to what people already care about?
"But this kind of stuff is exactly what they demand," an audience attendee said. "Everyone's reading Us Weekly and People all day. Maybe audiences need to be told what's important."
"It's easy to learn what's popular in today's society because those things bubble up intensely on the web," Rosen added.
Next: The Importance of Access
I reflected back to a previous panel session during which a speaker asked, "Will we see a Craigslist for news?" Hiding in the back of the room, Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, shook his head and quietly said, "Not from us."
During an earlier session, Robin Miller from Slashdot stood up in the audience and said, "I'm a writer and need to make money. There are investment professionals talking about supposedly great plans to build site and feed aggregators. But why aren't I hearing them say that they want to pay people for creating content?"
A venture capitalist responded by saying, "We do realize that we need to highlight the experts that are passionate about certain subjects, but classic editorialized articles are not getting eyeballs. Community and tools get the most traffic on the websites in our portfolio."
I was brought back to the present moment as Nolan called on me to talk about the combination of media strategies.
"I'm surprised that today's discussions have focused on one versus the other, and us versus them, such as editorial versus blogging and big publishers versus citizen media," I said. "At Real Girls Media Network, we believe that all voices can coexist.
"For example, our first site, DivineCaroline.com, fuses editorial, user-submitted stories and community. It gives all women a platform for expression and connection, and everyone feels worthy of being heard."
Success of a Shared Vision
While no single formula seems to be leading the new media landscape, a blend of old and new models is starting to take shape and create substantial revenue, and many investment professionals don't mind being patient while entrepreneurs test out a few models. As one venture capitalist added, "YouTube only recently started figuring out a revenue model."
A Twin Cities Herald executive said, "We're trying to do the public radio model in which we take community stories and other interesting tidbits, but we're still trying to find the right business model."
Another audience member said, "We're using a donation model for news. People can donate dollars for stories that they want to see happen. We're trying to persuade volunteers to give their knowledge and time to this effort. I don't think anyone should rely on thinking about money and only money."
Serving the community seemed to be a common theme among writers and visionaries hoping to make waves in today's age of access.
"The success of shared vision depends on serving a specific audience's needs," said Gaby Bruna, a University of Miami student and head of the Media for Change project. "Look at how Facebook lets college kids connect when they're not on campus together, or how DivineCaroline allows women to find a philanthropic cause they're passionate about. It'll be a great day when the internet as a resource can guide an individual to take action in her community and see a real transformation."
Alan Rosenblatt, executive director of the Internet Advocacy Center, wholeheartedly agreed that the internet can inspire action.
"The internet can do a lot of things," he said. "But it is most empowering to use it to inform people, influence others and corporations and change policies for the common good. People have come to expect just talk, talk, talk. Let's take action."
The audience cheered as I sat wondering and hoping that the age of activism was finally upon us.
Rebecca Weeks is director business development at Real Girls Media, a new media network that aims to create the leading destinations online for women and girls. Read full bio.