Monday, June 09, 2008

DVD Review: ISDC Space Media Session

I'm finally getting caught up on the videos I purchased from the video guys covering the ISDC. I'm not in a huge rush to do this--I covered most of the sessions I wanted to cover in my first posting--so I'm watching these one at a time. Starting from the top of the pile, I picked up the Space Media panel.

First, a quality issue: the audio on this disk was bad. My friend and fellow space blogger Jeff Foust, who hosted the panel, appeared to have his microphone tied into the video people's audio system. However, all of the panelists were audible only through reverberation in ISDC's "the big room," the DC Hilton's Presidential Ballroom. The mikes were not connected to the camera, and the video (admittedly, it only cost me $5) suffered because of it.

Panelists included:

Dave Brody,
Mark Mayfield, Ad Astra Magazine
Keith Cowing, NASA Watch
Warren Leary, New York Times
Glenn Reynolds,

The first question Jeff asked was whether the quality of information has improved for the space business, given the profusion of blogs, electronic information sources, etc.

Due to microphone issues, Mr. Leary's response was inaudible. Reynolds stated that the blogosphere offers magazines opportunities to obtain writers for on-the-spot reporting. Mayfield expressed concerns about accuracy in the blogosphere, but Keith Cowing ("I was blogging about space before the word 'blogging' was invented") believed that the blogosphere was inherently self-correcting, as fact-checking bloggers will correct others who get their facts wrong. As he put it, if your blog says something stupidly wrong, nobody's going to read it. Brody felt that blogs offer interesting sidebars to the traditional NASA media outlets.

Brody brought up the fact that a congressman broadcast live video from the Mars Phoenix Lander's landing via his cell phone. Brody felt this sort of reporting provided real-time commentary of a live event, but needed to be taken for what it was--often unvarnished opinion--and that such reports can make confusion of the facts occur that much more quickly.

Cowing noted that when he started NASAWatch, NASA felt threatened, asking him, "How dare you challenge us? How dare you interpret this stuff for us?" That attitude, more than anything, is enough to justify the democratic tendencies of the blogosphere, however uncomfortable it makes government officials.

Cowing did admit that "there's a certain responsibility for [blogging]" and that he "publishes admission of mistakes faster than I made them, and keep them up longer." Not always, says I, but I also confess to being a regular reader of his site, so he must be doing something right.

Mayfield noted that "Anything we say or do could be on YouTube in minutes."

Reynolds said that one advantage of the blogosphere is its ability to form groups around a story--individuals who are sufficiently interested in a story/topic will each contribute their own piece of the elephant (my favorite analogy, not his), and that they will bring depth to a story the mainstream media might cover briefly at best.

Jeff's next question was, "How do the new media affect space advocacy organizations like the National Space Society?"

Reynolds stated that activist organizations offer a particular function: activism.

Mayfield said that society magazines like Ad Astra exist to share the NSS mission with its members. Ad Astr is a cheerleader for the membership, as it should be. Content for advocacy magazines should be visually exciting and literarily compelling, and are better for analyzing issues in the "long form."

However, Reynolds cautioned that the traditional advocacy model of direct mailings and fundraising are outdated, and that newsletters and magazines are dying--they don't fit the role they once had, which was providing information heretofore not available anywhere else.

Brody said that it was becoming more difficult for advocacy organizations to raise money in traditional ways, though the internet is good for building and maintaining communities. Advocacy organizations need to "seize the conversation."

Leary warned about the dangers of advocates speaking only to themselves. For example, there are still segments of the national and world population who are NOT "wired" via cell phones, internet, etc. What are advocates doing to reach out to them?

Jeff then opened the questioning up to the floor. My pal Cassie Kloberdanz asked, "How do you get the [new] media to bridge across multiple demographics?"

Cowing's recommendations included:
"Be interesting."
"Find a niche."
"Pick a target you know about and start writing about it."

Brody: "Be passionate.
"Get your facts straight."
"Establish credibility."

Cassie followed up with "How do we reach the general public?"

Reynolds, who recently wrote a column for Popular Mechanics about lunar property rights, suggested reaching out to more mainstream or non-traditional publications.

Mayfield indicated that it's difficult selling space to young people today because teachers don't talk about space in science classes as much (I doubt this is universally true, but he might have a point).

Cowing threw in: "The worst people space advocates could talk to is each other."

Leary suggested joining a non-space organization (PTA, church group, etc.) and "force space down their throats."

Jeff Liss, former editor of Ad Astra, suggested that NSS, et al., had done well enough getting its message out to the general public, but that perhaps we hadn't made enough of an impact on media leaders.

Cowing replied that people want to know: "When do I get to go?" something NASA doesn't want to talk about. He added that "logic is not going to work."

Mayfield suggested that "No matter what you think about space's a new form of marketing....The public doesn't care [about science]."

Brody got in the last comment, focusing on getting out good stories: "[Space Solar Power] in a high carbon footprint world is a good story."

Unfortunately, this session happened on Thursday, which was the day I flew in. Other questions might have occurred to me, had I been there. Plus, it would've been nice to hear what everyone was saying. Bottom line for me on this panel was that these guys are just making it up as they go along. They see the value of the internet--it's where most of them earn their bread and butter--but they don't have any crystal balls into what might happen next.

One question occurs to me, which I'll try to keep short: "Say one of these cell-phone bloggers posts a sensational video that's damaging to space exploration, but dead wrong. With our society's short-attention span, what can more respectable bloggers do to undo the damage of 'the first report' if that's all that gets reported by the mainstream media?"

We shall see. Gosh knows I'll do my part.

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