Big Trends at GEN 2013 News Summit in Paris (or, I have seen the future of media and it’s pretty radical)

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Paris’s city hall where the Global Editors Network News Summit took place last week, from June 19 to June 21, 2013.

If there was a revolution being tweeted at the Global Editors Network 2013 News Summit that just wrapped up in Paris last week, it’s that content, once king, is no longer.

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That was the gospel being preached by many different media actors from across the spectrum, from CUNY journalism professor and media guru, Jeff Jarvis, to Shafqat Islam, CEO of NewsCred, one of the most successful recent media start-ups, to Mark Little, co-founder of social media news agency, Storyful.

“We are not in the content business,” Jarvis expounded, “It is a trap. Content is a fine thing, but if that’s all we do, we are missing out.” To an audience of mostly journalists he declared that, “we are in the service business…it’s about building relationships.” Which for most journalists is a dramatic (and not entirely comfortable) paradigm shift, in which the consumers of news take precedence over the providers of news – those erstwhile journalists.

Jeff Jarvis likes to shock, but there seemed to be consensus among the players at the GEN summit around the heart of his argument: that content, today, is…easy. Technology has made content ultra-accessible, broadcastable and consumable, and if media aim solely to produce great content—as we all once did—then they’re missing the point. Consumers are drowning in content. What consumers want are better ways to access the content that interests them most. What makes the difference today is the curation, packaging and design surrounding the content. In 2013, content and container are officially on equal footing.

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Replacing content as king is, thus, the consumer. This was another big theme at GEN 2013: that the key to success in the new media ecosystem is being able to find out and anticipate what consumers want, and many of the media technology start-ups present at the summit were focused on just that. “You need to know your audience and how to get to them,” explained Benoit Raphael (@benoitraphael), co-founder of the start-up Trendsboard, a tool to help editors to predict what will be trending next. “Media should behave like brands,” he said. This was an echo of a common refrain, heard often throughout the several days of the conference, that media companies need to be technology companies – and to behave like brands. For Dennis Mortensen (@DennisMortensen), the founder of Visual Revenue, another tool to help editors makes strategic choices about the content they put forward, the rationale for media companies to develop tech tools and behave like brands is simple: why not make editorial decisions that also, incidentally, make money? Why not “optimize” editorial?

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Storyful’s Mark Little (@marklittlenews, a former foreign correspondent himself) drew a slightly sharper line between media and tech when it comes to the core purpose of journalism today. “It’s not about technology,” Little explained, “It’s about the change in human behavior that technology liberates.” Which still speaks to the same revolution driving so much of the change in media today: because technology has enabled new forms of news production (amateur content, crowd-sourcing, real-time updates) and news consumption (mobile, downloadable, aggregated), the expectations of consumers have changed. And news media—this seemed to be everyone’s over-arching message at #GEN13—had better learn to listen.

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Listening to consumers is what brands do best, which is why so much of the media strategy discussed at the conference sounded like brand strategy. Building relationships, trust, loyalty. Giving consumers what they want and how they want it. This is what Jarvis means when he talks about news today as a “service business”.  It’s also the way today’s new hybrid tech media start-ups are thinking. As David Cohn (@digidave), the director of news at Cir.ca, a recently launched and much-hyped mobile-news-app that breaks down news into its essential quotes, facts and data, explained: Circa is not about summarizing the news, but about “atomizing” the news, so that people can consume the news particles as they wish.

Journalism 3.0 is here.

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Rumba at La Détente

I arrived in Brazzaville early on a Saturday morning, having jetted across the Congo River from Kinshasa in less than five minutes on the U.S. Embassy’s motorboat, not unlike Mobutu’s ministers in 1997 who fled the impending arrival of Laurent Kabila’s rebel troops in a fleet of speed boats, abandoning their fancy cars in the parking lot of the Intercontinental Hotel in Gombé, where they had been holed up. Everyone had told me that the contrast would be striking between Kinshasa and Brazzaville, between the world’s two closest national capitals, between the intensity and tension of one city and what people who’d been there before described as the calm and openness of the other. “Kinshasa is very dangerous,” one of my U.S. Embassy contacts in the Africa Regional Services office in Paris had told me before I left, “But Brazzaville, you’ll see, it’s like a French city!”

It was true that like many French cities on a weekend morning, Brazzaville’s centre ville felt sleepy. I could walk around freely or hop in beat-up green cab and get anywhere for a dollar. I had lunch that day at Mirabelle, a French patisserie and café, and on my way back up avenue Jean Jaurès, I stopped by the city’s main tourist attraction–in as much as Brazzaville has any tourist attractions–a massive marble and glass mausoleum and museum dedicated to Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, the Frenchman who claimed the Congo for France at the end of the 19th century. I was a little taken aback. Typically the story of African independence and development doesn’t include quite such an explicit chapter glorifying the colonizer (even though much of Francophone Africa maintains such close relationships with France and French investment that they’ve been given a  name: Françafrique).

A plaque at the entrance exlains that this vast, practically empty shrine, inaugurated in 2006 by then French President Jacques Chirac and the Congolese president Denis Sassou N’Guesso, who is still in power today, honors Brazza for his “humanism.” Inside there are poster-size photos of a dashing young bearded man, with fine features and an aquiline nose, and a large caption printed on the bottom: “D’un coup d’oeil on comprend les raisons de ses triomphes d’autrefois. Sa gloire est d’avoir accompli une oeuvre paix.” Which, translated, means: “At a glance, one understand his triumphs of the past. His glory is having accomplished a work of peace.” It sounds like a lyric in a hymn.

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Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza

When I looked at the three people employed in this mausoleum on a somnolent Saturday (a receptionist, a guard and a janitor), and felt the chill of enough air-conditioning to keep this space with two-story cathedral ceilings cool, I wondered if the money wouldn’t perhaps have been better spent elsewhere. One of the journalists in my training here in Brazza works for La Nouvelle République, the publicly-funded newspaper in this small country of four million with a president who has been in office for nearly 30 of the last 35 years. She told me they have no internet connection, and in fact, she said, they have no computers in the newsroom. The reporters and editors turn over their hand-written copy to typists who input everything on a few computers and, she explained still further, the paper doesn’t come out regularly anyway. It seems to come out when it can.

Social media training with journalists in a country where internet connections are iffy and computers are absent from newsrooms isn’t always easy (although the U.S. Embassy’s library in Brazzaville is comfortable, well-equipped and eerily reminiscent of the public library in my suburban hometown in upstate New York). But Facebook is hugely popular nonetheless with people logging on via their mobiles, and the culture of social networking is already widespread enough that the government, despite the lack of fully functional media, should probably be a little worried. Earlier in May, the president’s wife, Antoinette, celebrated her 70th birthday in Saint Tropez with 150 friends flown and yachted in, and news of the one-million Euro birthday weekend was allegedly leaked beforehand, when a picture of the invitation started spreading all over Facebook.

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La Bourgeoisie, a speakeasy (or a “VIP” as they say in French) in Poto Poto.

But what Brazzaville by day lacks in monuments or, frankly, in any interest at all, Brazzaville by night makes up for in grooviness. That’s the big idea of Distel, one of my local Congolese hosts in Brazza. He has a lot of theories about what’s wrong with the Congo and how to fix it, but he also believes in starting where you can, with reasonable goals: “What this city ought to be promoting is atmosphere!” he explained, grinning, as we drove from La Bourgeoisie, a packed neon speakeasy at the end of a dirt road in the poor Poto Poto neighborhood, to No Stress, a two-story lounge near the higher-end waterfront, where Raj, the heir to the city’s Indian-owned convenience stores, was celebrating his birthday. When we emerged, a pick-up truck full of standing policemen was stopped in the street outside the club and three other cops were lifting up and tossing a man into the back. “He’s inebriated,” exlained Distel. “They won’t hurt him, they’ll just scare him a little bit.” Sunday night in Brazza.

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La Détente in Brazzaville.

Distel’s atmosphere tour had actually started much earlier in the evening at the place that is cleary Brazzaville’s real Sunday night rendez-vous: Rumba night at La Détente in the Bacongo neighborhood. Rumba in the Congo is not, I discovered, Rumba in Cuba. It is langorous, slow, groovy. It is middle-aged couples getting all dressed up, the mammas in their tightly-fitted African-print finery and pointy heels, and the papas in sharp slacks and fine shoes, ordering big chilled beers at the club’s outdoor tables in the pleasant garden, checking each other out, and then getting up to dance to the blaring live band’s Rumba classics, holding each other tightly, moving slowly. La Détente means “relaxing” in French, and the evening was balmy and chilled-out, everyone decked out, but low-key. Just styling to the sounds of Rumba.

Despite its name, Brazzaville (the only city in Africa to have kept its colonial name after independence) didn’t feel anything like a French city. But nor do French city nights know how to groove like Brazza.

They Call It Kin la Belle

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The city of Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo)

Far from Paris but still in a bastion of Francophony, Kinshasa, the massive capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is sometimes called “Kin la Belle,” a nostalgic memory of the Mobutu years in the 1970s. I’ve been brought in by the U.S. Embassy to do social media training with Congolese journalists, and NGO and government people. But I’m still not quite sure how the city works, really, as it sprawls vastly over 10 million inhabitants’ worth of low-slung houses, cars, and street frenzy–and, per US Embassy mandate for our safety, I commute in a white SUV with diplomatic plates between hotel and Embassy, both within the leafy enclave called Gombe (like Neuilly in Paris, or Scarsdale in NY). Excitement is skirting the presidential guard road block (fatigues, red berets, guns, the smell of pot) in the evening in order to take the beautiful river walk along the Congo River.

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View of Brazzaville from Kinshasa riverfront.

In my training today I had two MPs, Gaston and Claudel by their first names, from the majority and an opposition party, respectively, who kept the gallery entertained. Pro-Kabila harangues on the one hand (if the people vote in a referendum to change the constitution to allow Kabila a shot at a third term, then it will have been the people’s will) and on the other hand a surrealistic vision for uplifting the Congo (technology, connectivity, and distributing free cell phones to constituents). Meanwhile, the Congo has, by some counts, over 80% unemployment (there are no official stats), a grandiose river with enough hydraulic energy to power all of central Africa, and yet power outages everyday in Kinshasa.

The rest of the class loved that the Honorables went at it, but I eventually had to restrict politics talk to the lunch break as they all began to throw in their own stories of government failure. When Monsieur Gaston, the majority MP who is personally close to Kabila, would start praising the work of the good president, they would all just smile and actually laugh at him outright. Because what else do you do in the Congo? That seems to be the attitude, generally.

The Congolese that I have experienced so far are all smiles and warm handshakes and  incredibly nice. On my way back with some Congolese journalist friends, Axel and Jeannot, from a beer and grilled chicken joint in Bandal, one of the “quartiers chauds” as the Kinois call the neighborhoods that party, they hailed a gypsy cab that already had a few passengers in the back. After a quick exchange in Lingala that I didn’t understand, the women in the car both got in the front seat, and the three of us got in the back. “In Kinshasa we’re easy,” Axel explained with a smile, “life is hard enough as it is, we think, ‘why not help each other out a little?’”

The U.S. Embassy’s security briefing at the start of my stay had warned about high rates of violence and criminality in Kinshasa. Not so much about warm handshakes and mutual aid, but I suspect one doesn’t by any means exclude the other here. I was told that on the road that we took in the cab on our way back from Bandal, which is the only road, when cars drive by the big Kokolo military base, chances are that a soldiers’ road block will have popped up, and can pose a serious problem for drivers with no cash to hand over. Maybe we just got lucky, but we didn’t hit a road block, and Axel and Jeannot dropped me off at my hotel, a brand new Chinese-built luxury tower with colorful neon lights flashing all the way up the 22 floors of the facade. Not surprisingly, in this gleaming hotel in Gombe full of foreigners, I haven’t experienced any of Kinshasa’s power outages at all.