A Blog Around The Clock

I arrived in San Diego on Thursday night and checked in my hotel that was 6 miles away, almost in Mexico – I could see the lights of Tijuana from the hotel. I had to take a cab each morning and evening.

On Friday morning, I got up bright and early and came to the convention center, lugging my huge and heavy laptop with me. And that was the first surprise of the day – there was no wifi anywhere in the Convention Center, and almost no power outlets anywhere: something I am not used to as the meetings I tend to go to are pretty techie and take care of such details.

Not even speakers/panelists had free wifi. Nobody noticed, as they all used PowerPoint anyway (did you see the Bad Presentation Bingo cards?). But our session was about the Web and we wanted to use the Web to show our stuff, so our panel’s host PAID for online access for us to use in our session.

A journalist wanted to interview me after lunch so we went to the press center to see if there was a free interviewing room there. Aha! There is a press center there! Power! Wifi! Free coffee! Yee-haw!

Oh! No! They had employees standing in front, letting in only the people with green name-tags – the Press tags. How quaint! I had a blue one, just an Attendee (though that was an error as well – I should have gotten the Speaker one, but it really did not matter for any practical purposes). So, the only way I could get in was if led by someone with a Press badge, leading me in as an interviewee. That was, again, a surprise to me as I have been using press centers at meetings for years, most recently at the Lindau Nobel conference in Germany and FEST Trieste in Italy.

So, I was there, with the journalist. In the press room. I used that opportunity to ask if I could also get a Press name-tag. I also wanted to use that moment to get into the press center in order to get online and perhaps blog something about the first sessions I saw, etc.

The AAAS employees manning the desks in the press room were unsure what to do about me – they did not belligerently say “No, you are just a blogger”, they just did not want to risk making their bosses mad by making an inadvertent mistake of giving me a press pass. After all, I was not officially affiliated with any traditional media outlet, they said. I did not want to make a scene so I just said ‘OK’, but used the opportunity to sneak into the press/computer room next door and set up my laptop. I went straight to Twitter and wrote:

“#AAAS10: 8000 people (incl.1000 journalists). No wifi anywhere. No power outlets. Bloggers not counted as press.”

As you can see, I was just stating the facts with no adjectives or emoticons, though anyone knowing me could guess how I felt about it. But then others retweeted and/or replied – and some of them did voice anger and disappointment. And for the rest of the day and the next day many asked me about it, or commented, or approached me and commiserated, and agreed that all three of the statements were right and that they were a bad sign about the state of mind of the AAAS leaders, demonstrating how behind the times they were. I agreed with them in these personal conversations.

Later that night, in my hotel room (with free wifi – small hotels, like Days Inn, are much more up-to-date on this than the fancy hotels) I also mentioned this fact on my blog. Others added comments on FriendFeed and Facebook (where my tweets and blog posts are automatically imported). Not too much noise, but there was some.

On Sunday I did not bother bringing the laptop with me, but in the afternoon I wanted to go to the Press cocktail party. Journos are “my crowd” much more than scientists these days, and I wanted to meet many of them and share a drink. But I could not, not having the press pass.

So, one of the bloggers who did have a press pass (for also writing for a “real” media outlet) got quite agitated, took me into the press room again and, instead of asking the employees/volunteers again, asked to see the boss. The boss (Engle? – I did not catch his name – edit: his name is Earl) came out and we asked him for a press pass for me. I was trying to be nice, but the other blogger was quite agitated (an effective Good Cop Bad Cop strategy, it turned out). She said stuff in pretty strong words about AAAS not giving me the press pass.

I trotted out the names of four organizations I am affiliated with that can be counted as ‘media’ in one way or another. But my Attendee pass said my institution is PLoS. Engle? Earl said that journal editors are not really press. I agree, but I said I was not an editor but on the Communications team at PLoS, as well as a blogger for PLoS, for ScienceInTheTriangle.org, for Seed Media Group, and an advisor for the science programing for PRI/BBC/WBHG The World. He said something about AAAS having to rethink these things in the future and told one of the ladies manning the tables to issue me a press card. He was very nice about it throughout, and apologetic, but I am not sure he really grokked the problem.

Afterwards, I tweeted that I got the pass, and many others on Twitter cheeered and gloated in my name.

I think employees/volunteers at the desk were initially just not sure if giving me a pass would be OK. Perhaps it was the PLoS connection (and AAAS is a publisher of ‘Science’ so perhaps they perceive these things as important). I did not push much so did not get much of a response the first day. I think everyone interpreted me not getting the pass as “for being a blogger” but on the other hand Maggie of BoingBoing was issued a press pass, so this is not clear. It was clear, though, that I was not easy to classify – in that world, I am not an accredited journalist for a traditional media organization. That was so confusing to them.

So I would really like to know what was the AAAS’ real reason for this – it could have been just mis-communication. But an out-dated worldview certainly played a part or there would have been zero confusion. Expecting wifi everywhere it never occurred to me to apply for a press pass in advance, just in person once there. I also did not have a clue in advance that press center would be so closed to non-press-tagged people – those were all very novel situations to me. I am used to freedom to roam and blog from everywhere in the building PLUS access to special amenities for the press in those rare cases when I may need them (e.g., information, interview access to VIPs, press releases and fresh fruit).

So, there is no clear track of events that one can point to, something like “Bora officially asked” (no, Bora wandered in and kinda asked), then “AAAS declined” (no, they were unsure what to do and did nothing as I did not push any further), then “Bloggers rebelled” (no, a few tweets a revolution do not make, and I doubt anyone at the top of AAAS ever read them or was aware of the issue), then “AAAS finally gave in” (no, Engle? Earl was nice about it once it was explained to him).

There is a lot of play of perceptions here – and some of them are true e.g., that AAAS is behind the times on this, not having heard much that the media ecosystem has dramatically changed over the past ten years or so.

But, keep in mind that it is the Convention Center, not AAAS, that has no free wifi or power outlets. So it is really the Center that is behind times. Of course, if AAAS was up-to-date on such things they would have certainly thought about this and could have fixed the obvious problems by bringing in a lot of power strips and hiring a company to provide free wifi like we did with paying SignalShare at ScienceOnline2010.

In today’s world, everyone is potentially a journalist. Out of 8000 people there, perhaps 1000, perhaps 2000 would have wanted to report from AAAS in some form. Some would write stories for traditional media, some for New Media, and some would write for personal blogs. There is really no distinction between these. And it is almost impossible to predict in advance who will blog – anyone can just get inspired on the spot, or a blogger can come in, find it boring, and not write anything (not being able to blog on the spot, I am not sure I will have energy and inspiration to do much post-hoc blogging now that I am back home).

Some people were paid to come to AAAS and write stories for a particular media outlet. But many others would have done some kind of reporting as well. A few blog posts. An avalanche of tweets. A bunch of good pictures on Flickr. Perhaps going around with a digital audio recorder or video camera, interviewing people and posting the files online. Some would do a lot of this. Some very little. Most would do nothing. The best of the best would do ALL of this.

So what every conference needs is a lot of power outlets and the free wifi everywhere. That way both traditional and new journalists can do their jobs everywhere in that space. Neither old nor new journalists really need a press center for anything any more, except for free coffee (which should be provided for everyone anyway). There is no need for a room full of computers. People prefer to work on their own laptops anyway. And often prefer to write their stuff in some secluded corner, not surrounded by the noise of 100 keyboards on fire.

What did the decision to have a press room accomplish? It limited the power outlets and online access to a very small part of the space. The Fire Marshall decides how many people can fill that space. Many more people, not being able to get online outside of it, would want to enter that space. This then introduces a problem for the organizers – how do they limit the use of the space to only the number of people that can legally occupy it? So they pick an arbitrary criterion: allowing the entrance into that space only to people who are officially working for organizations that in the last century were called “press”.

So, not having wifi everywhere, while having such a thing as a “press room” in the first place, is quaint and outdated and leads to these kinds of problems. This is a structural problem that leads to the artificial division between “journalists” and “bloggers” (and bad feelings that come from the enforcement of this division).

If everyone can send/post all their stuff from everywhere in the building, there is no need for a designated room. If there is no designated room, there is no need for designated name tags, no need for applying for press passes, no need for credentialing, and no need for anyone to make arbitrary decisions who is press and who is not.

I hope AAAS has learned from this year’s experience and will grow up by the time of next year’s meeting in Washington DC. I hope their scouts are looking for a venue that has power outlets everywhere and free wifi for everyone. So we don’t need to worry any more about the definition of “who is a journalist” for the coverage of conferences.

Comments

  1. #1 Rich Stoner
    February 23, 2010

    Agree entirely. At least AAAS didn’t repeat the ASCB fiasco.

    Here’s hoping for a wifi-enabled 2011 meeting.

  2. #2 Martin R
    February 23, 2010

    Well said!

  3. #3 Coturnix
    February 23, 2010

    Thank you.

    If there was wifi+power everywhere, there would be much fewer people wanting to use a special “press” space at any given time. Thus, the pressroom could be reduced to a booth or two and be open to everyone who needs to come in and quickly get materials, or use a small quiet room for interviews.

  4. #4 Michael
    February 23, 2010

    “I hope their scouts are looking for a venue that has power outlets everywhere and free wifi for everyone.”

    Free wifi doesn’t exist – at least not at convention centers. And you can’t bring in outside companies to provide it, as you did when ScienceOnline 2010 was held at Sigma Xi. To get wifi, the event organizer has to pay the convention center for it – and the price is steep. The cost is likely to be passed along to attendees in the form of higher reg. fees. So while it is understandable to expect wifi at a major meeting in this day and age, you also need to realize that it comes with a price tag.

  5. #5 Coturnix
    February 23, 2010

    Of course. When I say ‘free’, I mean free for attendees. This has to be a part of the budget of the organizer, just like free drinking water and free bathrooms are a necessity. Free Wifi is just such a necessity for conferences today.

  6. #6 Michael
    February 23, 2010

    That’s my point: Wifi isn’t free for attendees. Drinking water and bathrooms are included in the main facility charge. Wifi is a big extra, so if it is provided, then attendees have to be willing to pay higher conference fees.

  7. #7 Coturnix
    February 23, 2010

    Is it big or little extra depends on the venue, the meeting, the size. But it is an essential, thus I would not call it an “extra” at all. It is the mindset that this is an “extra” that makes so many conferences so dinosaurian. Wifi is an essential amenity, just like bathrooms. It should be, like bathrooms, included in the main facility charge. If the facility is incapable of supporting thousands of people getting online simultaneously, then the organizer of the meeting should have a free hand to hire a company that can do it. It is an essential part of organization, not an extra. This is not caviar for the VIPs, it is something without which a conference cannot function.

  8. #8 anthrosciguy
    February 23, 2010

    I haven’t attended a conference in years, from before days of the web, and I’m shocked (yeah, apalled too) that they didn’t have at least wifi throughout the conference. It’s bizarre that they could be that far behind the curve.

  9. #9 Maria
    February 23, 2010

    I went to a Keystone meeting recently and the hotel really struggled with the wifi – the “free” conference wifi not being available but the $10 a day one in our rooms being fine. But on this the Keystone guys kept the pressure on the hotel and in the end they waived the charge for everyone – though we still couldn’t get access from the lecture hall. Surely AAAS should have put some pressure on the conference center to reduce their wifi costs?

  10. #10 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 23, 2010

    For scientific conference, I usually email first to request a Press Pass — as a freelance science writer. They usually have me fill out paperwork at the Press Room, so I bring examples of publications of mine in Science, Scientific American, whatever. One gets access to infrastructure, interview opportunities, and sometimes free sandwiches and coffee. Of course you’re in The Press. But it will take legislation or Supreme Court opinion to nail that down. Wish I could have gone to this one, but I’m behind schedule on some $110.00/hour writing as a consultant.

  11. #11 Michelle
    February 23, 2010

    I filled out a request for a press pass for the American Chemical Society Meeting – and posted the post that ended up in Open Laboratory from the press room!

    At the ACS, press get in free to the meeting, hence the guardians of the pass.

  12. #12 Kevin
    February 24, 2010

    As someone who writes in two worlds – science/medical communications and travel writing – I LOOOONG ago gave up on the concept of “free” WiFi. Especially when doing travel writing, the major annoyances of “free” WiFi, such as slow connections, frequent drop-outs, configuration problems and the like were just not worth it.

    I pay the $60 a month for a 5 gig mobile broadband modem. If the hotel has “free” WiFi, I’ll plug in. If not, no worries. I attend a handful of medical conferences a year and am on the road traveling for that part of the business about 1/4 of the year. To me, it’s part of the cost of doing business.

    I’ve also been a dead-tree journalist with press-pass privileges. And I have to say that I almost never used the facilities provided by conference organizers. I would participate in press conferences organized for the ink-stained wretches, and appreciated getting the pile of press releases (mainly to ensure names and affiliations of sources were verified).

    I do see the value in having “press only” facilities, especially for press conferences. But the free fruit and coffee and computers? Meh. I can buy my own coffee.

    If you go back to a conference at the San Diego Convention Center, make sure you set aside a morning to have breakfast at Cafe 222. The pumpkin waffles are world-class. Expect a wait – the place is tiny, but worth it.

  13. #13 Coturnix
    February 25, 2010

    Kevin, do you remember the time when you packed soap and shampoo and towels when you traveled, because you could not know in advance if the hotel will be providing those? Wifi is at that stage right now. Let’s hope that very, very soon free wifi will be ubiquitous aspect of conferences, hotels, etc. included in the price (just like soap and towels are included in the price of your hotel room today) so people like you and me do not have to invent work-arounds and pay for them out of our own pockets at full, undiluted price.

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