Becoming the Story: A Cautionary Tale

Earlier today, my business partner Mike Sigal and I had a robust discussion about Carla’s post on the Sarah Lacy kerfuffle at SXSW on Sunday. Neither defending nor attacking Lacy, Mike asked whether The Guidewire did a service to the community by entering the debate. “How,” he asked, “are we additive to the debate?”

It’s a fair question and I do think Carla made a key point:

It seems that the audience was misread at several junctures. In the end though, the only question that needs to be answered is whether Lacy did her job as a reporter and interviewer.

Whether you like or dislike Lacy’s style, whether you appreciate her body of work, whether you were in the room or not, one thing has become clear: Lacy became the story.

In fact, I’ve been hard pressed to find much coverage at all of comments made by Mark Zuckerberg during the hour-long keynote Q&A, so I went to YouTube to find video of the interview. Lacy talked about her visit to facebook, her previous discussions with Zuckerberg, her forthcoming book, her interview techniques, her indignation. . . herself.

In short, Lacy made the interview as much about her as it was about Zuckerberg. That, my friends, is an amateur mistake that a journalist of her position should not make.

But, oddly, it’s almost understandable. As social media becomes more mainstream, the media has become as much about the messenger as it is the message. I tried to address this, in part, in my post a few weeks ago about the egocentricity of many bloggers. The title of that post, “Does This Blog Make My Butt Look Fat,” is meant to convey that so many bloggers have made the media about themselves. It is not surprising, then, to see this same attitude seep into “conventional” journalism (although were I an editor at Lacy’s employeer BusinessWeek, I suspect I’d be harshly critical of staffers who adopt this perspective).

Too often, bloggers – and sadly journalists at large – forget about the audience. The story is all about the bloggers. What do they think about a person, a product, a post, an event? Never mind the lack of investigation or introspection required to conjure an informed opinion. And if the audience doesn’t get it, well, the blogger can hardly be faulted for that.

Now, it’s been 27 years since I sat in an introductory communications theory class, but my recollection – and I can still see Dr. Walton scribbling on the board – is that communication doesn’t happen without a connection and acknowledgment passing back and forth between the sender and recipient of a message.

In a video interview with the Austin American-Statesman after the keynote, Lacy said, “I think it was a weird fit, the audience,” effectively indicting a crowd of “geeks” for not appreciating “business strategy.”

In other words, it was the audience’s fault that Lacy followed a line of questioning that disquieted the audience. It was a “mob” that caused her, as the moderator of what was arguably the most anticipated sessions of the conference, to lose control of the hour.

(And don’t get me started on her contention in that interview that Lacy is “one of the only women reporting on tech.” Lacy stands in a long line of amazing women reporters, editors, analysts, and commentators who have covered the technology industry for more than a quarter century.)

But really, this post isn’t about Lacy. It’s about what we can learn from her and this experience.

As much as our culture at large and the blogosphere in particular might suggest otherwise, it’s not all about you. If any of us is to be respected as a blogger, commenter, analyst, reporter, journalist, then we must make certain that we keep the subject in sharp focus and remember that our duty is to communicate clearly to our audience . . . even when what we are communicating is our own, hopefully well-considered opinions.



  1. stepwinder said

    I’m reading Frank Luntz’s book, “Words that Work,” and the premise he returns to over and over again is that it’s what the audience hears that matters. If you’ve missed the audience (or worse, dismissed it), you’ve missed an opportunity.

    Lacy could do much to return this story to the fundamentals of communication if she stepped out of the story and imagined what that packed ballroom was there for that day. She continues to bulldoze that conversation by casting aspersions about the audience. The SXSW crowd deserves more and I think it’s fair to demand it of a keynote event.

    I can’t stop here without a word of support for Carla’s post as well. I skipped over a number of stories in the Austin-American Statesmen, Good Morning Silicon Valley and countless blogs. They were replaying the same story over and over again. I thought Carla’s post provided an important service of returning the story to its roots….the audience.

  2. patricia said

    what a smart, cool post. i wish i had time to blog about this. i think egocentricity in the blogosphere should be something bloggers should avoid – any time I bring up any of the names to the greater business world, nobody knows who any of the people are.

  3. Jim Forbes said

    1.,Had the interviewer prepared for the opener?
    2. Did Lacy take the time to understand the audience and try to prepare questions that would serve the audience?
    Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of keynoters and key note interviewers absolutely blow an opportunity by focusing on the wrong things. This was a classis example and it reminded me a lot of a publishing exec who hosted severak conference but seemed unable to get off the “I’m an important luminary, so approach me with averted eyes” page.
    I don’t care if an interviewer is male, female, androgenous, or what species they descend from. I’f I’m a paying attendee i expect the conference organizer to have people that make my investment in their event useful./ Lacy’s interview didn’t do that and her post interview clip left me with the feeling that most of the conference attendees weren’t worthy or didn’t understand her.
    Guess what? it was her job to understand the audience, not the other way around.
    But Mike’s original question on “what value can you add to the (discussion) is vright on point. As I blogger I try not to respond to every opportunity. Instead, I chose topics where my experience can add value, or where I can (on weekend posts) sharpen my wry humor.

    Jim Forbes

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