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Shel Israel of Global Neighbourhoods [LexBlog Q & A]

January 15, 2008

Today’s guest in the LexBlog hot seat is one of the blogosphere’s most well-known faces: Shel Israel, who began his career as a reporter and has since established himself as a leading name in the technology industry.

In addition to speaking engagements and business advising, Shel co-wrote

Naked Conversations with Robert Scoble in 2006 (the book recently celebrated its second birthday), and continues to operate a widely read blog called Global Neighbourhoods.

1. Rob La Gatta: I’m a journalism student, and there seems to be a disconnect between my peers (who are optimistic about the exciting future possibilities of the field), and our professors, who have a much bleaker outlook. As a journalist yourself, do you think current journalism students picked a bad time to enter the business?

Shel Israel: First, let’s clarify what is strong and what is imperiled. I think the traditional media companies are going to have a great deal of problems so long as they remain loyal to paper distribution of products and one-way electronic broadcast. Quite simply, slicing and processing trees, smearing them with ink, putting them into plastic bags, then taking a fleet of fossil-burning vehicles to distribute them onto driveways, is inefficient and quite bad for the environment.

So, the companies that still do this are hurting financially, and they respond by cutting the numbers of journalists. In the U.S. from the year 2001 to 2003, I’ve read that there were 75,000 fewer reporting and editing jobs in traditional media. That looks quite bleak.

However, simultaneous to that, online journalism has flourished. There are more news gathering organizations online every day. Many are doing quite well economically. I would wager that the day will come quite soon when the New York Times makes greater revenue online than they do off. As the revenue grows, so will the number of paid journalists.

In any democracy, we need journalists, to watch and report on the rest of the institutions. That just isn’t going to die. But there can be no individual freedom without economic freedom, and right now the number of paid journalistic positions in the U.S. is not growing fast enough.

I believe it soon will, and that the profession of journalist will be overwhelmingly online.

2. Rob La Gatta: Many companies, at least within the tech world, seem to operate corporate blogs that offer a degree of transparency to the company’s operations. Is it reasonable to assume that eventually, operating a blog will be a pivotal tool for gaining the trust of the general public?

Shel Israel: I think that we are reaching the day when an enterprise-related blog is an everyday tool, just like e-mail or phone. When your generation replaces my generation, in a few short years in the marketplace and the workplace, blogs will simply be a normal tool of conversation – and among the best for scalable conversation.

But keep it in perspective. Companies are fundamentally about products and services. You can have great products and be a poor user of social media tools. Look at Apple and Google. Will this backfire on them? Maybe. Maybe not.

But for most companies, there is a need to get closer with customers: to understand what they like about you and what they like about your competitors, to get a sense of what they want you to do next. Social media is the most efficient way to do that so far.

3. Rob La Gatta: It seems like while a lot of professionals utilize new media, the general public is less quick to adapt. Is a mass embrace of these tools – newsfeed readers, for example – something that will inevitably occur over time? Or will we continue to see this technological divide until the old model is rendered obsolete and retired?

Shel Israel: I disagree with your premise. When you add up the number of people reading blogs, watching online video, [and] engaging in social networking, you probably have a number nearly equal to the number of people reading newspapers and watching TV.

For example, there are 125 downloads on YouTube for every New York Times newspaper sold. Until a couple of months ago, Facebook was growing by a million [users] a week.

I don’t see a technological divide. I see a generational divide. Younger people are in the habit of using social media tools and most older people are not. As the younger people age and replace my generation, their habits will not change.

4. Rob La Gatta: You wrote last month that through the use of blogs, PR specialists have an opportunity to “have actual relationships with the public.” Do you believe that traditional PR firms – those who care less about entering the conversation than they do about hyping up one side of it – will become a thing of the past?

Shel Israel: I think traditional practitioners can keep engaging in doing what they have always done and end up driving off into Jurassic Park, where they can hang out with the other fossils.

The trends are clear on what is happening. In terms of PR, the tipping point has passed. Those who see their jobs as engaging only traditional media understand that the traditional media, while still influential, is growing less so. They understand that the demographic is changing. I could have my numbers off a bit, but 30 years ago 70 million Americans watched network TV. The viewer’s average age was 30. Now, 30 million watch network TV [and] the average age is 60. There is a vanishing point, and like objects in the rear view mirror, it is nearer than some might think.

5. Rob La Gatta: Forget for a moment all of the professional recognition you have received. What do you find to be the most personally rewarding aspect of blogging? As a blogger, what continues to drive you?

Shel Israel: If I were really famous, I would get a much better seat in fancy restaurants. I started blogging to get back in shape as a writer after having spent 25 years in PR. I figured if I were going to be broke, I might as well get back to what I love.

I asked four people to collaborate on a book with me; the fourth guy, Robert Scoble, felt he had something to say about corporate blogging. I began the project as a writer [and] I thought my next book would be on another topic.

But then I started talking to the people who were immersed in the blogosphere and I started to understand the magnitude of change involved. I evolved into an evangelist for the conversation over the monologue, and that turned out to have elements of the “power to the people” anthem we sang when I came of age in the 60s.

I blog now because I feel like I have something to say, and I am gratified because there seem to be some people who want to listen and then talk with me.

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