A press conference is a meeting of journalists called by an organization with something to say. Spokespeople make prepared statements and usually invite questions.
Journalists love press conferences because they provide exclusive information to only those media companies that can afford the expense of sending reporters. Press conferences typically exclude bloggers, the public and other riff-raff.
They can also involve something very dear to journalists: free food and beverages or even junkets to exotic locations -- all expenses paid, of course, by the host organizations or the media companies that employ the reporters.
And, finally, press conferences provide a platform for reporters to socialize with each other and show off in front of their peers by asking clever questions.
The whole press conference format is an archaic throwback to a now-dead era in which gathering a bunch of reporters into a room was the best or only way for government agencies and businesses to make announcements to the public. Now, obviously, the cheapest, quickest and most efficient way is by blog post, followed by a rapid-fire question-and-answer sessions online.
In a story this week about U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's meeting with reformed Libyan leader Muammar "Mad Dog" Qaddafi, the New York Times mentioned in passing that the State Department posted details of the meeting on the department's blog before it shared those same details with reporters there, "much to the ire of said reporters."
The piece pointed out that eight news organizations sent reporters all the way to Libya to be spoon-fed details of the meeting by a State Department spokesman -- which is why they were upset that the information was blogged before being announced at the scheduled press conference.
The timing of the State Department's blog post was newsworthy precisely because it was either an exception or an error. Which raises questions: On what basis should our government grant exclusive or early information to media organizations while deliberately concealing or delaying information to the citizens to which it's answerable? In an age where the government can talk directly to the public, shouldn't it do so (then of course allow the media to ask questions about that information afterwards)?
The Times said that State Department spokesman Sean McCormack started the blog a year ago to encourage discussion between embassies and between the department and the public. But communicating directly to the public without media spin was an unintended bonus. Why did it take the department so long to think of this? Why was this form of communication with the public "unintended" even years after technology made it easy and essentially free for it to do so?
Another major news event demonstrated the obsolescence of the press conference. A CNN anchor named Rick Sanchez made heavy use of Twitter in his coverage of recent Hurricane Gustav. He put calls out over the microblogging service for firsthand accounts of the hurricane's effect and posted questions to Twitter users inviting opinions and input. During his broadcasts CNN pointed a camera at his computer screen to show the results on the air.
While his colleagues were stuck in a press conference somewhere hand-writing notes from a prepared statement by authorities, Sanchez was reaching out to thousands of people to gather facts that his colleagues would only find out about later.
In the past, hurricane coverage might include sending a reporter into the path of the storm to interview residents, but most information might come from press conferences held by officials. You can see how powerful it would be for a far greater number of residents and dozens or hundreds of authorities to essentially feed real time information to reporters constantly, rather than holding press conferences.
The effect would be that reporters could essentially "attend" several, dozens or even hundreds of press conferences in a single day. In a crisis like a hurricane, this would be ideal, as city, county, state, government, scientific and other organizations all have data to share, and getting that information to the public as quickly as possible saves lives.
Press conferences were originally about necessity. Now they're simply an empty habit that's more about granting special favors to the elite media and excluding others for reasons nobody has been able to explain to me.
Traditional news organizations like newspapers are under pressure from Internet-based sources of news. As a result, they're laying off reporters and editors and cutting back on expenses. So why are they still wasting money on media junkets that exist solely for the purpose of attending press conferences?
Enabling reporters to witness events firsthand is one thing. But a press conference is not an event. It's just, well, a blog post, given orally, following by a comments thread. And that's best done online.