Friday, July 10, 2009

Live from Sun Valley: an exercise in frustration

Reporters face big challenge in reporting on Allen & Co. event


By JON DUVAL
Express Staff Writer

Thomson Reuters reporter Robert MacMillan, left, and Ken Li, right, of the Financial Times, use Blackberrys to give quick news updates from the Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley on Wednesday. For the pair and the rest of the press corps, covering the five-day event is generally difficult due to limited access to the guests and events. Photo by Willy Cook

While many of the world's wealthiest technology, media and entertainment moguls mix work with recreation during the annual Allen & Co. conference, there is no rest for the reporters trying to get the scoop on the next big business deal.

For the past 27 years, the five-day confab has been marked by a notable lack of public information on the high-powered panel discussions on everything from current international affairs to the future of the Internet.

Likewise, the guest list remains the source of rumor and speculation, with confirmation on guests coming only when they are actually spotted on the paths crisscrossing through Sun Valley Resort.

With the high level of privacy and off-the-record discussions, the event is as easy to cover for reporters as an al-Qaeda strategy session.

"I go through an existential crisis approximately every 15 minutes," said Robert MacMillan, a New York-based reporter for the international business news source Thomson Reuters.

MacMillan and around half a dozen reporters from other esteemed media outlets, such as the Financial Times, Bloomberg and the Los Angeles Times, were tasked with the difficult prospect of gleaning information from guests about the daily goings-on and hoping for word on any blockbuster deals that might result from the conference.

It's largely an exercise in frustration.

Sequestered into a small corner of the Sun Valley Inn's lobby, the press corps members are both competitors and friends, all trying to get what little news there is first, but understanding of the fact that they are all facing the same challenges.

"If I don't see the other reporters, I start to freak out," MacMillan said late Wednesday morning. "Since I woke up at 7 a.m., I've had at least 25 moments where I said, 'I can't believe I don't have news and I bet everyone else already does.'"

For MacMillan, who is trying to enjoy his first trip to Sun Valley, he learned that luck can be better than persistence. Calming his nerves with a cigarette in front of the Inn, he encountered News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch strolling by himself, presenting a perfect opportunity for a quick chat.

"He told me that he wouldn't he wouldn't buy Twitter and wouldn't sell MySpace," MacMillan said.

According to Ken Li, a correspondent for the Financial Times, the news game is only getting harder for the reporters. Li, who first covered the conference in 1999 and has been dubbed the "dean" within the press corps at the resort, lamented that once again security levels were increased, further decreasing their already limited access.

"It seems every year they find something else we can't do," Li said. "The security team is perfectly nice about it, but we keep getting further removed."

Case in point: The reporters used to be able to set up shop in the Inn Lobby Lounge, which provided ample room for laptops and notepads. This year, the lounge is off-limits. The press have been squeezed into a small corner of the lobby, hunkered around a coffee table with little elbow room and a few power outlets to charge their computers and cell phones.

Causing even greater consternation: This year marks the first time reporters are not allowed in the Duchin Room. The lobby-level lounge in the Sun Valley Lodge is frequented by many of the guests after a long day of meetings and recreational activities.

With liquor added to the mix, the Duchin Room traditionally proved to be one of the best sources of material for journalists. This year, the reporters had to rely ever more on trying to squeeze in a few questions in the short walk from the Inn's lobby to the roped-off outdoor eating area.

MacMillan said that even though his editor knows how difficult it is to pry news out of the Sun Valley crowd, the tough economy and expense of sending a reporter to the resort means that there's still plenty of pressure to file stories. MacMillan said the editors are understanding until they see another story by a reporter on a competing Web site.

"It made me wish I hadn't quit smoking," Bloomberg reporter Andy Fixmer said of MacMillan's run-in with Murdoch.

Although they are trying to scoop the other reporters, there is an unspoken collusion among the group to mutually help one another achieve piece of mind, if only briefly. To wit; they often dine together, to keep track of each other.

On Wednesday, MacMillan held up his hand, covered in chicken-scratch writing. He explained that in rushing to an interview he forgot his notepad and resorted to using whatever he could find to take notes. Li, noticing that MacMillan's palm was filling up quickly, offered a few sheets of paper from his own notebook.

"We have to extend each other a basic level of human kindness," MacMillan said.

Jon Duval: jduval@mtexpress.com




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