Remember how it all started? Remember those dreamy days back in the early 1990s when the advent of the internet promised a world democratized, maybe even united, by the easy and instantaneous flow of information?

Yeah, right.

“Once hailed as a tool that would bring people and nations closer together, the Internet has also had the opposite effect, segmenting users into interest groups,” states the introduction to this year’s Camden Conference. “Relying on vast quantities of data, social media sites … ‘microtarget’ specific demographic and cultural groups. Many observers of this media free-for-all see it as a threat to democratic institutions and individual rights, privacy and security.”

Maybe you’ve never heard of the Camden Conference. Although, with each passing year since its founding in 1987 “to foster informed discussion on world issues,” the forum has grown exponentially to attract more than 1,000 Mainers eager for a midwinter deep dive into topics of global magnitude.

Most years, the conference has adhered closely to its foreign-policy focus – it was founded, after all, by a handful of diplomats and intelligence agency types looking to keep life interesting upon their retirement to midcoast Maine. Gatherings in recent years have ranged from “Is This China’s Century?” to “Refugees and Global Migration: Humanity’s Crisis.”

But this year is different. When the crowds gather from Feb. 21-23 at the Camden Opera House, along with live-streaming venues in Rockland, Belfast, Portland and at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, the topic will be as close to home as it is universal: “The Media Revolution: Changing the World.”


Meaning this year’s gathering might be, shall we say, a bit more lively than usual?

“Simple answer, yes,” replied Matt Storin in an interview on Friday.

Storin, a former longtime editor of The Boston Globe whose journalistic resume also includes the Chicago Sun Times, U.S. News and World Report, the Maine Times and the Springfield (Massachusetts) Daily News, took over the organization last summer. While it’s fitting that his first conference focuses on the media, Storin said the impact of the digital age actually has been germinating as a conference theme for the past decade.

And with good reason.

Journalists the world over find themselves toe-to-toe with repressive regimes determined to control the flow of news and other information within their borders. The conference will feature three such truth tellers: Can Dundar from Turkey, Lydia Cacho Ribeiro from Mexico and Maria Ressa from the Philippines.

Social media’s emergence as a conveyor of, well, just about everything has many calling for tighter regulation of Facebook, Twitter and other platforms when it comes to both questionable content and personal privacy. Jeff Jarvis, an expert on the effects of social media and how useful a tool it’s become for the spread of disinformation, will likely take a different view.


“Not to put words in his mouth, but I think he sees that as a necessary evil,” Storin said. “He’s very laissez-faire about regulation, which I think will be provocative.”

Renowned photojournalist James Nachtwey, who’s covered war zones and other crisis spots for more than three decades, will examine the power of the image in an age where a single cellphone click can send a powerful photo to millions.

The list goes on. Waterville native David Brancaccio, host and senior editor of American Public Media’s “Marketplace Morning Report,” will serve as conference moderator. Nicco Mele, a faculty member with the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, will be the keynote speaker.

In short, the conference offers an opportunity for those so inclined to learn about the information explosion of the past three decades rather than simply fret about it. What’s not to like?

Some might point to the price tag. Admission for all three days ranges from $150 at the remote streaming locations (Rockland’s Strand Theatre, Belfast’s Hutchinson Center and the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall in Portland) to $275 for one of the coveted 500 seats at the Camden Opera House.

Cost notwithstanding, the conference typically sells out in Camden and most of the remote locations. According to Storin, ticket receipts comprise 40 percent of the nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization’s annual income – the rest comes from foundations and individuals.


The past few years, the conference has routinely drawn audiences of 1,200 or so people combined to its various locations. Most are from Maine. Storin said, and most fall into one of two demographic groups.

First, not surprisingly, are older folks.

“It’s the same thing as senior colleges and even certain kinds of volunteer work,” Storin said. “It is answering a need for a group of people who want intellectual stimulation, want to know more about their world.”

Then there are the high school and college kids – and this is perhaps the Camden Conference’s most promising attribute.

For starters, the conference’s Student Education Fund enables hundreds of Maine students to attend each year.

What’s more, 12 Maine high schools and four colleges – Thomas College in Waterville and University of Maine campuses in Orono, Farmington and Augusta – take each year’s theme and turn it into a semester-long course. At the high school level, there’s even an annual essay contest.


“We do know of one or two students – and every one is important – who basically have changed their career direction based on what they saw and heard at Camden Conference,” Storin said. “To me that’s very important.”

An economic impact study a few years back estimated that the conference annually pumps just over $1 million into the local economy at a time of year when it’s most needed. But its real value goes far beyond the cash registers.

From the lectures to the panel discussions to the Q&A sessions – rest assured, organizers strive to keep it as nonpolitical as possible – this year’s conference offers an antidote to this era of Twitter wars and cable TV talking heads that spend hours saying next to nothing.

“People in Camden look forward to this all year,” Storin said. “I mean they want to be there, they love talking about it and critiquing it, and they really add energy and vitality to the work we do. We couldn’t do it without that great feedback that we get from people.”

Interested? Go to and imagine an entire weekend of “informed discussion” on how we as a planet communicate.

Try finding that on Twitter.

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