Despite the secretive nature of Allen & Co.'s annual summer conference, about two dozen reporters from the national press are hovering around the Sun Valley Inn this week hoping to pick up whatever tidbits of news or media-industry gossip they can.
The conference combines serious panel discussions on cutting-edge happenings in the information and technology industries during the mornings with outdoor fun, such as whitewater raft trips, during the afternoons—a "camp for billionaires," as one reporter put it.
Ever since the New York-based investment firm held its first conference in Sun Valley in 1982, business reporters have been drawn by the presence of such industry heavyweights as Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Michael Eisner. For a few days each summer, said Associated Press reporter Michael Liedtke, Sun Valley rivals Wall Street for the potential deal making and industry tete-a-tetes that go on.
This year, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, The Associated Press, Bloomberg, Reuters and CNBC are all "covering" the event. Although they can't do so in the normal sense, since all of the conference's presentations are closed to the press, there's plenty to keep tabs on.
"It's all about the periphery," said Andrew Ross Sorkin, who covers mergers and acquisitions for The New York Times. "It's about what happens outside the formal conference—who's talking to whom, and about what to whom. An enormous number of transactions that have transformed the media—their seeds have been planted here."
Sorkin writes a column called DealBook. He's filing daily dispatches called "Sun Valley Diary" and said he plans to write his Sunday column on possible deals arranged at the conference.
Several reporters said one of the interesting undercurrents running through this year's event is the jockeying for position between established, traditional media and the Internet upstarts. The people who run television stations and newspapers need to figure out how to compete with the Web-based media or, failing that, buy them. The Associated Press's Liedtke said he considers an invitation to the Allen & Co. conference to be a "stamp of approval" from the establishment—and a sign that a new business is worth watching.
Reporters said that even if they don't get much breaking news from the event, it's a great place to make or strengthen contacts.
"It's a rare opportunity to see these guys outside the office," Liedtke said.
Victoria Will, a photographer for the New York Post, said the conference provides a chance to get stock photos of industry luminaries. On Wednesday, a gaggle of photographers in front of the Inn raised their cameras as each person filed out the door during a break—just in case it was someone worth getting a picture of.
All the journalists covering this year's conference appear to be serious business reporters—not tabloid snoops or paparazzi. Even so, there's an element of people watching to the coverage.
"It's when all the media moguls that we cover hang out together for a week," said Los Angeles Times business reporter Sallie Hofmeister. "People just eat this up in L.A. Everyday people read about it because it's the lifestyles of the rich and famous."
The media aren't invited to the conference, but organizers realize they're going to come anyway, and grudgingly put up with their presence.
"If everybody follows the ground rules, we get along pretty well," said Brian Caughlin, an employee of the security service that Allen & Co. flys in from New York for the occasion.
The reporters are prohibited from entering the Limelight Room, where the conference is taking place, and asked not to push for interviews with people who don't want to be talked to. On Wednesday, several burly security guards shooed photographers away from the front of the Inn. The photographers cooperated by standing a little farther back.
Tim Arango, a business reporter with the New York Post, said he does most of his interviews at the conference over the phone so his sources don't have to be worried about being seen with him.
The New York Times' Sorkin acknowledges that the conference's privacy allows participants to speak more openly with each other, but said it probably results in even more of a lure for the press.
"The secrecy has helped create this mystique about the conference, that there are important things going on here that you desperately need to know about but can't," he said.
Generally, the reporters and photographers hanging out at the Sun Valley Inn on Wednesday appeared to be having a good time hunting down their elusive quarry. However, Arango probably echoed the sentiments of a lot of people who work in the Wood River Valley when he said, "I do have fun covering the conference, but I have more fun when the work's done and I can go fishing."