The 36th Annual Graphics of the Americas kicked off last week with a forward-looking and -thinking keynote session by John Bracken, Director of Digital Media for the Knight Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropic organization that funds cutting-edge journalism techniques and technologies that help transform and advance communities. Mr. Bracken’s talk “Thoughts on Media Innovation” discussed his 15 years’ worth of adventures in navigating “this crazy new tool called the Internet.”

Mr. Bracken identified the three major trends that are transforming the world, and transforming not only journalism, but all of publishing: low-cost computing everywhere, broadband Internet (and often WiFi) everywhere, and mobile telephony, especially so-called “smartphones.” Social media, in the form of Facebook and Twitter, have become key communications tools, “and are both an enabler and a risk,” he said. In many ways, Mr. Bracken pointed out, the events in the Middle East of the past several weeks were triggered by people’s access to the Internet and mobile phones.

Services like Twitter and even good-old-fashioned mobile phones enable citizen journalism, which is transforming mainstream journalism in a wide variety of ways. Not only is it easier to get live “on the spot” reports from places like Cairo, traditional media outlets are turning to these feeds to supplement and complement their own coverage. National Public Radio (NPR) has a “curator” that trawls Twitter feeds and uses them to supplement its own reporting.

Mr. Bracken then discussed the Knight News Challenge, largely premised on the notion that, as he said, “people in journalism schools don’t know what the skills of journalists will need to be in three to five years.” The Knight Foundation invites anyone with an idea to submit it and they will fund what they feel is the most cutting-edge approach to news gathering. There are two rules: they must use digital technology, and they must distribute news that is in the public interest.

(I asked Mr. Bracken afterward why they had the rule about digital technology; is there no sense that there could be a cutting-edge, innovative print-based journalistic endeavor? “We [the Knight Foundation] already had a strong background in old media and we really wanted to give ourselves a kick in the pants.” The Challenge is also about educating themselves as old-style journalists.)

Mr. Bracken is excited about all of these new technologies, but admits that there can be a dark side. Issues he feels we will have to wrestle with are, how do we live our lives in public? How do we responsibly manage these tools? Athletes, for example, from the pros all the way down to college and high school have to be taught how to use Twitter and Facebook responsibly.

Another dark side is, at what point will speech be constricted? Will governments attempt to control the free flow of information online? He cited Fang Binxing, China’s “Father of China’s Great Firewall” and that governments closer to home have at least explored the idea of pulling the plug on the Internet.

“People in journalism schools don’t know what the skills of journalists will need to be in three to five years.” —John Bracken, Knight Foundation

“There is so much excitement about all this, that we sometimes forget about the stormclouds,” said Mr. Bracken in closing.

One of the goals of the Knight News Challenge is to help discover new sources of funding for journalistic endeavors, the implication being that the traditional source of funding—advertising—is becoming less and less effective. After the session, I asked Mr. Bracken what he felt the future of advertising is likely to be. “Last year, we saw commercial brands head to social media,” he said. “For example, I travel on American Airlines, so I follow American and the interaction I have with them is useful to me. Advertisers are using social media to engage and respond to customers.” That, he feels, will be the true future of advertising, although he admits that “display advertising will always be around in some form.”

There was a plethora of other sessions that looked at all facets of the business of putting ink or toner on paper, as well as how to take one’s business beyond print. PIA’s Julie Shaffer had conducted a morning session provocatively called “Interrogating Your Print Files.” Think of it not in a Law & Order sense, but as needing to preflight production files and assets not just for print, but for all aspects of a mixed/cross-media campaign.

Ms. Shaffer also conducted an afternoon session that pulled the camera back to capture “The Digital Landscape for 2011 and Beyond,” pointing out that “digital” can mean a panoply of things—new and social media as well as digital printing. Ultimately, Ms. Shaffer said, “print needs to be like Old Spice.” That is, a once-stodgy brand thought of as, literally, one’s grandfather’s aftershave, is now hip and hot, thanks (largely) to the Old Spice Guy, as well as the company’s embrace of old and new media. The print business needs to do likewise, and rebrand itself to reflect that fact that companies can do more than just print. “It’s about reinventing your business,” Shaffer said.

Frank Kanonik led a session called “The ROI of Variable-Data Printing: Perception or Reality?” in which he dispelled some myths about variable data printing, as well as explaining the slippery concept of “return on investment.” Mr. Kanonik detailed what ROI is, what it isn’t, how to calculate it, and how to explain—and sell—it to a customer. (Mr. Kanonik is normally seen in the role of the “counterfeiter” in the traditionally colocated Brand Protection Conference’s “shocking demonstration” of anti-counterfeiting technologies. The Brand Protection Conference was on hiatus this year.)

A Friday session called “A Printer’s Guide to New Media Revenue Streams” was presented by industry PR guru Helene Smith who explained how to integrate new and social media into a traditional print production environment.

The show’s cre8 design sessions looked at various design and production tools, such as Photoshop and InDesign, and also offered tips for cross/multi-media production workflows. One unique session was held in the Expo Theater on the show floor, where American Graphics Institute’s (AGI) Christopher Smith explained the EPUB e-book format, and how to navigate the often kludgy workflow to get a decent EPUB file out of current versions of InDesign. EPUB is the format of choice for the most common e-book readers, including the iPad, the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Sony Reader, and other e-readers. (The Amazon Kindle has its default format a version of the .mobi format, which can be created from an EPUB file.) Mr. Smith showed how to optimize an InDesign file created for print to output a decent-looking, usable EPUB file—and how to repair some common output problems.

Portions of this article appeared in the Graphics of the Americas Show Daily.