Do news orgs have a responsibility for action?: Notes from BarCamp NewsInnovation 2011

Do news organizations have responsibility for their outcome?

That became the final and, I think, as yet unanswered close to a discussion I led during the final session of the third national BarCamp NewsInnovation, held Saturday April 30 at Temple University and rounding out the inaugural Philly Tech Week. [See past BCNI write ups here.]

Overall I felt this BCNI, with some 150 attendees from startup shops and some serious brands, featured more sessions that embodied that unconference spirit in being less presentation and more dialogue, something I don’t think I felt in the past. I was also interested to see the true step forward past social media and other tools and into sustainability, which I find to be a far more important place to be.

To that end and coming off Philly Tech Week, without preparation, I proposed a session in the day’s final hour: “A conversation on news as a convener.”

The audience in the same room as my session, which followed.

Maybe 10 or 15 attendees, left in the day’s waning schedule, came — including former McClatchy Vice President Howard Weaver, Politico deputy editor Dan Hirschorn, freelancer and rabble rouser Amy Z Quinn, producer Dan Victor, JLab editorial director Andrew Pergam [Full Disclosure: JLab is funding the Technically Philly Broadband2035 project] and other brilliant people — without much promised. All told, I think the hour conversation went somewhere.

The premise was that ?Technically Philly is a news site and so we build audience with content, but, as prominently evidenced by Tech Week, we’re moving rapidly into the space as convener in the more traditional sense of bringing people together in a room.

The ladder we seemed to follow:

  1. Is it a news organization’s role to host (and profit, through tickets and sponsorships) events?: The answer from the crowd was a resounding yes, suggesting this was hardly a new concept.
  2. Is it ethical for convening to lead to action?: I recently wrote about how I believe news organizations in the future will have to engage and act, but I was interested to hear this group’s take. With the help of my colleague Brian James Kirk, who joined the discussion, we shared my meeting with the City Planning Commission and first encouraging a dialogue around broadband in their citywide planning report, which followed a grant outcome of the aforementioned JLab grant project. We then encouraged the commission to have a lunchtime even to highlight the innovations in their plan to the tech community, which pushed on broadband and technology focuses. That and other stories shared, the group landed firmly on this being the age of ‘transparency, not objectivity,’ so that our editorial perspective was in line with our mission so provided that we disclose and share these conversations, it’s not only honest, it’s important.
  3. Then, I queried the group: Do news organizations have a responsibility for action?: I brought up that infamous June 8, 2004 Times-Picayune stalled levee reconstruction story, that predated the disaster that followed Hurricane Katrina. In the future, if not today, should the Times-Pic take greater responsibility on pushing on something its reporting shows could be so dangerous? For so long, it feels as if the role of news was to point out what was happening and let others make action, perhaps going so far as offering the spotlight to help the cause, but I’m not sure I believe that’s enough anymore, particularly when the web makes it so much easier to disclose (like when I went to a lunch with local ACLU leaders). Here is where the group split, though it did seem like many (Weaver and Quinn pragmatically, and Hirschorn emphatically) tended to feel it’s untenable for news to also serve as actors, if only in a convening manner.

I’m not so sure, but I feel like this conversation was elevated for me after the session. So thanks for all who attended!

Wall Street Journal's Zach Seward leading group session on social media ROI and metrics.

Other sessions I attended: See the full schedule here.

[Full Disclosure: I have close relationships with just about everyone who presents at BCNI, so, you know, nothing here is coming without that perspective.]

  • 10 a.m.: I was helping to make sure things were in order with the Open Gov Hackathon presented Tropo, which ran all day
  • 11 a.m.: Finding a business model for hyperlocal (led by Tedd Mann, Gannet) — Early, the conversation dragged, but as people got more acclimated, I felt the last 15 minutes were productive. Joined by Ben Ilfeld from the Sacramento Press, Mann from Gannet, Chris Grant from Joystiq, Wendy Warren from and others, I found myself in a group that was embracing the concept that news had to move past advertising, a concept I floated (with considerably less evidence and experience) in the same room, at the same event, in 2009. Now it was accepted and we had the experience to share: events, sponsorships, consulting and otherwise finding new ways to leverage audience. I shared my focus that news organizations need to find their ‘catering business.’
  • 12:30 p.m.: Zach Seward group session on social media metrics and ROI — The group session, depicted above, was new and served as the end of lunch. Zach is bright and detail orientated, so he left us with a lot to mull over, sharing details from the Wall Street Journal. Most prominently: more followers does not mean more click throughs, which, perhaps more than engagement, can be a trackable end.
  • 1:10 p.m.: Lessons from TBD: Dan Victor and team — I left very focused on the fact that this prominent D.C. experiment in online news was given only six months before the plug was largely pulled. We didn’t get to get the real lessons that we could  have out of this initiative.
  • 2:10 p.m.: Come help — Vice President Wendy Warren and new community engagement leader Dan Victor, who also led the previous TBD session, opened up a dialogue on how to push forward. I wished the group attending was larger and had fewer insiders (a handful of former Philly Media Network heads for example) so there could have been a more honest back and forth. I shared some thoughts and the overall tenor seemed to settle on three things: be more open (share), be more serious (fewer ‘photos with boobs,’ as Warren said) and be more relevant (personalize). I’m working on a more detailed post on my thoughts here.
  • 3:10 p.m.: Reshaping public media online with NewsWorks from WHYY — A session led by Shannon McDonald, with some perspective in the audience from her boss Chris Satullo, I was interested to hear an update from the roughly six-month-old online news experiment from this region’s NPR affiliate and public media hub. All in all, it’s an interesting project — built from the ground up, often linking out generously, fostering interactivity and featuring hyperlocal deep dives — but it’s actually quite new to have many big lessons, just six months. Satullo said they have the funding for at least two years, which seems much more promising than what TBD got (a bit more than six months). They did share traffic numbers, as can be seen below, showing a spike from 69,000 unique visitors in December 2010 after launch to 170,000 unique visitors in April. That’s good growth for starting from scratch — the numbers, of course, don’t include existing — but for the powerful, regional, general interest impact they surely want those numbers to continue to spike quickly, without cheating with cheap content. No easy measure.
  • 4:10 p.m.: Conversation on News as Convener — The session I led.
  • 5-5:30 p.m.: Closing — My colleague Sean Blanda addressed those left, had title sponsor Center for Public Interest Journalism chief Tom Jacobsen speak about the initiative, unveiled the hackathon projects and kicked everyone out for the after party, with free booze and food (thanks to CPIJ) at local college bar Draught Horse.
Traffic numbers for, shared during BCNI 2011 presentation April 30. As noted during the presentation, see that one of the top search terms is 'slabbers,' which is one of their more outgoing freelance photographers, who is constantly promoting the site while taking photos.



The Hackathon crew watching their projects be unveiled.

Take Aways:


  • This was the first BCNI we organized as full-time employees of Technically Media, our business that formally organized the event. …Any extra time and effort that would have afforded us, we took away and had less because of the overall Philly Tech Week.
  • Thank goodness we baked in the 10-minute intervals between sessions, which is an obvious, important step.
  • Name tags and whatever else to help foster new introductions, perhaps at the beginning of sessions, as we got some strong thoughts from @purplecar that there wasn’t enough mixing.
After party at the Draught Horse. This was the first year we had the sponsorship support to offer free booze and food.

Some of my favorite #bcniphilly tweets:

  • “Is it just me, or are folks in Philly really, really friendly?” @phillipadsmith
  • This year’s #bcniphilly was even more awesome than last. Brilliant group of people. Props to those who made it happen. @danielbachhuber
  • Feeling like a part of something @bcniphilly. @Brydels
  • @christopherwink real talk in p.m. posed good questions @ how and why we do what we do. @AmyZQuinn
  • Been doing that “add + to the end of links to track hits” thing a lot since @zseward showed us at #bcniphilly. Fascinating. @DSMacLeod
  • Sounds like #bcniphilly is the place to be this morning! @brianboyer
  • “Everyone in the newsroom should be thinking about community engagement, every moment they’re reporting.” – @TBD folk @elizakern
  • Flash ads have no place in the future of journalism. @danielbachhuber
  • Pick a language that someone you know knows well and is nice enough that you can bug them with inane questions, says @albertsun @greglinch
  • I remember at the first #bcniphilly, in 2009, it was a trending topic on Twitter. Oh, how times change …  @pazzypunk
  • Very little success with ad networks in the room too. Experiments, but mostly failures. @danielbachhuber
  • Key takeaway: For anything, define what success is beforehand. It’s much easier to figure out when you’ve hit it. @danielbachhuber
  • Zach Seward @wsj #bcniphilly: many followers don’t actually exist; therefore, more analytics value in clicked links  @sejorg
  • @zseward: “there’s mo correlation between the vast reach that an account seems to have and the actual reach.”  @DSMacLeod
  • One TBD lesson: you can’t ignore the big beats just cause the big boys own them. CIty Hall is still City Hall  @pkerkstra
  • Raymond Williams: “There are no masses. There are only ways of seeing people as masses.” via @zseward @BradyDale
  • “The colon is a very subtle call to action.” – @zseward on theories of retweetability @elizakern
  • Sacramento Press also does social media consulting, website building as a side business — 1/3 of their revenue.  @DSMacLeod
  • it takes about 18 months for a blog to start sustaining regular traffic. @charingball
  • Sacramento Press does social media consulting, because that’s what they’re good at. Sell what you’re good at. @bydanielvictor
  • My new Twitter strategy: Don’t give away the milk for free (in a tweet). Make them buy the cow (by clicking the link). @BurbsAndBeyond
  • TBD saw itself as a news org to cover the whole metro with only 8 reporters. What an uphill battle. @benilfeld
  • @zseward: Good news spreads faster on Facebook because of the “like” button. Bad news spreads well on Twitter.  @DSMacLeod
  • I like this idea of “showing your work” in journalism (like you do with your algebra homework). @pazzypunk