News nerd rage: the trouble with conferences

I’ve been having somewhat of an existential crisis of late. I’ve been a speaker at multiple journalism conferences a year for more than a decade running now and I have started to wonder at the value of all that talking. Not that I feel all those sessions weren’t valuable — they were — but were they as valuable as they could have been? Could we have gotten a few more people over the wall? Could we have snagged a few more minds? 

Michelle Minkoff has been thinking about this too, and asked me for some advice. You should head over and read her post. It’s what got me off the carpet to write what’s rattling around in my head.

Every journalism conference I’ve been to are 90 percent panel discussions, maybe some hands-on classes and the remainder keynote speeches with a Big Name Speaker. How each conference selects speakers varies — some identify people who would be interesting on a given topic and invite them, others invite speakers to propose panels. 

What I’ve come to believe:

  1. The best panels are about things *anyone* can do, not about some crazy thing you did that no one will ever be able to do or only works because of some cosmic combination of factors in your city or state.
  2. Panels are a really, really crappy forum for very specific technical information. 
  3. The best panels entertain and inspire as much as they inform. They tell a story, from speaker to speaker to speaker. There is laughter and people leave the room ready to run through a brick wall. More tent revival, less reading bullet points. 

The problem with this line of thinking:

  1. Not everyone can inspire or entertain. There is a legit “diversity of voices” argument to be had about journalism conference panel speakers and it goes beyond the YAFWG (yet another f**king white guy) argument. Being a good speaker is a really good skill to have but it shouldn’t eliminate you from the speakers list. 
  2. We’ve shown people The Light! They’re ready to go out and do what you inspired them to do! Congrats. You’ve rubbed them on the carpet, sent them running out the door to … what? A newsroom that doesn’t care? A life of blindly Googling for help? There are people who take this challenge and thrive. There are far more people who are confronted with the vastness of the unknown and quit.

So, what can we do about this?

I think we have to rethink the News Nerd/technical journalism panel. We have to quit fooling ourselves that an hour at a conference is sufficient to do anything more than hold someone’s attention for an hour. We have to stop inspiring people and then giving them little direction after they walk out.

In Michelle’s post, Jeremy Bowers at the Washington Post sums it up thusly:

"There’s missing support for the middle-class of news developers. This is a particularly glaring gap, because it’s the most difficult part of the incubation of the adolescent coder."

I think I have an idea that might work.

Proposed: The Super Panel. It goes like this.

  1. We start with a panel designed specifically around inspiring, entertaining and informing. We make no secret of this — we celebrate it, in fact. We choose speakers specifically because they inspire and entertain.
  2. After the panel, those so moved are invited to an unconference-style session where the people who want to go further are thrown together with the panel’s speakers and others recruited to help to map out the next moves. Install some software? Map out a group project? Start hacking away? Up to those who show up.
  3. After the conference, the super panel speakers plus those recruited to help agree to run a study group/mentoring program online. Maybe through Google Groups. Maybe something else. I don’t know. Haven’t thought this all the way out. The point being there’s a support group of people who were at this session who are working on a project together to learn after the conference is over. There’s infrastructure and support in place after you leave.

I realize this completely changes the dynamic for panel speakers: Done right, there’s a lot of work that goes into preparing for a panel. This adds to that 100 times over. I also realize also that not every panel and not every panelist is cut out for this. But it seems like every conference could do a handful of these Super Panels in addition to the normal panels. Nobody has time to start some online study group based on every panel they went to at a three day conference. But one? Two? If they really want it they will make time. 

I think Super Panels would serve several purposes: First, it would take away the argument that conferences leave people high and dry and all alone after they’re over. Second, it would leave someone who claims that they want to learn this stuff with a lot fewer excuses. Third, it would much better serve this middle class of news nerd who is already in the choir, enjoys but doesn’t need the sermon and wants the technical stuff that just doesn’t come across well in a panel. 

Thoughts? Improvements?

Edit: See this if you think 1) I’m being specifically critical of any one organization and 2) you think I’m just writing this to write it instead of doing something about it.