Because I had to leave early, this is only half a review of half a day of Saturday, May 2nd’s BarCamp News Innovation (BCNI, BCNI15) put on for the 7th year in a row by Christopher Wink and friends, supported by many sponsors including Temple’s Center for Public Interest Journalism. The other half is rant, which I’m sure you could predict. It’s shortish, I promise.
A Dunbar’s number-like 150 people showed up to BCNI Philly, which was a smaller attendance number than at last year’s BCNI run in conjunction with Content Camp (an unconference dedicated to writing for online–mostly commercial–outlets. Disclosure: I was on the organizing committee of Content Camp, which was headed up by David Dylan Thomas).
Since I’ve been streamlining in order to work on creative projects, I debated whether or not to attend BCNI this year. I’m trying to protect not only my time but my concentration by attending only those events that further the purpose of my professional and personal wellbeing. Since lately I don’t see myself with much of a chance in essay, op-ed, or science reporting, I’m walking away from full participation in the newspaper world for now. But I’m glad I went, even if only for a little bit. Here are some highlights:
*Making new friends
*A GF lunch! (Thanks, Chris! What a nice surprise!)
I have friends whom I only see once yearly at the BCNI conference, so I’d probably go to just have a cup of coffee with them. This year I had a charity event at 3pm in King of Prussia, so I had to bail out at 2 and miss happy hour (the best part of BCNI), but I still managed to check in with all of my favorite BCNI regulars.
Like in many journalism meet-ups, innovators were all over the place. VOX.com’s Lauren Rabaino showed some of the genius reactionary design objects the site put together, e.g. a meme generator, along with some usage statistics. Super adorable: Ms. Rabino showing VOX’s very human thinking process in developing a ticket system for editorial help. As a person who was on a team to create, setup, populate and implement an internal tiered tech help desk system for a major worldwide manufacturer, I thought Vox’s editorial-helpdesk effort was super cute. Helpdesk is an instinct, and they carried it out naturally and plainly, like toddlers learning to walk. No instructions needed. Of course, if they had time for a good consultant Vox.com would’ve already had a ticket system in place (Lesson: If you’re out there and you service requests of any nature – not just tech- then look into the concept of a ticketed helpdesk system!). I was tickled by the editors’ “innovation,” how they stumbled upon it, and how Ms. Rabaino presented it like it was new. I’m both encouraged and dismayed at this, as on one side it’s evidence of human adaptation, but on the other side, it’s evidence that journalism is way too insular.
Which brings me to my next point, a rant you’ve all heard before from me: the powers-that-be in journalism are still lost in their own little world. This may be biased and wrong, but my impression of world of traditional journalism is that it suffers greatly from myth. As I am not a J-school grad I’m officially an outsider, so take this as you may: the delusion surrounding journalism seems so utterly complete that any new products or services that bounce off mainstream media, e.g., web-only news sites, news aggregator apps, etc., are labeled as marketing, content creation, or perhaps even Computer Science instead of “journalism” and are seen by old school newspaperers as wholly separate from journalism and its purpose.
BCNI15 felt very newsroomy. Unlike last year, the marketing folks weren’t around. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not a marketer; I’m a behavioral analyst and writer. The marketers, though, do seem to inject a certain kind of “What’s next?” energy into a conference. In this year’s sessions I attended up until 2pm, I heard and/or felt the old newsroom mantras of “Hail the almighty longform!” and “Print is still king!”
Increasingly I find myself filled with only harsh assessments of journalism to share. Despite what you may read in my tweets and this blog, I really don’t want to be a critic. I can’t help being annoyed, though, each time I hear a great idea followed by some newsroomer saying why it won’t work. I mean, I get it. They are basing their opinions on evidence collected through a lifetime of reporting. But when a print side of a newspaper tells the web side they can’t publish a lifestyle feature until after 6pm so as not to get scooped by broadcast news, I want to pull my hair out.
Usually, when a person gets this level of miffed at anything – as I am with the seemingly slow rate of change in journalism – it signifies a lack of understanding of the issue. I’ll fully admit I lack understanding. But from where I sit, there are many, many real innovators in the journalism world, yet I still can’t customize my Philly.com page or pay the New York Times for a la carte verticals. Even old school ogre CABLE is switching over to a la carte channels. Newspapers seem far, far away from phasing out print or realizing they are a customer service organization.
Yes, “customer” service, not public service. Newspapers definitely fill a public service, but they are not immune to customer satisfaction levels. There seems to be a basic lack of knowledge about the mechanisms of human behavior and how to design a product around those mechanisms. People don’t read the paper to be informed. They read news because it is a habit developed around their self-identity. Many times, the habit is formed in young years and beyond the conscious knowledge of the reader. Now that GenX and Millennials aren’t buying day-old news delivered in inky, non-ergonomic, bulky systems, the business of journalism is finally waking up to the fact they were wrong for centuries about why people read the newspaper. Surprise!
Look up how procrastination is tied to mood, how behavior and habits form a self, and how the underlying Internet cultural values of wit and humor influence users, and you’ll get an idea of why people have the HuffPo or Buzzfeed as their homepage instead of Philly.com. The inherent, die-hard belief that journalism’s main purpose is to further democracy is working against it’s own mission. If newspapers (now called news sites) continue to refuse to play a part in the identity and daily habits of the individual, then democracy will be dammed because no-one will read the free speech you’ve put up on a paid firewall site. If your main purpose is to serve the public, then find out who your public is and how they work. Your broadcast agenda only works if there is someone on the other side to absorb it.
Sorry. I feel like I’ve said this all before. My own personal news cycle is on repeat.
BCNI is always a great conference and next year I hope we can get even more attendees. BCNI is the place to hear about the next and new in news, even if there are 1 or 2 of the traditional anchors to drag into the 21st century. Come next year. I’ll be the one tweeting in the front row.