Thoughts on NewsFoo


Derek Willis


December 3, 2012

In NewsFoo style, a brief introduction to this post:

I was somewhat skeptical. I had an excellent time. There could be improvements.

If you’re looking for name-dropping and dish, this isn’t the post for you. I did meet all sorts of people who I hope to keep in touch with, and some very kindred spirits. You can probably figure them out via my Twitter feed if you want to. This is a mostly structural post, and I don’t want to leave people out, either.

First, the skepticism. Invite-only gatherings in general make me kind of itch, regardless of the intentions of the conveners and the scope and format of the gathering. There’s also quite a bit of noise in “future of journalism” type events, in which the natural tension between those working at news organizations and those working to improve on or replace them gets magnified in ways that bring out the worst in both. I was worried that I would not find enough sessions to interest me, or that they would have too much New York-Silicon Valley representation (why yes, I do live outside those areas!) and thus be unrepresentative of issues and concerns that affect the news industry. Finally, I work for The New York Times. We’re often cited as examples of this trend or that mistake, and that comes with the territory. But it’s dangerous to extrapolate too much from what The Times does or doesn’t do. My skepticism didn’t entirely disappear (more about that in the suggestions section), but it was tempered quite a bit by the program put on by O’’Reilly, Knight and Google.

Finding interesting sessions was no trouble at all. I took the advice of others and tried to hit up discussions with people I did not know, and that worked out quite well. These sessions were invariably led by passionate and smart people who truly wanted to test their theories and engage in a discussion about them. Circulating among the meal times and before/after sessions yielded lots of good introductions and conversations, even after nearly everyone asked whether I knew Nate Silver. We spent a decent amount of time talking about politics and political journalism, and the presence of Harper Reed from the Obama campaign did much to make those discussions serious and productive (there was some of the victory lap stuff that I had worried about, but more on that later, too). But we also talked about generating story ideas, about the beat system and about whether the filter bubble was a harmful thing, and what could be done about it.

There was a heavy Google influence on many of these sessions, which provides both a refreshing counter voice to those of journalists and a curious sort of reverence, as I mentioned on Twitter on Saturday. While it’s true that many of journalism’s issues, procedural and structural, cannot be solved by algorithm, hearing the perspective of people who care about news but don’t work in it was really valuable. Journalists, whatever their experiences and views, should always welcome such participation from people who care about what we do.

From what I know about the first NewsFoo, it wasn’t exactly an optimist’s convention due to the changes in the industry. This one had a pretty positive vibe, although some of that I think was masked by other factors. If President Obama had lost re-election, I’m pretty confident that NewsFoo would have had a much different feel, thanks mostly to the ideologically homogenous nature of the attendees (more on that in a bit, too). People enjoy talking about successes, but it’s necessary to talk about why success is sometimes very difficult and what success even means in certain contexts.

Now, the suggestions. Should I be invited to another NewsFoo (and I would gladly go again), these are the things that I would like to see changed or added:

A problem primer. I would suggest an introductory session on Friday evening in which people in the news business (and some of their technology peers) lay out an honest but not maudlin list of serious problems that journalism has. Our conversations should be informed by this background, because while there are many “solutions” to some of these issues, there are also many structural problems that prevent an easy fix. For our part, journalists should listen to problems that others have in approaching and working with us. Then let’s get to work on finding answers.

More local, more international. I’ll venture that not many folks leaving Phoenix traveling within the U.S. had to switch to smaller planes to reach their final destinations. Too many NYC, DC, SF folks, and I’ll be happy to give up a spot if it means getting bright people from Colorado, Kentucky or Minnesota. Local journalism & technology have issues that national journalism does not. Same goes for international representation.

Ideological diversity. I don’t believe there was a single person who voiced a political preference for anyone other than President Obama (to the extent that people did so). If there were, I’m not sure those persons would have felt comfortable doing so. This should be unacceptable for any gathering seeking a wide variety of input and voices. It would also help make conversations more thoughtful instead of enabling people to fall back on slogans and caricatures. The irony of hearing about filter bubble issues from a 99.999% crowd was a little jarring. Surely we don’t have to agree on politics to discuss substantive issues.

Sport. Let’s have some more sports people, and more discussion of sports and journalism’s role in covering it. Same with culture.

Give back. It would be nice to see NewsFoo attendees try to do something to benefit the area that hosts it. Is there something we could contribute to journalists in Arizona that would help them do their jobs?

Remind blowhards like me to shut up once in awhile. It’s usually the men who need this.