Lightning Strikes


Derek Willis


July 8, 2014

On November 19, 2009, Jaimi Dowdell of Investigative Reporters & Editors sent an email to more than a dozen of us asking about some ideas for advanced sessions for the 2010 CAR conference in Phoenix. Here’s part of my response:

I think the ideas are great. A couple of possible suggestions:

  1. A session of “lightning talks”, in which people present a single idea or technique in a short time. I think it would lessen the pressure on presenters and expand the universe of them, too.

Every once in awhile, I have an idea that pans out.

Lightning talks, a popular feature of many a conference, were almost completely unknown to the journalism community. A few of us had seen them at technical conferences we’d been to, but mostly it was a foreign concept, particularly for a conference that had always featured 45-minute sessions with talks by the very best data reporters and editors around.

The first session in Phoenix was in a pretty standard room. There were 10 talks that year, and half of the audience consisted of the presenters. Here’s the lineup:

Picking Ben Welsh to lead off was, in hindsight, a rookie mistake on my part, but the session was pretty well-received, and we all had fun doing it (all 25-30 of us). Fast forward to earlier this year, and here was the crowd for the lightning talks in Baltimore:

A big crowd

In five years, lightning talks went from being a small session competing with other sessions for attendees to a standing-room only event in the biggest ballroom the hotel had. I’ve been privileged to help run it, along with Aron Pilhofer and the folks at IRE who constantly encouraged and supported it. My favorite part of the last few NICAR conferences has been seeing new speakers (and some regulars) wow and entertain their colleagues.

And that’s why it’s time for me to hand over the lightning talk reins: because we have so much talent in our community, and five years is long enough for anyone to be heading up a showcase of our brightest. Starting this summer, Sisi Wei, who gave a remarkable talk in 2013 about making games for news, will be leading the session at next year’s conference in Atlanta. Besides being a smart and funny and good person, Sisi is also someone who has worked very hard to bring new people into our community, and that’s one reason she’s such a good person to lead lightning talks.

We’ve already talked in general about some of the changes that lightning talks needs now that it’s such a popular event. Mainly, these changes involve the talk submission and voting process, which in the past has favored people who pitched earliest and those who are well-known in our community. We’ve grown too much for that to continue. For many first-time NICAR attendees, lightning talks are perhaps the one place where they could see themselves being able to contribute; after all, it’s just five minutes as opposed to an hour. Working with the IRE staff, Sisi will be mindful of the need for lightning talks to be a place where we get to hear from a broad range of speakers with different levels of experience. It might also be time to retire the submission site that Aron hastily put together years ago.

None of this would be possible were it not for the openness of IRE, including Mark Horvit, who has been incredibly supportive of lightning talks, and of the IRE staff. All of us owe a debt to them and to that first round of speakers who tried something new, and made it a success.

Witnessing the growth of lightning talks at NICAR has been a joy for me. I have always looked forward to presenting the lineup of awesome presenters and watching as the audience were blown away by their passion and creativity. Now I get to experience that myself, and we all get the benefit that IRE has always provided: dedicated volunteers helping to make our profession that much better. I can’t wait to see what Sisi has for us in Atlanta.