CopyCamp: An Unconference for News Organizations

The first in a three part series: Practical tips if you want to change your newsroom.

At the beginning of 2008 there was a flurry of blog posts calling for a change in newsroom culture. It seemed like a barrage of good pointers, concerned evangelists and general musings. Scott Karp has a good wrap-up post in case you missed the conversation.

I'm not sure where the flurry came from, but my immediate reaction remains the same. I think the time for evangelizing is over. What I'm interested in are next steps, practical tips, advice and actionable ideas that can really change newsroom culture, not just echo the idea that change should happen. That's what I hope this blog post is – a piece of practical advice that any newsroom could easily implement (no technical set-up required), to adapt their newsroom for the networked age. If you want to change your newsroom culture but don't know how – read on.

It's called CopyCamp.us. It is cheap, non-technical, hyperlocal and easy to implement. In fact, the San Jose Mercury News has already committed to hosting the first CopyCamp in April as part of their newsroom rethink. (In full disclosure copycamp is my pet project, but I am not making any money out of it.)

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Below is an explanation of what CopyCamp is and why every newsroom should steal this idea. The only prerequisite to taking this advice is accepting a fundamental rule of the internet: "Trying stuff is cheaper than deciding whether or not to try it." Compare the cost of paying and feeding someone to do a few weeks of PHP
hacking to the full cost of meetings that typically go into a big company
decision.

Change Your Newsroom by Inviting The Public to Define It.

Copycamp.Us is an expansion of the growing unconference meme to journalism, turning local newsrooms around the country into public resources.

If you already know what an "unconference" is – you are ahead of the game and can skip to the next section. Cliffsnote version: Think Meetup.com on steroids: an unconference is like a "meetup" but with a stronger sense of purpose and a more structured/longer time commitment.

The longer description
From Wikipedia:

"An unconference is a conference where the content of the sessions is driven and created by the participants…during the course of the event, rather than by a single organizer, or small group of organizers, in advance. To date, the term is primarily in use in the geek community."

Unconferences have spread to various fields: BarCamp (a technology unconference), PodCamp (Podcasters and bloggers), RootsCamp (grassroots activists) and more. It is the physical meeting of online communities, so people can shake hands, network and share what they know in specific niches. They are decentralized – independently organized in cities around the world. These meetings, while similar in form (unconferences), are unique in content, serving their local communities.

A BarCamp in Los Angeles and New York will be different in content, but similar in format: Anyone can attend (space permitting), anyone can participate (everyone is asked to help in some manner, even if its just picking up trash) and all participants recognize one law and four principles.

For more reading on Unconferences, check out the reporting we did on the subject during Assignment Zero, or this Wired News article I wrote about BarCamp New York.

So You Decided to Start a an Unconference for Journalists?

Copycamp.us will spread unconferences to journalism by organizing newspaper unconferences, so professional and citizen journalists or just interested readers in the community can meet on neutral ground, face-to-face and build working relationships. It will turn the newsroom into a community center, so news outlets can work with their audience to tackle community issues.

Journalists appear to be losing the social networking battle online but we don't have to lose out on networking in total. Unconferences are organized online but their power comes from face-to-face geographic networking, that's something Facebook can't do, but any local newspaper with dedicated reporters can.

It is a chance for bloggers to share constructive criticism and ideas with their paper and for the paper to respond back in kind by sharing their experiences in daily reporting on the community. This will put newspapers back in a relationship of educating and establishing community identity.

Ready to get started, find out how here.

Oh No! Not Another Journalism Conference.

Traditional journalism conferences are attended by closed networks of journalism experts who fly in to share what they have learned with other journalists. In short – my biggest complaint about journalism conferences is that it is filled with journalists. The few journalism unconferences I've been to have also fallen to this fate.

These traditional conferences serve a purpose, but they don't discuss practical matters for any community (how to better cover a school board) but focus on abstract journalism problems. But like I said before, what I'm interested in now are next steps, practical solutions, tips, etc. Unconferences work best when concrete problems are discussed creating practical solutions for a specific community – that only happens if a LOCAL paper is addressing LOCAL issues with LOCAL journalists and readers present.

Who Would want to do it and why.

This will benefit any newsroom that wants to widen dialog with local readers who might help them report on the community. You will attract citizen journalists who want to share lessons they have learned in terms of technical abilities (start podcasting in 10 min) or covering a specific beat (here's what I know about our local school system?). For more on the citizen journalism angle go here.

Relationships could also go in reverse: Some citizen journalists will come to learn from professional journalists – and in turn, the professional reporters will gain trust and respect in the community.

Why: To turn newsrooms into classrooms. At Copycamp nobody is a "teacher," but everyone learns. Communities
come together, organized online, and leave with a greater sense of
purpose, connection and identity. To create working relationships between professional and citizen journalists and local readers, creating better local coverage. To put the newsroom back in the center of a town's democracy and in a pivotal role in defining a community's identity.

The Bigger Vision

What if instead of every newspaper struggling to get a social network on Facebook, the editor just invited the network over for lunch?

This is something any newspaper (or the entire industry) could adopt. It is relatively cheap and highly effective. Newspapers could regularly hold Copycamps and they would be anticipated events, a chance to pollinate ideas between reporters and citizen journalists in the area.

Unless a fight breaks out there is no such thing as an unsuccessful unconference. At these events people meet, greet, share ideas and network. An unconference might not result in a new business model that will save the local paper, but it will, without a doubt, introduce people who care about the community and the news, ie: The sports reporter will meet the soccer mom who will donate photos of high school games. Or it will introduce neighbors to each other who are concerned about the same local tax measures. Every connection is a victory.

The final goal of Copycamp is — to be a step in the direction of turning newsrooms into public resources. Currently newspapers are closed organizations. I imagine newspapers of the future to be more like libraries. They will need to be a civic space where people learn from each other. That is what every Copycamp will help move communities towards. People will learn more about the process of reporting in their local communities and journalists will learn more about the resources their readers can provide in helping them report. This will happen at every Copycamp that takes place.

The Citizen Journalism Angle
Copycamp.us is a chance to get bloggers to work WITH the paper even if they are not working FOR the paper.

For citizen journalists, this is a way to help their local newspaper. John Wilpers, former editor of BostonNow, Jeff Burkett at the Washington Post and Jan Shaffer from J-Lab have all said, time and again, that citizen journalists aren't looking to make money. What they want is to receive recognition and perform a civic duty. But often, citizen journalists don't have an easy way to act on those ambitions alongside the newspaper. Instead, they feel they have to work against the paper.

At Copycamp, citizen journalists can meet local beat reporters and find out EXACTLY what they can do to achieve those ambitions. They can find out what photos the newspaper needs help getting, or what meetings they just don't have the manpower to attend. And they will have had the face-to-face contact that would imbibe somebody to really follow up on a request for help. Copycamps would be designed so that readers feel that the local paper is theirs again. Local newspapers need to form working relationships with bloggers. Newspapers can use Copycamp as a way to positively tap into the natural energy of their readers and connect hyperlocal bloggers with reporters.

Even if you hate social networking this works
There are lots of attempts right now to connect newspapers with bloggers. News organizations are embracing and trying to figure out how they can whole-heartedly become part of the social media revolution. All these attempts are based online, because they are trying to tap into online communities. Although it seems unintuitive, the most successful networking of online communities happens at physical meetings. Copycamp would be the physical meeting of digital communities. The meetings would be organized online and would consist of people that have digital identities, but it would be a chance for those identities to show their real faces, shake hands and sit down to have a real chat.

Time to Get Started

  1. Visit the blog and MORE IMPORTANTLY use the copycamp wiki.
  2. examine how the San Jose Mercury News is organizing their CopyCamp
  3. Copy it, using a different date and location (duh)
  4. Spread the word using whatever publishing medium you have.
  5. Have fun and keep your ears open. You just might learn something.

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This is my January post for the Carnival of Journalism. It is currently hosted by Adrian Monck.

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