Background on the idea: CopyCamp – an Unconference for News Organizations.
On Saturday the San Jose Mercury News held the first ever Copycamp. It’s amazing when you get to see an idea become a reality. What’s even better is taking a step back, figuring out what worked and what didn’t, in the hopes that the idea will improve and benefit others in the future.
How it all happened. Pre-planning.
This is probably the most laborious part of putting on any kind of unconference.
1. Organizing Principle: It requires somebody at the helms. That person was Chris O’brien. Without Chris’ dedication to the concept – wrangling in other Merc staff and inviting members of the public, this never would have happened. I’m not sure how many hours Chris put into planning this but I assure you – these things don’t organize themselves. Using the CopyCamp wiki will help – but won’t make it magic.
2. Food. Creativity and innovation require food. The Mercury News was gracious enough to provide bagels, coffee, sandwiches and sodas. Total money spent: about $350. I can imagine a local pizza place sponsoring food in the future, bringing the cost of having a CopyCamp down to $0.
3. Space: The Mercury News had a perfect assembly room space that could easily fit everyone. In the event a newsroom doesn’t have space cost goes up unless a local YMCA or civic-center place is willing to help out.
4. Focus: Unconferences are “unstructured” – but they have a focus. In this case the Merc was inviting community leaders into the newsroom to discuss issues of race and demographics and how the Merc could do a better job telling that story in the bay area.
What happened: The Day Itself
1. Setting up: People arrived 10am. By 10:30am everyone was socializing. Chris and the Merc team did an excellent job of getting a fantastic cross-section of community and civic leaders. Many of them knew each other, but we had nametags and plenty of time for everyone to do introductions.
2. Getting ready: By 11am the 35 in attendance sat in a circle and had already finished quick introductions (Name, affiliation and why they came). Then we asked participants to suggest topics that we could break into and discuss.
3. The topic breakouts: They were (a. Journalism that matters – ensuring that the Merc and journalism stay strong. (b. Racial marginalization – making sure certain topics aren’t overlooked completely. (b. The immigrant experience in the bay area. Each group had a note taker who, after lunch, reported back to the larger group.
Low point: I’m willing to admit the day didn’t go perfectly. The main issue was one of moderation. It was very easy for community members to accuse the Merc of not doing a good job or not listening to their readership enough. Conversely the Merc staff could have made the situation worse by retorting that their job is incredibly tough and the public just doesn’t understand (the later didn’t happen).
There were a few moments where it seemed that, as a paper, the Merc was taking on some harsh criticism. Criticism is good – as long as it’s put forth in a constructive fashion. This whole day was planned to be a constructive event, not a shouting match. Luckily it never got out of control. The community members involved had a genuine interest in seeing the Merc succeed and their criticism had the best intentions and the Merc staff never took a high road in reaction.
Still – the point stands. These situations require the type of moderation that is a developed skill. We could have benefited from somebody with more experience in managing open space technology, especially in highly volatile situations.
The High: The end of the meeting was certainly a high. There was discussion about “next steps.” YES!!!!!
As a group CopyCampers seemed excited about the fact that the news staff was listening to them and had invited them in to get their feedback. The paper belonged to them. They had the Mercs ears. Conversely it was a way for the Merc staff to explain some of the struggles and decisions they face day-to-day. That’s the type of understanding that allows groups to move forward.
Perhaps it will help lead to the Merc becoming the host of community blogs? Perhaps it was just a morale boost – but connections were made, people who want to make a difference were introduced and from that there is no telling what could happen.
Future vision: What now?
For the Merc: Chris will have to spread the word about what the community members said that day. He will have to report back to the collective if there are any responses from the higher-ups at the Merc. Perhaps in 4-6 months there could be another CopyCamp that is twice as large – and will be able to start where we left off this weekend.
The potential: I would to see a copycamp with a different focus on “lessons we can share” – where local bloggers and citizen journalists can come in and talk about blogging, podcasting, twitter, etc and news reporters can talk about beat reporting. My bet – each part wants to learn from the other.
You name the issue: I think a CopyCamp could be convened.
p.s. I will try and follow this post with video at CopyCamp.us.