Philadelphia and the pace of innovation

Exactly a year ago today, I worked my last day in corporate at a newspaper company and walked out the door to three days of technical unemployment before I started my new job at a startup on a Monday.

Of course, those three days of unemployment were highlighted by a Saturday spent in Philadelphia at Barcamp News Innovation.

An important Saturday, in fact, the culmination of a handful of regional BCNI meetups, all spawned with the idea that the Web Producers, Multimedia Shooters, Online Editors, faculty members, and journalists with boots on the ground and hands on the keyboard across the news business on a daily basis were probably a better group to get together to talk about the future of news than the CEOs of a bunch of newspaper companies.

The BCNI origin story, from my point of view, started with a closed-door “emergency summit” of newspaper CEOs in November 2008, hosted by the American Press Institute. Other than some diligent liveblogging from Chuck Peters and a few scattered blog posts from others, there wasn’t a lot of news out of it, except for the fact that the participants planned to reconvene six months later to continue the discussion.

Now, November 2008 was a long time ago, and these days I have friends at the API and a few more newspaper companies who might have been in the room at the time, so I’m not going to look back at this period through the same lens, but at the time, the reaction in what I’ll call the Practical News Innovation community was one of jaw-dropping disbelief that anyone thought they had six months to spare.

Blog posts were published, a wiki sprouted, and plans were made. Jason Kristufek took a lead role in getting things organized and inspired. Regional meetups were held, where anyone and everyone was welcome to an open, Barcamp-style discussion about the future of news. D.C., Chicago, Seattle, Cedar Rapids, Mizzou, Portland, others… and then a sort of national version at the end of the run, in April 2009 in Philadelphia.

In May 2009, the six-month clock on the emergency summit ticked by unnoticed, and as far as we know, there was no organized follow-up meeting. (I’d welcome my friends at the API to comment on what was/wasn’t planned and what happened, naturally.)

That brings me back to Philadelphia.

It’s time for BCNI Philly again, tomorrow, and I want to share some of the principles I walked in with last year:

  1. You should lead a session. If you’re planning to show up, you’re probably passionate about something. Talk about it, plug your laptop into the projector, and share some stories, successes, failures, or inspiration.
  2. As David Cohn often reminds us, trying something  is often cheaper than deciding whether or not to try something. If there’s an opportunity to build a prototype on the spot for an idea that brews in the room, do it. As Matt Waite would say, demos-not-memos. There will be Web developers present. And people with ideas. Put them together.
  3. If you find a session getting derailed by an argument from 2005, such as “are bloggers journalists” or “can citizens ever really be journalists,” etc., politely shut down that thread of conversation and move on. Instead of talking about theoretical issues, talk about practical issues. Rather than making blanket statements about, for example, whether newspapers should moderate all comments or require real identities, share stories about practical ways your news organization has solved or failed to solve this problem.
  4. Practical solutions should outrank blanket generalizations at every turn. If you find yourself uttering the words “newspapers should,” pause for a moment and think about which newspapers you’re talking about. Be specific. Someone in the room likely has specific experience to share which can inform your ideas.
  5. Make new friends. This should be obvious, but in a Barcamp setting, it can be easy to just go watch your current friends give their talks and lead discussions. Instead, make an effort to try at least one new thing. If you’ve never heard anyone talk about a category like “mobile,” for example, do so.

(An hour or so after writing this list, it seems obvious and self-evident. I know I don’t have to tell you these things, but I’ll just leave it here on the off chance that it helps frame the day for two or three people.)

Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, in your office with the Internet shut off in front of a blank whiteboard. (Although that sounds mildly pleasant, doesn’t it?)

Innovation happens when you put together a group of brilliant minds with real-world knowledge of the ingredients in play. That’s what I think Barcamp News Innovation is all about.

I’m posting this today to encourage you to go, and to share what I learned last year, but also to send my regrets — I’m not going to make it up to Philly this year, thanks to a lot of really fun domestic responsibilities here at home. Essentially, between moving into a new house and having a baby due in a few weeks, every weekend day is a precious commodity around here. So be sure to give Sean Blanda a hard time on behalf of me, and make a lot of jokes about the Phillies losing to the Yankees in last year’s World Series. I’d appreciate it.

Quick interview for BCNIPhilly

Sean Blanda hit me up today for a quick attendee interview for BCNIPhilly — that’s BarCamp NewsInnovation for the uninitiated, and you should show up to tell everyone about that cool project you’ve been busting your butt on for the last N days, weeks, or months.

Here’s the tough last question from Sean:

“Final question, and its an impossible task. With one word, finish this sentence: What the news industry really needs is ___.”

Anyone care to answer that?  It took me two words.

And then I expanded.