Some thoughts on #newsfoo

There's a small, private get-together under way in Phoenix this weekend called #NewsFoo that is catching some flak on Twitter as being exclusionary and elitist. Same thing happened last year, and I think also the year before. It's not public. It's not transparent. It didn't advertise and accept applications.

I don't attend a lot of big cattle-call conferences any more unless I'm asked speak or be on a panel and the conference will cover my expenses. I don't get much out of them. Neither I nor my employer has cash to spare.

But I do get something out of small, intense get-togethers. Three in particular stand out:

  • A private, invitation-only conference that Chris Feola pulled together at the American Press Institute in Reston several years ago. There I met some fascinating people, including Dan Bricklin, who invented the computer spreadsheet, and Brad Cox, who created Objective-C. One of the unexpected outcomes was a news XML standards project whose efforts eventually were merged into NITF.
  • A private, invitation-only conference at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg marking 10 years of Web news. The outcomes of that meeting included the community-blogging initiatives at Morris, including the Bluffton Today project, as well as important "social contract" language, developed in a breakout session with Dan Gillmor, that we've used ever since.
  • A private, invitation-only conference that Norbert Specker organized in Zurich in 2002 where I learned a great deal about organizational issues that's been helpful in the years since, and met a researcher in "cybernetic psychology" whose work led me to develop a software tool that we used internally for several years.

I was invited to NewsFoo this year and last year. I wasn't able to attend. Perhaps that colors my perception. Naturally I don't feel excluded.

But I'm sure there are many other very interesting get-togethers to which I'm not invited. We can't all be everywhere.

NewsFoo is an "unconference," a technique developed in the world of software development. An unconference is a gamble and the outcome will turn on the talents and interests and energies of those who attend.

This can be done through a process of self-selection and even within the framework of a big conference; BOF ("birds of a feather") sessions are common at software conferences. But even in the open-source software world there are many examples of closed processes and many private conversations.

I were spending my money, or my foundation's money, or my company's money, I'd want to raise the odds of success by trying to attract a combination of people that I thought would interact well. I don't think that is properly characterized if it's described as an attempt to create a "news elite."

It may be difficult to point to concrete examples of results from conferences of any stripe, but that doesn't mean there are no results. Every attendee has the potential to change the world. An idea might take years to bear fruit. Relationships developed at such meetings might lead to something years down the road. Any number of day-to-day decisions could be altered.

Whether the investment of time was worthwhile is a judgment the participants will have to make; whether the investment of money was worthwhile is a judgment the sponsors will have to make. I'm sure they will.


I was lucky enough to be invited, and to attend. It was a really incredible conference (oh sorry, "unconference") and precisely because it wasn't open to everyone. They intentionally don't invite 60% of the people back each year -- not to keep them out, but to keep new people going in, who then go back out and share what they learned. You can immediately tell when you arrive that people who do stuff -- versus those who just talk about doing stuff, or sideline critics -- are more likely to be on the invite list. It was really fun to get to hang out with a group of intellectual achievers from various industries (and startups) that care about journalism and news. There were some academics too, but they were active academics whose research projects are relevant to digital media today. It was also a trip to meet Tim O'Reilly, who was actively involved in sessions that interested him just like everyone else. I also got a kick out of meeting Esther Dyson.