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Conferences: How can we help more people feel dumb?

Posted by on Oct 3, 2011 in Blog, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

UPDATE: More of my thoughts on this are peppered in the comment section of a fantastic post on this subject by Matt Waite, posted after I published this.  I think he may have a solution to the issue I lament here.  You go read now.  

But before you do, I’d also like to make clear that this ramble is not a comment against any particular professional organization.  I have enjoyed my speaking roles and hope to continue them, and I have been humbled to have been given the floor.  I enjoy the conferences I attend, and deeply look forward to them.  Yet, as I do in all aspects of life, I’m just trying to think about how things could be improved.  Not an attack on a person or an organization.  Cool?  Cool!

How do we push ourselves to keep learning? When we gather together as journalists, how do we ensure that we don’t just have a good time, and feel inspired, but that we *do* something about it? How can conferences help us all to get even better at what we do?

I’ve been wrestling with this question a lot recently, and as is often the case, if I think about something enough, it manifests itself as a post.

Conferences need to change — the sessions are getting complacent and easy, and they’re not making me feel dumb. That’s not okay. The Online News Association conference, which I enjoyed greatly on a social level, was a great example of this.

This will be long, as I work through this, but I think it’s something worth considering. To start, let me try to explain what it is I want from a conference panel. Because I’m not getting it.

Stupidity: The best feeling in the world

When I was a student at the Medill School of Journalism, several smart professors told me to try to get to a job where I felt stupid all the time, because that is how I would grow. I never quite believed them, but kept that in my pocket. I got a glimpse of that feeling when I was an intern at the LA Times, never quite felt it at PBS, and I feel it now, every second of every day. And I’m here to tell you that I LOVE feeling dumb.

I know I have a long way to go with my skills. I try to self-teach, but I never feel I’m going fast enough, and I feel as if I lack direction. Enter Jonathan (who, you’ll notice, has replaced poor Derek as the mentor who appears in every blog post. Doesn’t mean I respect Derek any less, it’s just a new phase in my career.) The point here is that I have a “check-in” call, in which Google figures just as prominently as Jonathan sitting on the other end of the phone. “How is that going to work?” he asks. I start typing frantically. The actual things I’m working on aren’t the point here; just know they are Complicated Projects that are, as Jeremy Bowers has put it, encouraging me to “punch above my weight.” And that, my friends, is an understatement.

One of my favorite parts of these calls is my emotions upon hanging up. I quickly go through the stages of pressing disconnect, having everything go a little fuzzy while I’m bewildered, looking at two pages of frantically typed notes, moaning and wanting to slam my head on my desk, and smiling and laughing to myself. Because I know that I’ve never attempted things this Hard, but I also know that I refuse to accept “No” for an answer. I will complete what is asked of me.

And I know that what I know by the next call will be more than I know now. I will move smarter, and faster, and better. And the next call, I’ll feel dumb about something else. I will grow. I know it will be okay, because Jonathan tells me there is an eventual mastery of this type of work when you realize ” a) I could understand anything that’s been built and b) I’d love creating in this medium forever.” So, I chip away at this seemingly insurmountable, yet finite, set of skills I seek to possess. And if the total amount of skills is x, after one call, I’m 1 unit closer to knowing all of x. It’s the best feeling in the world. Maybe only the geeky journos get it, but it’s beautiful, in its way. And it’s a blast!

But I’m lucky. I have a Jonathan, and a Julian, and a Feilding, and a Shazna, and hundreds of reporters and editors, and a whole team of other cartographers, designers, developers, every resource I could want. And before AP, I had a Ben and a Ken at the LA Times, and through it all, I had a Derek and a community called NICAR. But I remember being a student, when the community at large was all I had. I looked forward to conferences for months, not because I was presenting, not because I focused on paying it forward, but because it was my one opportunity to hound people with questions.

I didn’t know what I needed to know, but I knew I could show up to sessions, particularly at NICAR, and I would learn tangible skills that would help me be better at my job the next day. I didn’t have to come up with the questions — not yet.

To reach my next level, I want that again. I want to go to a conference, find smart people giving a session, and have them teach me cool stuff I couldn’t have dreamed of asking. All too often, I see these people come to conferences. They’ll show off cool things, the better ones will give “pep talks” inspiring you to do cool stuff, but I want tangible info. I want, as one friend puts it “to eat their brains.” (That sounds creepier than the spirit in which it’s meant.) The pep talks are fun, peppered with jokes. But it’s kind of like guilty pleasure TV. I enjoy watching The Simpsons, it makes me laugh (well, more the older episodes), but it doesn’t sustain me. Empty calories, as it were.

Give me the power, and I’ll give you tangible stuff, I swear!

So, when conference organizers make the mistake of giving me the floor, I give people what I’ve relished all along. I build things, and show how you would build them. I provide links, tutorials, everything, so you can take it back to your newsroom. And yeah, I dare to put codes on slides, and I’m too lame to pepper in awesome jokes. Different people will get different things out of it. And that’s more than okay. Because hopefully on some level, it made you feel stupid.

I mean that in the best possible way. Because, that’s the best feeling I know how to give. And if you had no clue what I was talking about at ONA, and the code freaked you out, I’m not sorry. Because I can’t make it simple. It’s hard. And you’re going to have to face it, maybe not do it yourself, but work with people who do. You’re going to have to understand it’s not magic.

Those of us coming into the field now, how long do we think not knowing how to manipulate the world in which we live is going to last? Can we get away with not coding in five years? Ten? Forty? I don’t know. I do know we’re going to have to know more than we know now, or someone else will. Saying an audience isn’t technical enough is just prolonging the inevitable.

Asking the experts how to get technical

As is usual, I’m probably being naive about my perspective. So, I decided to get the opinions of three journocoders who I respect deeply, and who give presentations that make my heart sing. And because this is The Community That Pays It Forward, they were kind enough to answer, and allow me to quote their responses. I’ll be discussing the thoughts of Jeremy Bowers, a developer at the Washington Post who uses funny gifs, fast talking and crazy enthusiasm to make his point; Matt Waite, a journalism professor and a former news developer from the St. Pete Times, who is also the most down-to-earth Pulitzer Prize winner I know, and the funniest; and of course, Derek Wilis, who needs no introduction to my two readers, except to say that his presentations are so good he convinced me to go into data journalism/Web development as a career, so it was pretty persuasive.  He also works as a Web developer for the New York Times, when he’s not too busy answering my questions.

All three of these mentors approach presentations from a more general perspective than how I’ve been thinking about. Bowers: “I was an All-American policy debater in college. My approach to presentations, then, is very similar to my approach to policy debate. I’m more or less constantly doing research/developing policy opinions in daily conversation. The presentation is just the coalescing of my latest beliefs/arguments — albeit with more funny gifs.” Pass on a general sense of what you’re thinking about, and make it more appealing. “I wouldn’t recommend this for everyone, but what usually works for me is to develop a broad outline and then during the session, choose the points that seem to fit the moment and talk about them,” wrote Derek Willis. It won’t be too overwhelming if you think about who you are talking to, I suppose.

The power of humor

I’ve been underselling the power of humor. Bowers pointed me to a study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology which says that humor improves retention. He had some great funny meme photos during his ONA talk, which had Heather Billings and I in hysterical laughter (which is all too audible since we were next to the camera doing the livestream). Bowers told me it’s a lot of payoff, for not a lot of effort. “Those funny pictures I made took about 15-20 minutes with a crappy online tool, but were worth their weight in gold. Just because you’re serious about what you do doesn’t mean you have to be serious in your presentation.” Waite had a similar sentiment, and looks at the general. ” I usually think about how can I entertain and inform, giving people something to think about and something to take home,” he wrote. Waite says he keeps the eck to titles and images, which helps with avoiding getting too geeky. I would add, it also lets Matt Waite be, well, Matt Waite, and have the freedom to amuse us all.

Can we get geeky? Please?

But here’s the issue I really wrestle with: How do we avoid getting too technical? How technical can we get? According to Bowers, not very — panels are suited to a more general theme. “My general feeling: Presentations can rarely spread detail, but excel for the transmission of broad memes and infectious ideology. Memes and ideology aren’t technical, so focusing on those can help to avoid the eye-glazingly complex presentation.”

It doesn’t seem to be a fear of showing people the guts of what we do, but panels are just a poor format. Waite calls it like it is: “A slide deck and a panel discussion is a really, really crappy way to convey technical information.” Fair enough. Then, maybe we need more options that aren’t panels.

But I’ve seen Willis get geeky, at least in lightning talks, if not panels. And he got technical enough in class, in those three-hour lectures. I see the issue, I ate it up, but others didn’t. As much as I looked forward to that class all week, some dreaded it. Willis’ advice is as matter-of-fact as his presentation style that works so well. “I think the way to do it is to have very clear expectations of what the session should cover, and try hard to stick to them. Not rocket science, but just think about the audience, the time you have and the general atmosphere, and go from there.”

Whether we stay general or start to get geeky, we’re not getting geeky enough, often enough. My boss, Jonathan Stray, has commented to me that what’s geeky for journalist has nothing on the geekiness of the technology sphere. And we can’t get away with saying it’s not our problem.  Tech will be all of our problem, if it isn’t already.

Bowers nails the problem on the head, though. “Our community is getting better and better at “Introduction to X” sessions and blog posts, but there’s a big gap between that and proficiency. In short: There’s missing support for the middle-class of news developers. This is a particularly glaring gap, because it’s the most difficult part of the incubation of the adolescent coder.” That’s a piece of it, but it’s not just the middle class, I argue, but we all need to understand the tangible nature of what we are, or aren’t, willing to learn.

Where can we go from here?

I hear all that, and it makes good sense. I don’t know where I stand right now. I know I want more, as a speaker and as a conference attendee. I want ONA to not just be a social experience for me, but push the limits of what I know, and give me tangible advice I can take to my newsroom.  More than a pep talk, more than a demo room.  And as much as I love conferences, we’re not there.  It’s not just about ONA, although I started thinking about the issue because of ONA.

Since it’s keeping me up at night, now it’s your problem, too. And if you have any thoughts, please ping me on Twitter, email or in the comments. Did you attend my presentation at ONA? Was it too much? Not enough? What journalism conference presentations have you attended and found most useful? I’d certainly appreciate all the advice I can get.

I don’t know what I’m doing, when it comes to doing the work, or teaching others about the work. All I do know is what I like to tell Jonathan: “I don’t know now, but I’ll try to know soon.”

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  • http://www.megantaylor.org Megan Taylor

    YES YES YES YES YES. Also, Matt Waite’s post: http://blog.mattwaite.com/post/10994534739/news-nerd-rage-the-trouble-with-conferences


    Michelle Minkoff Reply:

    Agree, obviously.  And Waite’s post is now linked up to top — the conversation really gets going over there, I was just remiss in adding, because, well– so busy feeling dumb at work, happily.


  • http://addisonindependent.com Andrea Suozzo

    I agree! Your data visualization session was one of the best at ONA (also, Renegade Django FTW), and I wish there had been more like it — sessions that direct people to resources and real information about where to go in data and programming. They could be marked with level or track designations, so that people who want the basics can go to the basic sessions, and those who want to dig a little deeper can go to sessions on, say, the programming track.


    Michelle Minkoff Reply:

    Thanks so much, glad it was helpful.  I agree with you, which is why I pushed in the direction I did.  I also believe in the track idea.  You might want to check out the NICAR conference, which leans slightly more geeky, and denotes different skill levels, and features hands-on sessions, where we walk through some tasks together, and attendees follow along on their computers.  I’d like to bring that to more conferences, ideally.


  • http://twitter.com/richiec Richard Cornish

    When I was at designer at LJWorld, our conferences of choice were SXSW or PyCon. No one went to ONA. Our culture was much more like a valley-based startup and not a newsroom, most probably because the online division was separate from the newsroom. And that was 2008.


    Michelle Minkoff Reply:

    This is so interesting, Richard.  As with so much of LJWorld, that just makes sense.  I’ve been thinking about that recently. While it may be geeky fun to talk about journalism, just like reporters go out to conferences on their beats, we should be going out to people who may have new ideas about HOW to tell the journalism.  If we traffic in code, PyCon makes sense.  SXSW seems to have a broader group of folks.  What if we went to confs on visualization, text processing, even art (for design ideas)?

    I’ve been dealing with health issues lately, but this is part of why I want to get back into Washington, DC explorations.  Lectures at universities/museums, embracing the cultural scene, being inspired by history — what could we learn from these other disciplines?  I’ve got to get back into finding out.

    Given the choice between SXSW and PyCon, which did you find yourself choosing most often?  #curious


    Richard Cornish Reply:

    Designers at LJWorld were expected to visually design, front-end develop (HTML, CSS, JavaScript/jQuery), be very knowledgeable of the Django template language, be comfortable using Subversion and some SSH (this may have changed to Git; it has been a few years), and have knowledge of the Django MVC stack. And at the time, Flash wasn’t a bad thing to know either. In just a few short years, I believe that specialization has broken down a lot of these pieces, for better or worse.

    But because SXSW’s panels were so broad and popular, just like our duties, SXSW became a de-facto choice for designers. A lot of SXSW interactive panels are about design principles, user testing, browser landscape, front-end dev, content strategy, and social media. There usually aren’t many sub-industry specific panels, e.g. newspapers/media, but as designers, there were plenty of panels to go to that would be useful. There were some designers who enjoyed code so much too that they could go to PyCon as well, but that was rare. And Django was so successful it spawned its own DjangoCon, which was also attended by developers. We had a pretty clear delineation between designers and developers (just as startups do), and we simply went to the conference that was an extension of what we already did.

    I think that generally speaking, because data visualization can be so complicated (ArcGIS, Processing.js, etc.) in addition to all our other duties, we only produced fair-to-good visualizations and interactions using Google Maps/KML, Google Charts, DOM swapping and interaction (before jQuery!), and the occasional Flash map for elections. See http://richardcornish.com/projects/kansas-counties-election-map/ for an example Flash map in AS2 and XML I designed and developed but didn’t get to use.

    It was quite good for the newspaper of a college town in Kansas, but we didn’t have the deep pockets of The New York Times, the AP, or PBS, that would allow for deep specialization into visuals that would’ve justified a highly niched employee going to a highly niched conference. And even if we did, I doubt we could have found enough audience in town to appreciate it, as we were the poster child for “hyperlocal” in the good old days.

    There are a lot of people doing interesting things, notably the Trib Apps team at the Chicago Tribune, who have taken the LJWorld model of design and development, and extended it into some pretty cool projects. A lot of their map projects are examples of this. The people exist for this conference, but you’d have to scale pretty high to grab the best from their respective publications to make it justifiable for the cost.


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