Participants in the weekly Google Hangout group celebrate member Lauren  Fuhrmann's birthday. Fuhrmann is in Wisconsin. Other group members are scattered across the country.
Participants in the weekly Google Hangout group celebrate member Lauren Fuhrmann's birthday. Fuhrmann is in Wisconsin. Other group members are scattered across the country.

Conferences are great, but they’re often really expensive and require having additional staff members to backfill positions. That's often hard to manage in smaller newsrooms. I’ve heard from many colleagues who wish they could attend conferences but can’t because if they’re at a conference, no one is doing their jobs. This is particularly true within local newsrooms, where an entire editorial or social department might consist of a handful of people or fewer.

In the past few weeks, I’ve learned about two different groups of journalists who have battled feelings of isolation in their newsrooms through meeting, learning from, and connecting with their colleagues across the country – without ever leaving their offices. The first group is spearheaded by Nathan Gibbs, the general manager of KACU in Abilene, Texas, who recently started a Slack channel called @ModernJourno, where journalists can gather to make sense of the changing new media landscape. Meanwhile, on Google Hangouts, nine journalists from a variety of different publications gather each week to discuss “everything from social media strategy to analytics to questions such as, 'What's the best place to put a sign-up button on my homepage,'” as participant Evan Mackinder, from the Sunlight Foundation, put it.

What I really like about these approaches is that they’re doable for anyone in any newsroom. Find a few people, decide whether you want to get together on video chat or a chat room, and then start talking. Having a chat room or regular Hangout feels more intimate than a Facebook group, and allows for more detailed conversation than the 140 characters allowed on Twitter. And the response from the group seems more detailed and more immediate.

“[In a Hangout] we can really concentrate on communicating with each other — we listen, we talk back and forth, we collaborate,” Mackinder said. “Most of that can be done over a phone line, but the ability to see each other and interact adds a degree of intimacy that has been really important for us. It feels like real collaboration — not just sitting there staring at the ceiling waiting for the other person to stop talking.”

The weekly Google Hangout is the brainchild of Jessica Plautz, Mashable’s travel editor, and Lauren Fuhrmann, the associate director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. It started three years ago, back when Plautz worked at the Investigative News Network.

“It was a method for getting some of the members [of INN] talking to each other and sharing knowledge and experiences (and asking questions),” Plautz said. “The group got together members who were in at least six different states across the country.”

Three years later, the group is still going strong and still learning from one another.

“It’s free of ego, and it's the best professional networking experience I've ever had (cause it's way more personal than professional),” Plautz said. “The members of the group are amazing people who are dedicated to journalism and have great futures.”

One of those members is Sarah Whitmire, a social media editor at McClatchy. She says she appreciates the group because she can share information without adding to her email burden.

“I don't think anyone in the group really needed more email in their lives,” she said, adding “For anyone who is a team of one or feels walled-off in their workplace, a group like this could be great. Collaboration is one of those less tangible things that you might not realize you're missing until get a chance to do it. Talking with your peers about what you do is always helpful.”

That was part of the rationale for Gibbs, who started his Slack room in January. The group of about 35 includes journalists from the AP, INN, KPBS, and Circa – a mix of people from non-profit newsrooms, startups, and legacy organizations. (I’m also in the group.) Gibbs recruited for his group through email, Medium and Twitter, and said he likes how the group has come together so far.

“I’ve had good luck getting the kind of people to join you’d want to talk to at a conference,” he said.

The next step for Gibbs is piloting another Slack room for his KACU staff, as well as one for the journalism faculty at Abilene Christian University, where he teaches. One question he frequently gets from them? When to use Slack vs. email or texting? He says the answer depends on when you need a response.

“[If it’s] urgent right now, I say text,” he said. “This is the best way to alert me to something needing attention immediately. Today? Slack. Tomorrow? Email. I often go hours without checking email.”

That’s something I heard over and over again when talking to participants in these groups: they’re overwhelmed by email and prefer asynchronous conversations that they can scan instead of email that they have to go through message by message and then figure how whether to forward, respond or loop in others.

“I’m trying to reduce my inbox as much as possible. Newsletters or listservs or Google Groups are oriented around email,” Gibbs said. “It makes sense for newsrooms to use Slack or HipChat to keep in touch and make communication a little more enjoyable than getting 'I agree' reply-all emails.”

Even beyond email fatigue, there are reasons he prefers chat.

“There are advantages to having a constant conversation without necessarily walking over to a teammate, making them take off their headphones, and asking them something that’s not really urgent,” he said. “It’s not just to improve communication. It can improve the thinking in the newsroom. New ideas can be shared without fear and some will turn into new projects.”

And there’s an additional bonus if you’re an introvert like me or Whitmire.

“Personally, I have some introverted tendencies, so typical industry 'networking' with strangers always feels manufactured or disingenuous,” Whitmire said. “In this group, I get all the benefits of networking without actually having to network. It's great!”

If you’d like to start a chat room or Hangout, here are some tips:

Evan Mackinder: “Start by finding a group of likeminded professionals who are interested in exploring a group of topics in-depth. We were all fortunate [when we started] to be under INN's umbrella at nonprofit news rooms at the start, and to be working on the same issues. We were already a collective, even if we didn't know each other. And that's all Jessica needed to get things going. But really, you can find these sorts of professional networks anywhere -- start with the people you talk with on Twitter, for example, or find the same individuals you keep running into at conferences. Commit to meeting regularly, and jump in.”

Sarah Whitmire: “Like most people who work in social media, I did not intend to ever focus on social media — when I took over the social media at the Center for Public Integrity, it was the first time I'd ever done social professionally. Being able to bounce my noobie ideas off a larger group for feedback was invaluable. For us, our group got started in INN. If I were trying to get a new group going, I'd probably start in a larger organization like INN, IRE, ONA or one of those to gauge interest from any potential members.”

Jessica Plautz: “Hangouts tend to be best with 6-8 participants. With more, not everyone gets heard, with less, there isn't as much shared knowledge. I think Slack can ​handle more than that, but it isn't really about a set number.”

Nathan Gibbs: “We definitely find [Slack] useful for our small team. I’ve been taking meeting notes in Slack so the team has them right away. We’ve shared audio files back and forth working on story edits. It moves text messages into a searchable place and gives better sense of priority to each messaging platform. It reduces email clutter. Those are helpful workflow tips for any team at any size.”

Lauren Fuhrmann: "A regular Google Hangout or Slack group allows you to find the support that you may not have in a small, overworked newsroom, like many INN members. We're all doing a million different jobs, but there's very little overlap within our own orgs, as is the nature of small nonprofits. But we've been able to find that in this group, which has offered advice, support in bad times, encouragement when we need it, and has allowed us all to continue learning together, even if all of the skills aren't relevant to our current positions."

Paula Saha, a member of the INN group who works at NJ Spotlight: "I think the real key to the group is that everyone comes in with a collaborative spirit. No one is trying to be a social media know-it-all, or ninja or insert-other-annoying-word-here. We have such a diversity of experience and audience that we all bring something to the table. We can compare each other's experiences and learn from each other and I think that's particularly of use in the social space because this world is constantly changing. Every day there's a new tool or a new development or a new piece of intelligence on the Facebook algorithm. So what's getting good engagement on Facebook these days? Who has done a newsletter revamp and how did you go about it? What new tools exist to help us make better use of our time? How are you measuring engagement?"