A new journalism conference wants to tackle power equity in newsrooms

In this newsletter and column, we talk about power a lot: how to get it, how to share it, how to do good with it. And if you’ve been to any journalism conference or workshop lately, they’ve almost certainly touched on diversity.

OpenNews is an organization dedicated to supporting newsroom developers, designers, journalists and editors and helping them collaborate on open technologies and processes. In an effort to extend these conversations, OpenNews is hosting SRCCON:POWER in December, a place to dig deep into power structures, how they affect our journalism and most importantly, what we can do to make them more equitable. The call for participation form opens Monday, where you’ll be able to request a ticket, pitch a session and apply for a scholarship.

Erika Owens, the director of OpenNews and recipient of ONA’s 2018 Community Award, tells us how this conference came together and what they are hoping to get out of it.

Last year Open News put on a conference about how we work, and I think it’s really interesting that you guys are doing these topic-focused events. What draws you to that format?

What draws us to it is the response we’ve gotten from the community, both from the themes that we’ve seen in the session proposals for our general conference, SRCCON (pronounced source-con), that’s larger and doesn’t have the topical focus, and from what we’ve seen in the responses from the News Nerd survey, which made it so clear that how we work is a big area of question and curiosity in the field. Diversity and inclusion is a big area where people want to see more results. They want to see us contending with that a little more as a community and as an industry.

What made Open News interested in power specifically?

It’s built from the themes we saw at SRCCON:WORK last year. The sessions were about how we work together, how we support one another and collaborate. There’s a lot of power dynamics related to that.

One of the things that we noticed — and participants noticed — is it was a crowd that was dominated by women, women of color in particular, and other people of color. It made it very clear how the people who are most interested in these topics are often women and people of color. They are the folks that are most impacted when things go wrong, so it makes sense that folks want to see change. It also made it very clear that this work can’t just fall to people who are already doing second- and third-shift work, pushing for all kinds of change and evolution in their newsroom. That’s what we were thinking about coming out of SRCCON:WORK.

At SRCCON this summer, there were a lot of sessions related to community engagement, which is a different dimension of power in terms of how we actually engage with and understand and report on communities. We saw that thread bubbling up, and we saw how power was underlying that as well. It came together to do this event that pulled on those threads, along with the underlying technical issues that have power implications of how we develop technology and the technologies that we choose to use in our everyday work. We’re going to explore those with SRCCON:POWER.

We’re also thinking about how these threads come into 2019 as well. Do they feed into conversations at NICAR? Does it feed into conversations at SRCCON next year? Are there other sessions or meetups that come out of this to help delve into these issues? They are really big, and I know that over two days we won’t be able to get into absolutely everything, but I see it as a convening point that will allow us to pull those discussions into 2019.

A lot of the people who come to the conference may not be in a position to change things. What are you hoping they take away from the conference even if they are not in leadership roles within their newsrooms?

That is definitely something we’re thinking a lot about. The primary thing we want those folks to come away with is a connection with other folks like them. I think that being in that kind of position can feel very isolating. The network piece is critical there.

We’re also very curious to think about the kind of tangible strategies and ideas that people can bring back to their newsroom. I’m really curious what shape that will take. That’s part of how we’re thinking about the planning for SRCCON:POWER.

There’s a lot of existing research and a depth of knowledge about how power operates in these different dimensions of our work. What could it look like to spend a chunk of time learning from someone who is steeped in that research and then another chunk of time where we dig into how we operationalize the insights this research gave us? That’s what I’m really hopeful for.

When people get back home and they start trying with that strategy, what do they find? What do they discover that would be more helpful for the person they are trying to persuade or the leadership they are trying to shift? Is there a C-level bosses version of SRCCON that we need to put on? Do we need to find mentors for those folks that help them speak the language managers understand? I’m not sure what shape that would take, but I’m really curious to see what folks think and what they need coming out of the conference.

A lot of industry conferences and workshops touch on diversity. How do you hope that this conversation will be different?

It’s certainly a buzzword. I’ve seen a lot of conversation on Twitter about critiques people have with the word “diversity” and how it’s just a word that people use, and it’s lost meaning. You don’t necessarily see results when people talk about diversity.

So we’ve been trying to talk in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion, and I think the equity piece in particular is really important. We’ve been intentional about that because using that word means there’s much less wiggle room. What does diversity mean? What is the threshold for diversity? People can get so mired in those kind of debates. With equity, it’s about if we have equity of access, opportunity, impact and results. What are the actual results we’re seeing? Are people having equal access to head into leadership levels and take on more decision-making power within news organizations? That’s not as easy to debate. That linguistic shift is important.

In addition, the drive for diversity and inclusion has come from this community. It’s repeatedly been the number one thing that folks have indicated as what the News Nerd community needs more. There’s a drive coming from within. It’s not like the folks there need convincing, which is a great starting point.

One of the things I’m also excited about is folks are finding alternate pathways to achieve the results that they want to see. If there’s a leader in a particular newsroom that isn’t responding in a way that would lead to equity, folks are building their own institutions or they are building their own pathways for support. They are finding other ways to get the professional development support that their newsroom won’t provide. There will probably be more ideas like that coming out of SRCCON:POWER and more ways for OpenNews to be able to support those ideas coming into fruition, too.

You’ve intentionally kept Open News’ conferences small. SRCCON:POWER will host 125 people. Why such a small cap?

We’ve found that different sizes of events lend themselves to different ways of people being able to engage and different depths of connection that you’re able to make over two days. 300 people vs. 3,000 people is just a tremendously different conference experience.

How we support one another is certainly a topic that hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the industry are interested in, but not everyone is doing work that immediately relates to that theme. If you know you’re going to be working on something in a couple of months, it focuses the conversations you’re going to have a little bit more.

We’re also thinking about at what level we can support those relationships and the trust you need to have to be able to do dive into some of these challenging and emotional topics pretty quickly. I think a smaller group also helps a lot with that.

 

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