GonzoCamp Seattle

Last week I attended GonzoCamp, a Startup Camp-style weekend which brought together journalists, businessmen, tech folk, and random interested parties to build a news-related product in 8 hours. The event was put together by Mark Briggs, CEO of SerraMedia and author of Journalism 2.0.

The timing couldn't have been better as I had been thinking about this idea a lot, especially since the death of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's print edition. There have been a lot of panels held locally discussing how journalism will survive, and what it would look like in the coming years. These discussions always seemed to have two things in common:

1) They were very focused on the business model - "How will we make money?"
2) They rarely involved engineers or other advocates of technology.

This seemed completely backwards to me. Success in journalism will be, in large part, driven by success on the internet, which means building products there that people want to use. Building a product on the internet means you're getting into the software business. Given this, where were the nerds?

I also believe that, as a general concept, you can't create a business model until you solve one of modern journalism's greatest problems - delivering a product that people want. Wondering how you're going to make money before solving that problem is a little like putting the cart before the horse (yes I realize businesses need to be built too.)

While thinking about this, I realized that one problem the industry is facing is that a lot of the people in the newsroom just have no idea what it is like to build software in the modern world - how fast it can be, how iterative design works, how easy it is to throw ideas together off the cuff. On the other side, I realized many nerds don't really understand the problems that modern journalists face or the issues they have about where their industry is heading.

So I was pretty excited about GonzoCamp, and I think the event came off really well. A little over 30 people attended from a diverse set of disciplines. SerraMedia sponsored coffee and pizza, and procured the space at University of Washington.

The format of the event was pretty simple. After introductions, people began pitching ideas for something they would want to build during the event. Once all the ideas were submitted, the group dispersed and the ideas were voted on. The three most popular ideas were chosen and teams formed around these ideas. These teams then had the next 6 hours or so to build as much as they could, at which time whatever they had done would be presented and discussed.

Mark did a great summary of all the apps that were built so I won't waste space on that here. I will be doing a tech writeup on the app my group worked on in a future post so I won't dwell on that either, except to note that Drupal and its contributed modules brought an enormous amount to the table. Our application was built and (mostly) functional in about six hours with 0 lines of custom code.

What I will say is that the event was really inspiring. It is very easy to be bitter and get caught up in the blame-game when discussing the future of news. I loved getting together with a group of people who wanted nothing more than to make something interesting that promoted journalism and tried to take a step forward. As I said on Twitter that day, the apps that got built were totally secondary. It was just great getting together a diverse group of passionate people to stare at a problem and see what they come up with. The number and breadth of ideas being thrown around in even this short a time period was truly awesome.

That said there were a couple things I would look at for future events. First, the event came together quickly, which meant there was not a lot of time for those unfamiliar with the industry to really understand the problems at hand. It would be nice if there was some time for everyone to get into each others' heads a bit before digging in. Even better, have this happen about a week in advance so that ideas have some time to grow. The other problem is that the latter portion of the event was largely focused on building the apps in question, so while the coders hacked away everyone else was twiddling their thumbs. This is, to some extent, the nature of the beast. However, it would be nice to see either the groups or the event come address this.

There is already movement towards another longer sponsored event, and possibly even trying to spread the event to other cities. I would love to see this happen, and I will definitely attend any future events. GonzoCamp is an idea whose time has come, none to soon.

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Comments

Great recap. So true about the two sides not getting each other. I've spent the past 14 years at The Columbian in Vancouver, Wa. Started a systems editor, working as liaison between news and IT. Later I moved into IT but I still work very closely with the newsroom on all systems issues, including the Web which now consumes us. In any case, I wanted to encourage you and others who went to GonzoCamp to come to Portland this summer for PDX Digital Journalism camp (http://journopdx.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/digital-journalism-camp-has-a-...). I'll post a tweet for #gonzocamp followers. Thanks. Keep fighting the fight.

John

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