Walter Cronkite School of Journalism

This weekend, I had the honor of taking part in the inaugural O’Reilly News Foocamp. Sitting here, in my office at Cornell, looking out on a snowy quad, it’s hard to believe that just a few hours ago I was wandering the streets of Phoenix Arizona in the 70 degree sun-shine, engaging in discussions about the future of the news. Looking over my pages of raw field notes, I’m not quite sure where to begin to summarize the experience. Well, that’s not quite true. The best place to start is by answering what News Foo was. For that, I turn to a tweet from Steve Buttry (with a little bit of editing):

#newsfoo was News Foo Camp, an informal, cross-discipline discussion of the future of news, organized by O’Reilly Media [hosted by Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, and sponsored by Google and the Knight Foundation].

Steve’s post gives us a definition for the camp, but I’m not sure it defines it. Most of my thought time on the flight(s) back from Arizona was spent turning that question over and over in my head. How do I try and capture the experience of Foo?

A step towards the answer came in the form of a tweet that was posted about the camp by an observer (again with my edits):

This weekend [#newsfoo] seems an apt example of “thinkers” versus makers. Contrast (#newsfoo) with (#tohack).

To me, this tweet, which appeared as part of an exchange critical of New Foo, completely gets and completely misses the point of the event. This post (the first of a few on News Foo) is going to meditate on two linked ideas from the weekend: philosophy and friction.

What O’Reilly and its partners did was work to open up a space for thinking about the process of creating the (future of) news. Nothing could be more representative of this than a session that Tim O’Reilly ran on Sunday Morning called “Do news organizations need a staff philosopher?” As Tim reminded us, philosophy is not and should not be made into an abstract process. Instead it is a constant attempt to understand the new realities that we are creating (and that are being created around us) every day. It is the question of how we continue to exist and act within the world.

Philosophy, when it loses its grounding can often descend into navel gazing (hence those critical scare quotes around thinkers in the above tweet). So the question was how to keep us from going down that path. The answer to this was friction. That said, overall, I think there was more than enough friction at News Foo to make the vast majority of sessions productive.

Friction as a concept/value was invoked throughout the weekend. Participants were encouraged to push back on accepted ideas. So, for example, David Cohn asked the question “If the news industry was to disappear tomorrow, and people continued getting information that gave them the news, would this be a bad thing?” Heck, there was even a panel called “Convince me why I should read the news each day.”

And note, that it was journalists and media people who were asking the antithesis: “why should we (as a culture) care if the news (industry) changes?

Getting back to the topic of philosophy, Hegel (and Marx after him) proposed the dialectical model of inquiry: thesis (news is a good thing and something that should be sustained) is met with antithesis (why should we care if the news industry goes away tomorrow if people can still get information about the world) to reach synthesis (this is what is valuable about the service of the news). It seems to me that much of News Foo was spent considering the middle part of that particular equation, asking the antithesis.

A few things often get lost in discussions of the dialectic. First is that it isn’t an instantaneous process, philosophy (like any science) is played out over time. Interpretive reasoning is not instant. Secondly, it’s not a linear process. You don’t just start and stop it. Rather, each new synthesis is in itself a new thesis, the start of a new dialectic. Think of it more in terms of concentric spirals that can move up or down, inwards or outwards. Sticking with the spiraling metaphor for a moment, not unlike a tornado, the dialectic can pull new information and ideas into itself. It can also forcefully spin off ideas. Finally, the dialectic (tornadoes, and change for that matter) tends to be messy and unpredictable. The same is true for News Foo.

Messy and unpredictable, that’s not a value judgment — nor is it a statement on the organization of foo or facility (both of which were amazing). In fact, I think that this controlled chaos was a good thing. The messiness seems to me to be a reflection of the current state of the news. As journalist Quinn Norton put it, this is the first Foo held around an Industry/Way of Life that is in crisis. By opening up a space for thinking, for that messiness, News Foo gave its participants an opportunity to reflect on this larger moment that we are at.

So, for example, it was a chance to see that there’s still not a lot of agreement, across disciplines that are now working on the news, about what is meant by terms like context, transparency, reporting, and journalism. While definitions may seem like small issues, the nature of software is that many of these ideas get, quite literally, coded into a platform and its interface. Technology isn’t neutral in that respect. And so an upfront understanding of the perspectives from where different actors are building from helps contextualize the work that they are doing.

Likewise, no one I talked to had a polished answer to the aforementioned question of why the news industry should be sustained – what is the value in journalism. But, given that the dialectic is something that is as much lived as anything else, it seems to me that the answers for that question are going to be sought in the days to come in each individual’s daily practice. As Tim O’Reilly suggested, the answers come through living and struggling the philosophy, not just putting it in a missing statement.

All of this isn’t to say that sessions didn’t spend time in the trenches. Quite literally, a number of the talks were about the sharing of war stories (and a future post will be specifically about that). More importantly, a number of those talks also backed up their discussions with data – the presentation by the Guardian’s Meg Pickard was apparently one example of this. The most tweeted Ignite talk, by the brilliant ((seriously, in an airport discussion, Andrew Walkingshaw made a understandable and convincing argument for why misapplied metaphors from Quantum Mechanics have had a negative influence on how we approach scientific knowledge, and how Hysteresis is a better metaphor for changes in the world)) Andrew Walkingshaw used real world data to model the size and (economic) value of the journalism industry to provide a “good enough” context to allow us to frame the problem.

Ultimately, though, News Foo was a “thinking” event versus a “making” one. That makes quantifying its effect much more difficult than at Hack Day (which it was being compared against). That said, I’m not sure why we need to be comparing the two. It seems that much like separating “thinkers” from makers, all that’s doing is creating a false (and easy) binary – a system that ultimately is lacking in productive friction. I wasn’t in the session that Tom Coates‘ tweet was critical of – though from what I’ve heard about it, I support the issues he took with it. As for Tom’s critique of the section, in some ways that seems in keeping with the weekend’s theme of productive friction – in the end It may have a greater effect than anything said in that discussion (provided we keep that particular conversation going).

Ok, ’nuff for now. I’ll blog a bit more specifics on News Foo (from an anthropologist’s perspective tomorrow).

Other Takes on News Foo: