Evolving our model for small events: a dozen people, two days, and a purpose
by Ryan Pitts
At OpenNews, we’re huge believers in the value of getting a group of people in a room to spend some focused time working on a problem together. We work as a collaborative team ourselves, and we gather with members of the journalism-code community at large events like SRCCON and smaller events throughout the year. We’ve found that certain practices make collaboration especially fruitful: energetic planning, creating space away from deadlines, daily schedules with thoughtful, human touches.
Code convenings have been an OpenNews program for about three years now. Each one gives eight to 12 developers a couple days of support in writing code and documentation, turning helpful internal tools into open-source libraries. These events have helped projects like Pym, the California Civic Data Coalition, Klaxon, and dozens more push new releases that are making the journalism better in newsrooms everywhere.
As the code convening program continues to evolve—we learn new things each time we to get to spend time in a room with the amazing people in our community. The event design for our convenings is extremely intentional, starting from the very first communication with participants. We know that:
- two days is enough time to get a lot done, but not too much to ask an editor to let someone step away.
- in-person time is most effective when you take advantage of the preceding weeks, drawing up outlines and timelines, and starting to wrap your head around the problems to solve.
- feeding people right and sticking to a humane schedule is more productive than sprinting for 48 hours.
We’ve also always known that the people in our community have huge amounts of generosity and energy, and a willingness to work hard and share the best of their knowledge. So recently we started thinking about what else we might do with this small convening model: Code convenings focus on producing new software tools, but what else could we help build with a dozen people, two days, and a purpose?
Last December we tried our first convening where the output was something other than code. With nine writers and a couple volunteer editors, we collected eight chapters’ worth of community wisdom into the first draft of The Field Guide to Open Source in the Newsroom. We also worked with a number of remote editors during the event and the weeks immediately after. Experimentation is another thing we believe in deeply at OpenNews, and this December event represented a few firsts for us: collaborative writing, book development from outline to publication, and a hybrid model with in-person and remote volunteers. We’re thrilled to see the project that emerged from that work, and we’re committed to helping the community build on it.
The Field Guide also represents some of our new thinking about the convening model, and how small events can be used to build not just products, but new skills and connections. We’ll keep doing code convenings, because we know there’s still a lot of cool software that you all want to share. With OpenNews’ renewed emphasis on supporting the journalism-code community, we’ll be looking at new types of convenings, too, events that could grow out of documentation work like the Field Guide, or conversations on leadership that we’ve seen at SRCCON.
Events like these are an opportunity to respond to issues important to our community as they emerge. Are there convenings you’d like to see happen, or even help facilitate? We’d love to hear your ideas, because we know that every time we help people come together, you make great things.