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How We Planned SRCCON's Sessions

by Erika Owens and Ryan Pitts

SRCCON is an event centered around experiences. We strive to create a space where people can explore and build connections, and the core of that is the slate of pre-planned sessions. The sessions don’t just create a schedule for SRCCON—they shape the event itself, as a third of participants are also session facilitators, and their sessions spill over into hallway and evening conversations.

OpenNews as an organization is structured in a way to be able to respond to the needs and interests of the community, and create spaces to celebrate its work. We aim to imbue SRCCON with these same goals.

Last year was the first SRCCON. This year, our decisions were guided by what we learned last year as well as some core principles:

  • SRCCON is built around participation, discussion, and collaborative problem-solving.
  • SRCCON exists to respond to the needs and interests of the entire community, and we must be intentional in including all perspectives
  • Every attendee is a peer—no lecturers, no special status, no outsiders.

That entire community can’t be physically present at a small event like SRCCON, but through session proposals we were able to encourage a wide swath of that community to describe what they were interested in sharing. Here, we’ll review some of our strategies for session proposal outreach and selection as well as some of the themes we noticed in reviewing sessions.

Outreach

When we began planning this year’s SRCCON, we decided that the entire session proposal, review, and selection process would happen before tickets went on sale. We also decided to reserve a ticket for anyone whose proposal we accepted. We suspected SRCCON would sell out quickly again this year (and it did), so that meant encouraging people to propose sessions was the best way to make sure their interests were represented in the schedule and give them the best chance at getting a ticket.

So how did we make sure people knew about the SRCCON call for proposals? We did a lot of outreach.

  • Building out existing channels—we encouraged people through Twitter, email lists, our community call, and through more extensive blogging on OpenNews.org than we have done in the past. We kept momentum going by starting the documentation train for SRCCON as well as posting a couple of pieces about proposal writing: How to Plan a Great SRCCON session, Five Things We’ve Learned About Sessions.

  • Reaching out to existing networks—we did a lot of brainstorming. We gathered lists of Source writers, community call participants, fellowship alumni, and fellowship partners. We also thought about people we had connected with in the last year or whose pitches we just couldn’t wait to read.

  • Connecting with groups we wanted to make sure were well represented—we put an emphasis in our individual outreach on people from small and non-coastal newsrooms, people of color, and women. In addition, we wanted to make sure the perspective of locals would be evident throughout SRCCON, so we sought out recommendations of people in Minneapolis/St. Paul to invite to propose sessions.

Beyond emails and tweets, we hosted a question and answer session on our community call, had open office hours, and fielded individual questions. We wanted to make sure that if someone was interested in pitching a proposal, they would have the support they needed. We view facilitating a session as a great way to share and become more connected with peers in this community, so we wanted everyone to feel able to take that step.

Session Proposal Form

We reviewed our session proposal form from last year and discussed adjustments to make it even easier for people to share session ideas. Some changes we made included:

  • Asking people if they needed a co-facilitator and offering to help find one—sometimes it can be really stressful to have an idea and want to pitch it and not know quite who to pitch it with. We wanted to take that pressure off.
  • Adjusting the session length question—rather than two options, we encouraged one-hour sessions, with the opportunity for people to describe how a session would work in a shorter or longer format. We wanted people to be able to pitch an idea that could go a few different ways and not stress about making sure it would work in an hour, or else!
  • Listing different types of session formats—because SRCCON is a different type of conference than many, we wanted to make sure people had an idea of the different formats we’ve seen work well for sessions.

We also made one major change to the form that was for our own accountability—we asked people an optional question: Do you identify as (multiple select option) a woman, person of color, or member of another underrepresented group in technology? We wanted to make sure that session facilitators represented the diversity of communities we serve, and this question allowed us to track self-reported information.

Reviewing the Sessions

The selection process was extremely challenging: We got 126 session proposals and accepted 46. We got a big range of session proposals last year, and a lot of them didn’t quite fit our goals for the first SRCCON. But this year, wow. People really took to heart what we wrote about and the experiences they heard participants had last year. Some trends jumped out at us right away:

  • Co-facilitated sessions: Some sessions were pitched by one person, but the majority of sessions had a co-facilitator or were interested in finding one. This seemed to really reflect an interest in collaborative, interactive sessions.
  • Culture sessions: We are vocal about intentionality and consideration, and we heard from so many people who were interested in talking about culture and how we work.
  • Diversity, in so many ways: Fewer than half the sessions proposed had only white guys listed as facilitators. The mix of facilitators and co-facilitators on sessions often showed different genders, races, backgrounds, and experiences. Within and outside of their own organization, people sought out co-facilitators who would bring a different perspective.

We split up the actual review process into a few stages. All OpenNews staff did a first pass, logging impressions and doing a first ranking. At the same time, we invited a small number of community numbers to review the sessions and share their five favorite sessions. We selected this group to represent a range of different backgrounds and types of news organizations.

Ryan Pitts and I then did a more granular review. Testing the limits of our understanding of Screendoor, the submission system we use, we tagged sessions for topic area, style, and ranking by the community reviewers, and we diligently got to a list of sessions to suggest we accept. We discussed those recommendations again as a staff and came up with a list of accepted sessions, including a few mergers and a small list of sessions we were still thinking about how to involve outside of the official schedule.

In the end, we crafted a mix of hands-on and discussion-oriented sessions. Our schedule covered both culture and code, a range of different topics, and a list of sessions that showcased the brilliance of 70 community members.

Looking Ahead

In thinking about sessions for this year, we referred back to feedback from participants at the first SRCCON. That led to us changing the suggested length of sessions and helped us understand the parts of sessions people really value.

We’re already getting feedback to consider for next year. The volume of amazing session proposals has challenged us as well. Are there other ways for us to support discussions around culture or journalism education? Could that be related to SRCCON itself, or should it happen at other times during the year? We’re really interested in talking more about this and hearing any suggestions you may have.

We’re also excited about continued experimentation with session types and styles during SRCCON, and finding ways for other organizations to use SRCCON as a jumping-off point for their own programming, in Minneapolis and beyond.

Thank you to all of the people who took the time to submit a session proposal, and of course to the folks who facilitated sessions at SRCCON. We’ll post plenty of documentation on the sessions themselves and look forward to continuing to evolve our official program next year.

posted August 11, 2015 | posted in SRCCON 

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