SRCCON 2019 – A first-timer’s recap

Miranda with Jonathan Kealing (INN’s Chief Network Officer) and INN Members Candice Fortman from Outlier Media and Asraa Mustufa from Chicago Reporter. We had a blast meeting and chatting in person!

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect going into my first ever SRCCON, a two-day conference from the folks at OpenNews. The conference is designed to connect news technology and data teams in a hands-on, interactive series of workshops and conversations to address the practical challenges faced by newsrooms today. Leading up to the event, I had heard SRCCON described as “inclusive," “welcoming," and “supportive," which turned out to be an understatement!

As someone relatively new to the world of journalism conferences, and even more new to SRCCON, I was blown away at how many comfortable, friendly, and productive conversations were had before, during, and after the sessions each day. At every table at every meal, and at each session, nearby people took the time to introduce themselves and constantly made me feel welcome and included. 

I loved the opportunity to meet people in person from many INN Member organizations and formed so many new connections with newsrooms far and wide. There is still so much to process from my two days there, but here’s a recap of some of my favorite sessions at SRCCON 2019:

Ghosts in the Machine - How technology is shaping our lives and how we can build a better way

I kicked off the conference by attending this session by facilitators Kaeti Hinck and Stacy-Marie Ishmael that focused on people-centered metrics and outcomes for newsrooms. We discussed issues with commonly-used metrics and brainstormed ways to make these metrics humane and collected in a way that respects people and humanity, rather than just the numbers.

My table discussed at length measuring retweets, shares, and other social engagement statistics and brainstormed ways we can improve these measurements by increasing education around what the statistics mean and considering sentiment behind shares when collecting data. Other tables discussed topics such as measuring changes in policy, comprehension of article content, truly engaging with readers using surveys and rewards for participation, and many other complex topics.

While finding solutions for these issues is challenging, these continued conversations around human-centered metrics and ethics around data collection are incredibly important as technology plays an increasingly important role in how we collect, define, and distribute news. I’m certain that this session wasn’t the end of these conversations, and I can’t wait to see where they go next.

Engineering Beyond Blame

Joe Hart and Vinessa Wan from the New York Times led this session introducing a collaborative method for discussing incidents and outages within today’s complex systems via blameless PostMortems called “Learning Reviews." They made the point that complex systems we work with today necessitate a need to prioritize learning opportunities over blame and punishment. The traditional idea of a single point of failure often doesn’t exist in complex systems where many factors can combine to lead to an incident or outage.

The goal of these “Learning Reviews” is to create a psychologically safe space where an honest and thorough investigation can happen to determine where the system or current team process failed, rather than on individual blame. They outlined how to create a defined process for these reviews, and then walked us through several small group exercises to demonstrate how complexity necessitates this approach. Here’s an article with more information about The Times Open Team’s approach and how they utilized it for Midterm election coverage.

What Happens to Journalism When AI Eats the World?

This was a fascinating and thought-provoking session led by Sarah Schmalbach and Ajay Chainani from the Lenfest Local Lab that examined the ethics behind the emerging field of AI, machine learning, and deep learning, and the effect these questions can have on the world around us.

We started with a group conversation about some of the AI horror stories we’ve heard about in the news or in our own lives, but then also discussed some of the groundbreaking AI work advancing journalism and helping make positive impacts on our world. 

They then led us through a series of small group discussions where we came up with our own AI product and then evaluated it using common ethics standards from companies such as Microsoft and Google. The main takeaway was giving everyone in the room an ethical framework for evaluating AI news projects and the confidence to continue these discussions moving forward.  

Thanks to Sarah and Ajay for leading such a deep and thought-provoking session!

Other highlights from the conference:

  • Brainstorming ways to explain complex topics in a very unique setting:
Jennifer LaFleur, Aaron Kessler, and Eric Sagara led an awesome session about creative ways to teach complex issues in the Heritage Gallery at McNamara Alumni Center.
  • New to SRCCON for 2019 was the Science Fair, a chance to informally check out journalism tools and resources with interactive demos. Here’s INN’s Jonathan Kealing trying out a VR news story from the Los Angeles Times:
 Jonathan Kealing checks out the size of a studio apartment via a VR headset, a project from the Los Angeles Times as part of their immersive storytelling demo.
  • I chose to end the conference by witnessing a bit of friendly competition at “CMS Demos: Approaches to Helping Our Newsrooms Do Their Best Work." The demos featured a walkthrough of writing, editing, and publishing a news story from 5 different custom CMS platforms, along with some light-hearted competition and a lot of laughs. Included in the demos were:
    • Scoop, from the New York Times
    • Arc, from Washington Post
    • Chorus, from Vox
    • Copilot, from Condé Nast
    • Divesite, from Industry Dive

Overall, SRCCON 2019 exceeded my expectations as a first-time attendee, and was such an incredible opportunity to network, address important issues through interactive sessions, and have a ton of meaningful conversations with newsrooms from all over. Events like this remind us why we do the work we do with nonprofit newsrooms and inspire us to continue addressing the challenges faced by newsrooms today. Thanks so much to OpenNews and all the other sponsors, volunteers, and fellow attendees that made SRCCON 2019 possible!