Some Notes and Photos from NewsFoo

The spawn, the spouse and I just got back from NewsFoo, an unconference put on by O’Reilly Media and the Knight Foundation. The 150-ish attendees are all involved in technology and/or journalism in an interesting way and I’m certain I was the dumbest person there.

If you’ve never unconferenced, the main idea is that at more traditional and scheduled conferences, all the best connections and interesting conversations end up happening at lunch or during coffee breaks. So unconferences aim to foster the coffee break vibe for an entire weekend by only setting session start and end times — the session topics are all pitched and plotted by the attendees after they arrive. No Powerpoints, no formal presentations, no nonsense. Below, some photos, and after the jump, notes from the Foo and links from my animations session.

My disclaimer is I could only attend every-other session because Stiles and I took turns caring for the two-month-old. The organizers were kind to welcome Baby Eva, who unfortunately did not give a talk (mainly because she can’t actually talk yet). She did get a name tag, however. So here’s a quick summary based on the stuff I CAN observe and report:

Last year’s hot Foo topic of drone journalism was replaced by the new hotness — sensor journalism — and the work of projects like SafeCast.

One of my heroes, Harper Reed, was in attendance and gave an amazing (but off the record) “Ask Me Anything” session on his experience as a non-political person who became the Chief Technology Officer of the Obama campaign. That’s all I can say about that.

In the evenings, dozens of attendees gave Ignite talks — five minute presentations about anything the speaker is passionate about, with the slides set to self-advance. (See last year’s NewsFoo Ignite talks here.) I thought the standout talk this year was by the best man at our wedding, Chase Davis, who spoke about data journalism, with a twist. Hopefully the video will be up soon, but in the meantime, Chase posted all his sources. 

At Foo, the after party is a role playing game called Werewolf, aka, Mafia, in which players concoct elaborate lies and deceive one another in order to win. Or something. I had to feed Eva in the middle of the night so I missed these shenanigans. But Werewolf players bond for life, I’m told. Brian Fitzpatrick took lots of photos of the players in action. Check ’em out.

Even though they look nothing alike, the two black guys in attendance decided to trade name tags to see what would happen. Not sure what came out of that experiment in the end; it was just funny.

We mixed it up about the future of beat reporting with a session by Quartz editor Gideon Litchfield, I’m told the public radio folks in attendance did a compelling session on the future of audio, the data guys apparently had an awesome convo about finding more stories in the technology back-ends of campaigns. As always, there were “group therapy” session for media entrepreneurs, and plenty of ideas tossed around about solving the journalism revenue problem.

My friend from the startup Zeega, Kara Oehler, joined me in moderating a talk about Taiwanese news animations. As you probably know, I love them. And animations in general can be so useful in showing news events that cameras didn’t catch. But especially in the Taiwanese example, they do have to take liberties when re-creating what happened. So some of the questions we mulled over included:

  • Is getting the general story right more important than getting every detail correct?
  • Can a tabloidy arm (crazy animations) and more serious journalism co-exist within the same news organization?
  • Is it actually cheaper just to animate news rather than go out and shoot it and present it live?

The awesome folks who came to our session ended up sharing some really awesome animated and/or interactive work they liked. Here are some of the non-Taiwanese news animations we looked at:

Political Kombat 12: Slate’s presentation of the political campaign as a series of video game fights

Ad Libs: PBS NewsHour lets you integrate your personal Facebook profile and images to create your own negative advertising.

World Without Oil: Contributors from around the world sent in original stories about what it was like in an imaginary oil shock.

Game of Thrones Attack Ads: Mother Jones creates negative TV ads for characters in Game of Thrones.


So I walked seven blocks in downtown Phoenix last night around 9pm. I was not concerned about my safety, because I didn’t see a single other person on the whole walk. It felt like a post-apocalyptic town.

In a part of Phoenix where there WERE other people, my old pal Erica took us to dinner. The place is called Barrio Cafe. The guacamole they make includes pomegranate seeds. This was probably the most wondrous mashup of foods I have tried all year.

My bestie The Beam dropped us off at DCA for our flight to Phoenix on Thursday. Out on the curb outside ticketing was an unlabeled CD. Thinking it might contain something juicy, like government secrets, Stiles picked it up. Two days later he remembered to open the files on the CD. He found some secrets all right — it was THE WORST SEX TAPE EVER. I am never going to erase those grainy, cell-phone shot images from my brain.

So that’s a wrap for my I-just-got-back brain dump. I’ve yet to really reflect and let the big ideas marinate. For a more thoughtful take on NewsFoo (complete with suggestions for next time), here’s my fellow Foo-er, Derek Willis.

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