What Journalists Can Learn From: Spark Camp

By on February 8, 2012

A joint collaboration between Matt Thompson of NPR, Amanda Michel of the Guardian US, Andrew Pergam of The Washington Post, ONA Board member and Webbmedia Group CEO Amy Webb, and Jenny 8. Lee, Spark Camp is a grand experiment in journalism. Taking the form of an unconference, works by inviting 50 journalists (and colleagues from other field), having them each invite one person to the conversation, and seeing what develops during a massive meet up in a select city. The invite process is fairly mysterious — the organizers work hard to find an interesting mix of people, but don’t share their secret sauce for the initial picks. Spark Camp is sponsored, so outside of travel and accommodations, the event is free.

Fueled by a desire to remake journalism (and massive amounts of sugar), Spark Campers spend 48 charged hours tackling the issues of the day. Here are four takeaways from two Spark Camps that have been held so far:

1. Choose a Theme for the Quarter

Each Spark Camp has a core theme. The first gathering in New York was called “Real Time,” and the goal was to explore how instant communication platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed how we understand, create and source news content. The second meetup, in Texas, focused on the emerging role data plays in journalism. Selecting a theme allows for attendees to really explore a topic in depth while still allowing for a lot of different interpretations. The lesson: Working with a theme starts to center our often fragmented and frantic work lives. For a part of this year, try dedicating your career to a new theme — it could be anything from “learning to code” to “more creativity.”

2. Phone a Friend

Spark Camp takes an interesting approach to admissions. it’s essentially a closed conference. The organizers issue invitations to 50 people and each attendee is then allowed to invite one other person to come along for the ride. I selected people for different reasons. I invited a long-time friend who is a graphic designer. Initially, she protested that she didn’t know anything about news, but that was actually the point. The idea was that she would bring design thinking to a very data-focused gathering. Mixing up the types of experience in a gathering can lead to unexpected epiphanies.

3. Look for Local Resources

Spark Camp always infuses a gathering with a sense of the local. All the food comes from local vendors, the event is hosted at a local college campus (so far, UT Austin and CUNY School of Journalism in New York), and there is normally a journey to a local watering hole to facilitate bonding. The strong emphasis on local is important — it’s easy to glamorize other places and many of us tend to overlook what is in our backyards. Are you familiar with all of the research facilities, labs and creative spaces in your city? Try doing a bit of sleuthing to find one awesome local resource to add to your orbit.

Become a 5-Minute Expert

One of the foundations of Spark Camp are the Ignite talks. To help break the ice, participants volunteer to take part in talks that are (strictly-timed) five minutes long. Slides auto advance every 15 seconds, so it takes some good planning and quick thinking. The talks are a hit, precisely because people are encouraged to share their experiences. At the New York gathering, the talks ranged from “The Internet Has Won” to a candid look at how to survive the North Pole.

At the Austin talk, one of the Spark Campers talked about lessons to take from rock climbing. The Ignite motto — “enlighten us, but make it quick” — has great applications, particularly in terms of evaluating your own skills and packaging complex ideas. Try creating your own ignite talk. What are you an expert in? How can you take a very complicated idea and explain it in five minutes? And, for the bold, try signing up for an Ignite event in your area.

Slide photo is by Philosophographlux via Flickr.