A meeting of the new-media minds this weekend in Atlanta

On Feb. 22-23, the Symposium on Computation and Journalism at Georgia Tech will play matchmaker with technology and journalism, dumping a who’s who of industry professionals, scholars and up-and-comers from both fields into a room and hoping to see some sparks fly—or at least a few fists.

Sound familiar? You may have read about the Networked Journalism Summit here last year, a similarly ambitious techie-meets-newsie experiment in New York. In fact, NJS organizer and former OJR Q&A subject David Cohn has a ticket to Atlanta this weekend.

But if that conference’s roots were steeped in journalism, this one bats from the other side of the plate. Founders Brad Stenger and Nick Diakopoulos have backgrounds in Human-Computer Interaction, and the roster they’ve compiled boasts an impressive digital constituent.

To say nothing of the journalistic participants. The panelists’ collective resumé lists CNN, The New York Times and Yahoo! News, and founding Gawker Elizabeth Spiers will deliver the closing keynote.

So just what should they all expect to take away from the weekend? And what about those of us who long to be a fly on the wall?

Stenger was happy to fill in the blanks over e-mail.

OJR: First off, could you give me a brief rundown on the genesis of this meeting? How did the idea form and what is your purpose?

Brad Stenger: Nick Diakopoulos and I first talked about it at CHI, an annual technical meeting for academic & industrial researchers working in the area of Human-Computer Interaction. That initial conversation was in San Jose in early May 2007. Nick’s Ph.D. advisor, Irfan Essa, gave it his blessing shortly afterward. The three of us jointly started serious planning last fall.

The purpose has always been to fill a big room with journalists interested in developing technology and technology developers interested in journalism. We felt if we could get the technologists to say why their work mattered to journalists, and if journalists could tell about their experiments with technology, there’d be a doorway into each other’s world, and some good knowledge and technology transfer would result.

OJR: How did you go about selecting the media attendees, and why did you choose the people you did?

Stenger: It’s always been about diversity. We started with the subjects we wanted to cover, and knew that we wanted the subjects covered from a range of perspectives—technical, entrepreneurial, journalistic, design, etc. We came up with long lists of people that were candidates to cover the subject material, and kept asking people from our lists until we’d gotten the diversity we felt we needed. I think our participants selected us.

OJR: You’re setting aside half of the seats for students and young professionals. How will they be phased into the meeting agenda, and what do you hope they can add to the conversation?

Stenger: We’ve set out to cover lots of ground. Technology and journalism together is a nearly inexhaustible subject, and we won’t exhaust any of the subjects in any of our panel discussions or talks. It might be a rationalization, but we think that this sets the stage for in-depth hallway discussions that bring home the subjects of greatest interest to individual attendees. To aid these hallway conversations we put in place a conference-only social network (a mini-Facebook) so that people can more easily connect names, faces, interests and areas of expertise. Ultimately it’ll be buy-in from students and early-careerists that spell the difference between hosting a conference and creating a community. We’re glad to be doing the former, but we’re also taking our best shot at doing the latter.

OJR: What about those of us who can’t make it but want to be in the loop? Where can attendees and outsiders alike go to stay informed and involved after the meeting?

Stenger: Some universities are known for webcasting everything but that’s not Georgia Tech. I’d recommend signing on to the RSS feed for ongoing details, and links to related news items and blog posts.

OJR: What, if any, are the follow-up plans for the project?

Stenger: Interest has been strong and we’re expecting a capacity crowd. We naturally have an eye toward doing this again in 2009. But for 2008, hopefully we’ll have brought people together who wouldn’t have otherwise connected, and there’ll be some things that get built which everyone benefits from. I think that given the talent and ambition in the crowd we have assembled, if we succeed in fostering these new connections, results will be easy to spot.

OJR: Finally, what specifically do you hope individuals will take away from the conference? Or is the goal to simply get all these minds in the same room with hopes that they will network and stay in touch?

Stenger: The goal for the meeting is knowledge, technology and innovation transfer between computing professionals and journalists; things that we believe will have lasting impact on both fields. Will it, though? We’re about to find out. As far as we know, no one’s ever attempted a meeting this size about journalism where the technical discussion is this substantial.

About Jim Wayne

After three some-odd years as an advertising ashtray on Madison Avenue, an impulsive career switch sent Jim in pursuit of a life in the (relatively) civilized world of online journalism. He arrived at USC Annenberg in 2007 and is still struggling to understand Los Angeles.