Maybe what your news organization needs is a 'spontaneous bashing together of ideas'

[Editor’s note: The past week roiled the journalism business, as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer went to online-only, the former Rocky Mountain News staff tried to revive the paper as an independent website and Clay Skirky painted a revolutionary picture for what is happening in the industry.

Rather than take a hipshot off those headlines, though, we’re going to be proactive on OJR this week, starting with this piece from Eric Ulken, who offers a roadmap for established news organizations to enliven their online efforts.]

In a nondescript training room in the BBC’s White City building in West London, about 80 people are huddled around tables with placards bearing names like “Dr. Who” and “Top Gear” [BBC TV show titles], engaged in discussions on topics ranging from user-generated content to alternate-reality gaming.

The assembled thinkers and tinkerers represent many different arms of the British media behemoth, from radio news to Web production to technology. About the only things they have in common besides an employer are an interest in innovation and an eye to the future.

They’re taking part in the second BeeBCamp, an “unconference” in the tradition of BarCamp (and partly inspired by the Guardian’s GameCamp) that aims to bring together forward-thinking staffers and a few outsiders to talk about themes loosely related to the future of the BBC. [Disclosure: I was one of those outsiders, and, in the everybody-pitches-in spirit of the unconference, I talked about my work in data journalism at the L.A. Times.]

BeeBCamp, according to the BBC blog’s write-up of the event, “is designed as a collective, spontaneous bashing together of ideas, with no set structure to the day.” A whiteboard goes up first thing in the morning, and anybody who has an idea for a discussion or presentation claims a spot on the schedule. For example, one participant wrote: “We own What should we do with it?” (Some ideas here.)

On the whiteboard with the morning schedule, each show title corresponds to a table. Here’s a shot of the afternoon schedule.

I’m a little late with this post, as it’s been almost a month since the Feb. 18 gathering. There’s already ample coverage of the discussions and presentations (plus tags on Twitter and Flickr), so I won’t rehash all that. Instead I’d like to consider the broader idea of BeeBCamp and similar gatherings as they relate to the need to foster innovation in traditional media organizations. BeeBCamp and events like it are great examples of how “big media” — often seen as bureaucratic and impenetrable — can break down walls, open themselves up and facilitate the development of new ideas.

Why might a media company want to host an event like this? Some reasons:

  • Silo-busting: BeeBCamp brings together staffers from disparate parts of a huge institution — folks who might never have a business reason to talk to one another but whose goals and interests mesh, often in unexpected ways. (I got the feeling a number of the BeeBCamp participants had never met before.) The interdisciplinary nature of the gathering is what makes it so useful, as experts apply their unique perspectives and skills to common problems.
  • Openness: Everything at BeeBCamp is on the record, unless somebody holds up a sign that says “unbloggable”. This means a lot of what is said will get rebroadcast and commented on by people outside the organization, which is, at the least, a way of showing the world that the BBC is thinking and talking about the future, and at best a way to engage in an informal dialogue with the audience.
  • Innovation: Sometimes it’s useful to get away from the desk for a while and talk informally with colleagues. Not the ones you sit next to, but the folks across the building (or across town, or across the country) whom you wouldn’t ordinarily interact with. Crazy, silly ideas flow, which beget less silly ideas, which occasionally lead to completely sane and doable ideas. And because people are free to blog the discussions, there’s a good record of what’s said, which can be a useful starting point for follow-up discussion and action.

BeeBCamp is just one example of how media organizations are opening up the process of innovation. Here are some formats that have been used:

  • Hack day: This concept, which originated at Yahoo, typically calls for giving techies (often working in concert with product and content folks) 24 hours to build an idea into a functional prototype. After trying out the format internally in 2005, Yahoo conducted the first open hack day in 2006 and continues to do both internal and public hack days. Matt McAlister, one of the instigators of hack day at Yahoo, is now at the Guardian, which did its own internal hack day (with a few outside guests) last year. McAlister has a round-up of the results, complete with video highlight reel, on his blog. (I’d be interested in hearing if other media have hosted hack days.)
  • Meetup: The Chicago Tribune has been making good use of meetups (or tweetups, i.e., meetups organized via Twitter) to engage in informal dialogue with readers. It works like this: The Trib (in the persona of Colonel Tribune) invites local bloggers, twitterers and interested readers of all stripes to meet – no agenda — usually at a local bar. The result: Ideas direct from readers, kudos in the blogosphere and good karma all around. Last year the Trib also invited local bloggers to tour the paper.
  • Unconference: BeeBCamp, BarCamp and the recent regional NewsInnovation BarCamps fall into this category. Here’s how you might organize an unconference in your organization: Find interested colleagues. Bring in some clever outsiders. Get them talking about the future and see what happens. Make it clear to people that what’s said is on the record. You want folks to feel free to blog and comment about what they see and hear, for reasons mentioned above.

So, what’s the result of all this interaction? I asked Philip Trippenbach, the BeeBCamp organizer and the BBC’s “serious games” guru, if he had examples of products that have come out of BeeBCamp discussions. His response:

Sorry, but I can’t give you any examples of where this has happened at the BBC — yet.

There is one good concrete idea that came out of BeeBCamp: setting up a BBC-wide innovation database. Prototyping this is trivial, and that’s happening, but the tough thing is going to be overcoming the institutional/bureacuratic hurdles to implementation.

However, this isn’t to say that BeeBCamp has had no impact — far from it. I can’t count the number of interdepartmental contacts and discussions that arose as a result of it. This is the sort of interaction that leads to better cooperation and information-sharing across the company. It’s not to be underestimated. Many, many projects coming out of different departments will be informed by this kind of information-sharing through the company. What’s more, I know of two other events that are being planned in the wake of BeeBCamp, and with the same aim: get more New Media people from across the corp sharing and getting to know each other.

What an event like BeeBCamp and its successors does is wake up the community. It takes a community to raise a child, it takes a community to find a phone, and it takes a vibrant, active, connected community to break new ground in media. That’s what we’re doing with BeeBCamp: stoking the flames, so the embers can forge steel.

If you’ve held events like these to promote innovation in your organization, please share your experience here. And if your company hasn’t started bashing together ideas this way, why not be the catalyst? If the BBC can do it, so can you.

About Eric Ulken

Eric Ulken left his job as editor for interactive technology at the Los Angeles Times in November 2008 to travel and report on trends and best practices in online journalism. He is a 2005 graduate of the communication management M.A. program at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, where he was an editor and producer for OJR and Japan Media Review. He has been a web monkey at newsrooms in six states, including his native Louisiana.


  1. says:

    Good article.
    I think it is right to try to identify direct outcomes. We should all be productive in our thinking. But I think these events have a use in raising morale, crossing boundaries and freshening up thinking. Outcomes may not emerge until months later.
    I really enjoy being part of them – I think it helps to have independent critical/supportive thinkers at these sessions.
    See you in Perugia!
    Charlie Beckett