From Online Journalism Review,
Annenberg School of Journalism, University of Southern California

Two Cities, Two Gatherings for Two Kinds of Content Creators

In the span of a week, contributing editor Staci D. Kramer went from a blogging "unconference" in Palo Alto to a capital J journalism conference in Hollywood. Along the way she learned a lot.

By Staci D. Kramer
Posted: 2004-11-19

Sometimes brainstorms work. BloggerCon III was Nov. 6 in Palo Alto; the Online News Association was holding its fifth national conference in Los Angeles the following weekend. For someone flying in from St. Louis, that was as good as next door. Why not do both?

The result is the kind of compare-and-contrast assignment English composition teachers love: Attend two disparate conferences with overlapping interests a week and a few hundred miles apart. Meet very different people with widely varying goals. Learn.

Then explain what works and what doesn't, keeping in mind that you know the people who put on each conference and that you hope to be back next year.

Online News Association
ONA Founder Rich Jaroslovsky with one of the names in his Rolodex, Fred Mann. (Staci D. Kramer photo)

More photos: ONA | BloggerCon

A veteran of dozens of conferences, a planner of several and a moderator or panelist at many, I was looking for ways to improve on the panel-driven, formal model I encounter most often. I also hoped to find ways to get people who couldn't make it in person more involved.

I didn't find any one answer to the former, which makes sense because there is no such thing as a conference that works for everybody. I heard plenty of quiet grousing at each -- although BloggerCon attendees also tend to disagree publicly -- about the choice of speakers and discussion leaders, the make up of panels, food, topics, location. (My favorite may be the person who complained about the free lunch at BloggerCon.)

I see lots of hope for the latter -- bringing more people into the conversation during the event and in other locations by thinking regionally or locally.

The two conferences start with very different personalities but the goals are similar -- bring people with an interest in publishing on the Internet together to share, learn and move forward.

BloggerCon has lots of cooks, but the chief chef is technologist Dave Winer, co-founder of RSS and the patient zero of blogging. BloggerCon exists because Winer wants it to happen.

Like BloggerCon, the Online News Association (ONA) was fueled by one person's energy: Rich Jaroslovsky pulled people together from his Rolodex to found the organization. Jaroslovsky and his colleagues in online journalism wanted to be taken seriously, to have their work recognized and to create a network.

That's pretty much where the resemblance ends. BloggerCon is a single annual event drawing people together for one weekend. ONA's conference rests at the core of a year-round effort. ONA has a part-time executive director, a board, a formal committee structure and members, while BloggerCon does not.

BloggerCon III2004 ONA Conference
SettingStanford Law School / No official conference hotel or rates.Renaissance Hollywood (at the Hollywood and Highland complex, home of the Academy Awards) / Great $129 room rate.
SupportSponsors (usually vendors), donations via PayPal and in-kind contributions. Sponsors don't get anything except thanks and brief mentions on Winer's sites, in rare conference e-mail and at the conference. Unlike some tech conferences where a sponsorship guarantees presence on a panel, vendors aren't even allowed to plug their products at BloggerCon. Sponsors get space in an exhibit area, sit on panels, and get prominent mention in the program and during sponsored sessions.
CostFree registration and lunch/snacks. Two pay-as-you-go conference-organized meals. My cost for a non-stop experience from dinner Friday to dinner Saturday excluding travel and an after-dinner drink at Trader Vic's: $65. (First BloggerCon was $500.) The least expensive rate for non-members is $499 and for members, $339. The biggest chunk of the cost by far for ONA was the food catered by Wolfgang Puck, the hotel's exclusive caterer. Also, audio/visual and setup costs at hotels generally run high. Registrants get a t-shirt and a bag with some swag, two continental breakfasts, one lunch, a poolside reception sponsored by, a cash-bar reception, the award dinner and snacks. Total from Friday a.m. through Saturday night excluding travel: approximately $400. It would have been higher if I'd bought my own lunch Friday. (Thanks, Jim.)
Session FormatDesigned as an "unconference." Instead of moderators leading a panel in front of an audience, one person leads a discussion and what had been the audience becomes the panel -- contributing ideas, comments and questions. BloggerCon starts the discussion before participants arrive with posts by discussion leaders and comments about where the sessions should go. The discussion leaders were mostly well-known bloggers. Full group meets for opening -- The National Anthem (at Winer's prodding, attendees choose a different song each year; this year's was Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land, prompted by the popular JibJab animation -- atrue bonding experience at 8:30 a.m.), where the discussion centers on what to expect and what people want -- and closing -- The Fat Man Sings (a self-reference from Winer) where people sum up their experiences, report whether the conference met expectations and brainstorm about future plans and continuing the conversations. Four clusters of breakouts, three sessions each, during the day. Sessions were webcast. IRC was available but not well-used. Primarily formal moderator/panelist format. Even one of the informal sessions required the panel to sit at a dais. Three breakout slots with three sessions at a time. Three breakfast discussions. Two keynotes: AP CEO Tom Curley opened the conference and Ana Marie Cox was the lunch speaker. One exception to the format: some of the group split into teams for a "Master of the Web Universe" competition to design a mock web site. The finalists presented their plans to the full group and a panel of judges. No webcast; two sessions recorded by C-Span.
LogisticsFree WiFi, although spotty at times. Plenty of electrical outlets, desks for computer note-takers. White boards. But the rooms were often too formal for the discussions. Ideally, participants would be able to see each other instead of all facing the leader. Students brought microphones to speakers, which caused a lag at times but ensured decent webcast audio. For those staying at the hotel everything was easily accessible. Free WiFi in the conference area. But sessions weren't set up for computer note-takers, and electrical outlets were hard to find.
Discussion QualityThe four breakout sessions I attended were uneven but each had a pretty high quality-to-noise ratio. One inherited a group that escaped from another session. One measure of success: After every session people connected as though drawn by magnets to continue the discussion. Equally important, I felt like I learned something and made a new, lasting contact in every session. The session topics and session leaders were a big draw for me. There was a session for newbies, but a hands-on lab where people could learn how to podcast or how to do other things would make a great addition. I also think a lot of people could benefit from a seoparately organized user-vendor con -- not a sales pitch-o-rama -- held before or after BloggerCon, where they could talk about problems with software or services or express their needs directly to the vendor. The leader format doesn't always work. It might be worth trying some other options -- for instance, use one person as a table setter and another to move the discussion. Have someone monitor the IRC discussion and act as the rep for off-site participants. Consider having someone responsible for the white board in every session. I thought Curley set the table well with his keynote and heard similar comments from others. But not everyone agreed -- they'd heard it before, it was too much about AP, etc. I thought Ana Marie Cox, aka Wonkette, was amusing and interesting but too lightweight for a keynote tag. Some people agreed with me, some didn't like what she had to say and others thought she was a good choice. The super session with other high-profile bloggers -- including BloggerCon's Winer, Joe Trippi, Arianna Huffington, Mickey Kaus and Rock the Vote's Jehmu Greene -- went much better than I thought it would but had a gaping hole where at least one conservative blogger belonged. I was told later they'd tried to make the panel more inclusive but it hadn't worked. (Should note that Andrew Sullivan was one of last year's keynoters.) Most of the panels were carefully aimed at newsroom managers; the law panel devolved into a libel discussion. Maybe next year they can do one ask-the-lawyer session and another looking forward at emerging legal issues. The biggest learning experience for me was the Web competition Not everyone liked it but I'd vote for Master of the Web II after a few tweaks.
SocialI arrived in Palo Alto that Friday afternoon as a first-time visitor. I knew lots of BloggerCon attendees by email and phone but hardly any in person. Those circumstances made me very grateful for the two organized social events: a large sign-up dinner in a banquet room at a Chinese restaurant (way too noisy but fun) and the informal hosted dinners Saturday night. I think more conferences could benefit from offering the latter -- it's a great way to meet people with similar interests. If you plan one, though, be sure to ask for a round table or a square table; long, narrow tables don't work. Plenty of time for schmoozing and networking. Lunch and dinner were open Friday; one of these slots would be a good time to try a topic-oriented option. It's easy for people who already know each other to find opportunities but can be a bit lonely for newbies. The hotel bar didn't have a lot of seats, which may be one reason why I saw less socializing than usual going on there. One suggestion: a BYOB hospitality suite.
ParticipantsA good mix of different types of bloggers ranging from hobby/personal to professional/commercial. Also a number of journalist bloggers. Enthusiasts who don't blog but wanted to know more about it or wanted to have an influence on the direction software, services and organization. Would-be bloggers. Vendors. All ages from hip to former hippie and beyond. Multiple countries. A larger tech crowd than the last two because of proximity to Silicon Valley. More women than the last two but still a male majority. Some people complained that there weren't enough conservative bloggers but since anyone can register as long as space is available it's not like they were being kept away. Still, BloggerCon could do a better job of reaching out to the wider blogging community. Those who want more diversity in any area should do their share. Primarily professional and student journalists, vendors, others with an interest in online news. I was told by some who didn't attend the conference -- bloggers, journalists and others -- that the cost was a barrier. I understand the costs are high for putting on this kind of conference. Unfortunately, it may be keeping the conference from being more diverse.
Hot TopicPodcasting (session audio)Blogging
TakeawayFree MP3s of every session are being posted by; a morning-after thread; posts from discussion leaders summing up their sessions; conversations in the blogosphere as people digest the experience.A CD containing recordings of every session and PowerPoints is available for $129; a conference blog; coverage by student newsroom.
What next?Tweak the national BloggerCon. Encourage and seed grassroots regional and local BloggerCons in the U.S. and in other countries. Encourage people to see themselves as the doers instead of waiting for BloggerCon, which is an event, not an organization. Given the way the blogosphere works that should be easy. Set up guidelines about what's required to call something a BloggerCon if need be. Explore ways to change the cost equation. Shake up the format a little by experimenting with different room set-ups, different kinds of sessions. Look for ways to involve people who can't make it -- webcasts, MP3s, IRC. The open blog was a good start. Encourage and seed informal free or low-cost regional conferences and local events. Take the students who suggested it up on the idea of a student branch.
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