This year’s invitation-only journalism innovation event included more women journalists but still lacked diversity in terms of race and ethnicity
By RAISA HABERSHAM
There’s a super secret gathering of journalists called Newsgeist, formerly Newsfoo. Ever heard of it? No. That’s because organizers of the gathering only want certain journalists to know about it, and even fewer get invited to the annual confabs.
Invited guests – elite journalists, media entrepreneurs, and technologists – met earlier this month at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Sponsored by Google and the Knight Foundation Nov. 14-16, we can’t tell you who was there because we weren’t invited. We also can’t tell you what, specifically, was talked about or by whom. Newgeist has rules against that.
All Digitocracy did catch up with Marie Gilot, program officer with the Knight Foundation, who talked about increasing the number of women at this year’s event, and making future Newsgeists more racially and ethnically diverse.
All Digitocracy: Where did the idea of Newsgeist come from and what exactly is it?
Marie Gilot: Newsgeist is an “unconference,” meaning that there are no set agendas, no panels and no moderators. Its open format is intended to feed more innovation in news, media and journalism. Conference attendees decide which topics they want to talk about [when they arrive], break up into smaller groups and have freestyle discussions, like a bunch of really smart friends!
Google and Knight Foundation co-sponsor the event, which is in its fifth year and takes place at Arizona State University. My personal experience is that this format is mind-opening and makes it very difficult to go back to regular conferences where you sit in a hotel ballroom being talked to from the stage.
AD: What was the topic at this year’s event?
MG: The general topic is news, media and journalism and the people invited tend to be innovators in those areas. We are careful not to dictate narrow subtopics. People should be free to talk about what is on their mind at the moment. Some people this year discussed ways to make online security a default setting for journalists, others pondered ways to attach value to civility in comments to combat trolls, and there was a great discussion on the importance of play and playfulness in newsrooms.
AD: How do journalists become a part of it and are student journalists welcome? How are invitations distributed?
MG: Newsgeist is by invitation only. Google and Knight invite about 160 people each year including journalists, media company executives and entrepreneurs, academics and a few students. We pick people we have met at industry events, people we work with and people who have been recommended to us for their innovative approaches. We try not to have more than a third of returnees from previous years to mix it up and hear from new people. This careful curation of attendees is the key to a successful unconference.
AD: We’ve heard from a few attendees that the crowd wasn’t very diverse. Why was that and how do you intend to make the event more inclusive?
MG: The crowd could definitely have been more ethnically diverse – that goes for previous years too – and in the past, gender-balance was an issue too. This year, we were very intentional in having 50 percent women and I believe we achieved that. We now have to be just as intentional with diversity. It is absolutely achievable and extremely important for the organizers and the attendees. In fact, discussions are much deeper and more enjoyable when we have a mix of people with different experiences and backgrounds.
AD: Does the selective, invitation-only nature of the gathering impact the level of diversity?
MG: We are definitely aware that innovation and representative news coverage requires diversity. The invitation-only feature is essential to the balance of an unconference – to make sure that different parts of our field are represented – and should help, not hinder the level of diversity.
AD: Why are journalists, who usually support transparency, so secretive about this event?
MG: Participants are free to discuss what transpired at the meeting, as long as they use Chatham House rules and don’t attach statements and positions to a particular person. This is a typical request of unconference participants and essential for people to speak freely and candidly about the state of their company and industry.
(Chatham House rules state: When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.)
AD: Specifically, just how did you go about attracting more women to the gathering?
MG: We invited more women and checked the RSVPs regularly to make sure that the balance was maintained.
AD: Will you use these same strategies to achieve more racial and ethnic diversity?
MG: Yes, we will check as far as possible to ensure diversity. However, our invitations do represent a diverse mix we were proud of. Since we don’t ask for ethnicity with the RSVP it is never absolutely clear what the makeup will be when the weekend arrives. As an added measure, we asked this year’s attendees to suggest people to invite and impressed upon them that we would welcome suggestions that reflect our diversity goals.
AD: Would you like for Newsgeist to be 50 percent ethnic/racial diversity, what’s the magic number, and why?
MG: There isn’t a magic number, but we recognize that diversity is extremely important to ensuring that news coverage represents the make-up of the U.S. population. Knight’s diversity initiatives have included previous work with historically black colleges and universities, including our recent partnership with journalism programs at Morgan State and Hampton University; the International Center for Journalists “Back to the Newsroom” initiative; sponsorships of annual conferences (Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists); and more.
AD: What accomplishments have come out of the event?
MG: Every year, amazing things come out of the collision between people at Newsgeist. People hire and get hired, people find new ways to collaborate and start projects together. They come up with new ideas and innovations and in at least one case I know of, a national news site was launched.
AD: You mentioned a national news site was launched out of Newsgeist. What was the news venture that was launched?
MG: I think I will respect the Chatham House rules and not speak for others.
AD: Do you have specific numbers regarding how many hires have resulted from the unconference?
MG: No. We don’t keep track because this is not the goal of the unconference. But we know, anecdotally, that this happens every year.
AD: Also, what are some examples of companies doing the hiring and some of the names of those who have been hired as a result of Newsgeist?
MG: Again, Chatham House rules.