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Fear and Loathing in Phoenix – My 48 Hour Binge Experience at NewsFoo

10 minute read
by Alex Hillman

I’m coming down from a 48 hour binge. Not one fueled by two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers…and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls, but a binge on the discomfort of immersing myself in someone else’s industry and the revelations and discoveries that come from escaping my own comfort zone.

I had the pleasure of sharing the last 3 days with around 150 hand-selected participants of NewsFooCamp, a first-time event organized by O’Reilly Media, Google, and the Knight Foundation. While the format of a self-organizing “unconference” is something I’m hardly new to, there were plenty of other experiences to this weekend that contributed to my altered state of mind.

what the hell am i doing here?

If I had to explain NewsFoo to someone BEFORE attending the event, I usually suggested that it was going to be an ad-hoc, self organizing conference focused on the future of news and journalism. This begged the common question: “So…how did you end up getting invited?”. Honestly, I haven’t the foggiest idea.

While I’m pretty sure that I’ll stick to getting in the paper by doing the things that I do best (including but not limited to shooting my mouth off), I have had some moments of clarity throughout this intoxicating experience, and thought I’d recount them here.

shutting up and listening.

First and foremost: I’m realizing how passionate I am about information. I’ve always been a bit of a pattern junkie, and I’m fundamentally fascinated by the human condition. I think it all comes down the fact that I’m a reasonably observant person, and I’m absolutely in love with the world around me and the information it provides me. From my obsessions with behavior patterns (of which my skill and understanding have been amplified by the last 4 years working on Indy Hall), to my love for people watching, I’m more than a bit of a voyeur.

NewsFoo gave me an opportunity to immerse myself in the meta-experience of a sea of information about the seas of information that are gathered, managed, and moved by the journalism industry.

As an aside, this is the 2nd time I’ve attended & participated in a conference that largely focused on an industry outside of my direct channel of expertise; last time, a corporate human resources conference, and this time, a conference about journalism and publishing.

I have to say, it’s liberating to be naive. If more smart people let themselves be naive instead of trying to know everything all the time, I think we’d all live happier lives. But I digress.

the “talking heads” really are burning down the house.

Outside of my own affirmations about my interest in the spread of information and ideas (and admittedly, my interest is often to a different end than someone in journalism or publishing), I got to spend this weekend looking at problems for the first time that most attendees of NewsFoo have been staring square in the eye for some time.

While I was in San Francisco last week, a good friend made the analogy to “building in a burning house”, and I feel that best describes the kind of problem solving that’s largely exercised by the journalism industry, at least based on what was represented this weekend.

crisis is a great a business model until it happens to your business.

News organizations seem to have designed their operations – and relatively, their business models – around crisis. It makes some sense, if you think about it, given the types of events and experiences that journalism historically has shown its most value. I think that the problem with this is that the only reason that some of these news organizations are still standing upright is because they’ve fallen and nearly smashed their faces at least once already, and they don’t seem to be any less likely to fall – or smash their faces – again.

It’s almost like the news industry is populated by people of a specific genotype of humans that are predisposed to chaos and crisis. In their work, that’s viewed as an asset, and allows them to cope with some pretty antagonistic working conditions. But from an outsiders point of view, I’m observing how this dynamic is being transferred over to the business side of the industry (the one that needs to be there to support the operations). The outcome seems to have afflicted the decision makers with some whacked out Stockholm Syndrome that keeps them from wanting to build something that resembles a sustainable business model.

And regardless of how innovative the people within the organizations are, if the leaders don’t want to change, the organization’s members are going to have a very hard time changing it for them.

and then tim o’reilly picked me up off the floor. thanks dude.

Another lesson I learned is that I need to stop trying new presentations that aren’t based on things that I’ve said or written about before. I’m awful at practicing a particular “speech” beforehand, and in fact, I’ve found that traditional scripted practice negatively impacts my ability to deliver a message as I intend to because I’m so caught up with what I thought I was going to say that I struggle to say it in the first place. I experienced this last night at NewsFoo Ignite, where I presented a new set of slides I titled “BUSINESSWEAK”, which was meant to be a critical analysis of the fact that news needs new business models, not just new versions of the old ones.

Given how supportive the group at NewsFoo has been, I don’t feel like I need to excuse myself for my awkward performance. Luckily, for all of my fumbling, one of the key points I wanted to make seemed to come out in an oddly important moment of clarity.

The train of thought that brought this idea into my presentation was more simple than I was trying to make it in my Ignite talk, but fellow Ignite speaker Andrew Walkingshaw pointed out to me, while JOURNALISM deserves a right to exist, the BUSINESS OF JOURNALISM doesn’t have that same right.

It’s pretty clear to me that the folks with the decision making power in these news organizations don’t see things that way, given how in another session, I watched some of those people actively dodge discussing hard questions in favor of the old and familiar.

why are we still talking about advertising?

Somehow, two sessions got jammed together: one was meant to address proposed laws to create opt-out techniques for reader tracking, while the the other was meant to explore non-advertising business models. While the former interests me from a technical challenge perspective, I came for the latter. I HOPED that they were using the former as a lens for the discussion of “ok, advertising as we know it really could be taken away from us and we’d be screwed, so let’s talk about creative alternatives.

And yes, there were a couple of ideas that I heard that were interesting. But the majority of the discussion kept coming back to models that still depended on a scramble for eyeballs in one way or another.

here’s where I rant.

Ladies. Gentlemen. Friends. Please get a grip on reality. ANY model that is reliant on the size of your readership that isn’t the placement of advertisements is likely just a permutation of advertising, and even if it’s not, it will suffer from the exact same problems that you’re experiencing with your advertising models!

And let me be clear and fair. I’m not in the camp of “advertising is evil”, “advertising doesn’t work”, or “advertising is wrong”.

What makes me want to slap the sandwich out of your hand and tell you to go make another one lest you go hungry, is that the time and resources spent hunting for the “missing variables” to make advertising work for this industry are a distraction from the option of exploring new concepts that don’t have the same dependencies that we’ve learned simply don’t exist in the reality we’re all lucky enough to call home.

I don’t claim to know how advertising works, but it seems to me that it works BEST when it provides sustained and balanced value for all parties involved (buyer, seller, recipient). But if it’s not working for you, why won’t you take a hard look at why it’s not working before you move onto something that doesn’t look the same but still has the same fundamental problems.

look inside, you’ll find what you’re looking for.

Tim O’Reilly was quoted by Sara Winge, FooCamp co-founder and organizer, by saying

“Have the courage to talk about philosophy and values, not just business models.” I wasn’t in the room to know the context of this quote, but the most important word I see in it ISN’T courage, as some might expect. It’s just.

I spent the last 48 hours outside of my comfort zone being exposed to the current outcomes of those philosophies and values, and the sad reality is, that I don’t know how much longer those philosophies and values are going to be able to be sustained the way they are being funded.

What I do know is that when I’m faced with a really hard problem to solve, instead of trying to figure out what I don’t have, I figure out what I do have and how that will help me achieve my goals.

I believe that there are untapped opportunities to discover and implement new innovative ways for the news industry to stand on its own two feet in financial independence lie in those philosophies and values themselves.What the opportunities look like is still not 100% clear to me, but there’s some stuff in there that smells like real business to me.

I want to invite a discussion for the attendees of NewsFoo as well as those as passionate about news & journalism as I am about information and independence, to step outside of THEIR comfort zones for a little while and check your assumptions at the door. Bring those philosophies and values, though, because I think that by better understanding their value on contemporary society, together we can start finding some new business models that might actually rescue your asses from the burning building and let you focus on what you’re best at: finding amazing stories and making sure that they have an opportunity to be told.

That smell could also be remnants from the binge. But we won’t know unless we try, and I’m happy to be a part of that process.

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Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.