Watch Parties: Reaching New Audiences, and a New Place of Vulnerability
How we planned and ran the SRCCON 2020 Watch Parties
“Candice and Tasneem are incredible and so inspiring. I wish that their talk would be required viewing for every newsroom leader.” - SRCCON participant
At a time when journalists are navigating both an increasing sense of isolation due to the pandemic, and an increasing sense of urgency to demand better from our own organizations, we wanted to continue giving people ways to connect with and learn from one another. In August 2020, we kicked off our first-ever series of SRCCON Talks Watch Parties, which replayed 5 Talks from our annual conference once a week for 5 weeks. Each watch party also included a live Q&A with the speakers after the replay, and some weeks, those Q&As became a special space where both speakers and participants were open and vulnerable with the challenges they were really facing in the industry.
Seeing that we could still host events both over Zoom and during a pandemic, that could successfully help people create genuine connections, learn from one another, and be vulnerable about how difficult things are — that gave us a lot of hope. So we’re sharing our process and what we learned with the entire community.
We’d never tried anything like this before, so going into it, we had a few straightforward goals:
- Keep it a small scale effort that mostly one person on staff could do, while still working on other projects.
- As with any event we do, we wanted to create a genuinely good experience for people and make sure that our programming was actually useful to marginalized communities.
- Reach folks who don’t know about OpenNews, but share our values.
- Allow community members to share the Talks with people they thought needed to see it.
- Extend the important discussions prompted by our Talks at SRCCON beyond the conference.
We’re happy to say that we met all our goals! Here’s what we saw:
- We definitely kept it small scale, which meant it was manageable to do without putting a total stop to our other work. We had one person managing the whole thing, while the other two folks on the team tag teamed to help support the event and do some social media posting throughout the series.
- Out of the 272 people who signed up, nearly 90% chose to self-identify their race and gender. Of those who self-identified, our Watch Party audience identified as over 80% women, and over 50% people of color. Our speakers were 100% people of color.
- Out of the 272 people who signed up for at least one watch party, 45% of them wanted to join our OpenNews newsletter. Not counting folks who were already signed up in the first place, we had 100 people opt-in to getting updates from us in the future. That definitely meant reaching a new and different audience for us — especially since SRCCON attendance is capped at around 300 people each year.
- We partnered with seven organizations (Free Press, Media 2070, News Integrity Initiative at Newmark J-School, Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, Maynard Institute, Poynter, and LION Publishers), most of whom we’d never partnered with before, and all of whom we wanted to partner with period, to create lightweight ways to work together, such as helping attendees sign up for partner newsletters. They shared our watch parties with their communities, and we helped our attendees understand how those partners might be able to help them on their journeys and in their careers. We had a great time working with every partner and are excited to do more together in the future.
- In addition to the public series, we made sure that people could host private watch parties for their team or colleagues, or to get temporary access to a talk if they couldn’t make the public party. That’s what our community asked for at SRCCON, and we’re really happy to see that people took advantage of this, and some are still taking advantage of it!
- Finally, after the public series concluded, we published two of our Talks online, free for anyone to watch in the future.
How We Did It
Representing Our Values
Going into SRCCON this year, we’d hoped that the conference itself would resonate and directly address the moment. This was especially important to us because of three important values that we share with our community:
- We lead change, by challenging the power structures that have failed our industry. Especially in 2020, when journalists are pushing for long-lasting change in our organizations, it was extremely important to our team here at OpenNews that we challenge failing and unjust systems head on.
- We support one another, by offering each other our expertise and empathy, we find new collaborators, help each other learn, and make our networks and organizations more resilient. Especially in 2020, we know that having the support of a network and community is crucial, and we wanted to make sure our community could feel that support and presence.
- We experiment in the open, by sharing our work and processes, we do the transformative work our organizations need to better connect with and inform our communities. Especially in 2020, when a lot of organizations are learning how to adapt to one crisis after another, we knew that sharing wouldn’t only be important, it could be crucial.
We’ll be writing about how we applied these values across all of SRCCON soon. Our Talks programming specifically represented those values in two ways:
First, our speakers pushed for change directly and openly. The urgency for change was already what the community was talking about in 2019 at SRCCON:LEAD, and now, especially in the summer of 2020, we knew that our Talks would need to meet that urgency, and give folks both a vision to dream about and tactics for how to achieve that dream. The Talks gave us:
- An organized understanding of different types of power, and what it means for journalists to be organized and be better journalists because of it.
- A necessary rehaul of both how we cover protests and think about objectivity.
- A place to digest together whether we could possibly recover from the deep-rooted inequities, injustice, and racism within journalism, and if so, how to start.
- As individuals, a reminder of the power and agency we each hold every day.
- Inspiration, in a time when inspiration might feel rare, through listening to and learning from two women of color about building their newsrooms from the ground up, uniquely and successfully.
During the conference, our Talks resonated so much that participants asked us repeatedly if they could share the videos with friends and colleagues who needed to see them. It was the perfect confirmation that we were on the right track and that a public replay would be a good idea.
Second, during our live Q&A, we continued creating an environment where everyone could be vulnerable. We wanted participants to be able to ask questions that felt extremely close to home, if that’s what they needed help with, and we wanted speakers to feel comfortable being vulnerable in their answers. We also wanted participants to feel like they could contribute and answer each other’s questions, since SRCCON is built upon the foundation that everyone there has valuable insights to share. During our public watch party series, we knew we had to create this environment for participants who had never gone to SRCCON and didn’t have that shared foundation of trust.
Creating Space for Vulnerability
During the live Q&As at both SRCCON and during the watch parties, we witnessed and experienced ourselves, some really emotional moments. The questions that people asked came from a range of places, including deep levels of frustration, terrible experiences of discrimination, and a burning desire to make change happen.
During one watch party Q&A, Candice Fortman and Tasneem Raja were asked what they’d say to a journalist of color who wants to launch a news startup but doesn’t believe that they have what it takes. Listening to their answers felt like a powerful, watershed moment of both healing and unlearning, especially as Candice looked into her camera and said without hesitation that “the reason you don’t believe that you can is because the world has told you that you can’t” and that “you have everything you need inside of you.”
Not every moment was like that one, but plenty of moments were, and while we can’t guarantee any list of steps will make everyone feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable, these are the steps we took during the watch parties:
- We set our intentions explicitly. During each watch party, we told everyone that this space is for them. That the chat is a place for them to react, to talk, even as the Talk is being rebroadcast. We also encouraged everyone to get comfortable — turn off their video, sit on their couch, watch with their pet, anything that makes them most comfortable. Finally, we told everyone that the Watch Party itself was not being recorded.
- We were transparent about how our hour together would work. At the very beginning of the watch party, and then again before we transitioned to Q&A, we told everyone exactly how we’ll be using our time, as well as exactly how Q&A would work.
- We held space for anonymous questions. Proactively, we told folks how to ask questions anonymously, and gave voice to those questions. Using our Zoom chat, our host would take questions in the order in which they were posted, asking each speaker to unmute to ask their question out loud. Anyone who wanted to ask their question anonymous could privately message their question to our host, who would then read the question out loud for you. We also made sure that all participants had the ability to change their Zoom display name.
- We encouraged questions from participants, even if it meant moments of silence. While we were always ready to ask the first question to give participants time to write out their own, if no one asked any questions, we routinely paused between questions from the host to stress that we wanted to prioritize questions from the audience, and waited a few moments in silence to give folks the opportunity to jump in. We knew from our own facilitation experience and expertise that this always works in person (after asking if anyone has any questions, count to ten before moving on, and someone will say something) so we made sure to do it online. While even a few seconds of silence can feel like an eternity, that made it all the more important for us to intentionally hold that space.
- We made sure people were heard. Literally. Instead of having our host or speakers read the questions and answer them out loud, we asked participants to unmute and ask their question. They always had the option of opting out and having our host ask instead, but everyone took us up on our offer. It was one more way for our attendees and speakers to connect with one another.
- If anyone chose to stay on camera, our host did too. Comfort in solidarity, you know?
Something else that we know to never take for granted, however, is the trust that our community places in us. With the watch parties specifically, we knew that the participants would be a mix of community members and folks new to OpenNews. As facilitators, we also know how one person willing to be vulnerable first can help an entire room open up. Knowing that existing community members are willing to place their trust in us is also a factor that we can’t ignore, and something we are extremely grateful for.
Lessons Learned from Rebroadcasting
One of our values is experimenting in the open, and especially since this is the first time we’ve done any rebroadcasting, or even video, we threw together something based on what we thought would be a good experience. Here’s both how we did it, and our reflections on what we’d do differently next time.
Our original conference plan made doing rebroadcasts easy.
While SRCCON has always provided live transcription of talks at our thematic events in the past, we’ve never video recorded any part of programming. Like many events this year, we either had to go virtual or postpone our event, and we decided to go virtual. The Talks themselves were also new to our annual SRCCON, but they were a foundational building block of the conference, so we decided that the most important thing was giving people easy access to the Talks, which meant pre-recording. This allowed us to give SRCCON participants asynchronous access to the Talks, and we’d come together — at different times each day to accommodate different time zones — to do live Q&A. We also built in ways for folks to interact with the Q&A if they couldn’t make it.
The most important thing is, however, that we decided to do the pre-recordings, which allowed us to then easily use them again for our watch parties.
Get speaker permissions. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
Since everything from SRCCON 2020 this year — documents, resources, recordings, etc. — was restricted only to this year’s participants, we separately asked our speakers if they’d be willing to let us re-broadcast their Talk at a public watch party OpenNews hosted. We gave them lots of options to pick, ranging from no re-broadcast allowed at all, to only public re-broadcasts hosted by us, to allowing us to make their talk completely public and available online to anyone.
In addition to permissions, we also asked whether they’d like to be involved in any re-broadcast, including whether they’d be up for attending and doing another live Q&A, as well as if they’d be interested in helping us compile a resource document that we’d share with all the new attendees.
Our priority was clear — we’d respect the speaker’s wishes, no matter what, and we didn’t tell any of the speakers what others picked, so they could make the best decision for themselves. In the end, we publicly re-broadcasted five out of the six Talks we had at SRCCON this year, and we’re thrilled about that. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing! Working with our speaker, we also came up with a private plan for any requests to view our sixth talk.
Have goals specific to the rebroadcast.
We’ve listed our overall goals for the watch parties above, but here are some more specific in-the-weeds goals we had:
- Free and open to the public. In addition to getting a different audience, we also just wanted the Talks to be accessible to the public in some way.
- Give attendees real continuing resources to work with. Before SRCCON, we had come up with the idea of study groups that would allow folks to learn together. Because of that, we created these “study guides” which, with the help of our speakers, turned into really great resources for anyone who wanted to know more about the topic of one of our Talks.
- Easy lift partnerships. For each Talk, we either approached a natural partner, or one approached us, and the only thing we needed from them was help promoting the event to their communities. There are always lots of folks we want to work with on a larger level, but why not engage in ways that are easy too?
- Allow private watch parties. Because we had the video files, we could generate temporary, signed links that would automatically expire after a set time. If that was possible, then we could make private watch parties possible too.
Coming up with these specific goals was something we did in an afternoon, and it was okay too that they were more back-of-the-napkin notes than anything else at the time. But having them to begin with helped us make decisions pretty quickly. If we wanted the parties to be free, then we could tell partners up front that we’re not charging. If we wanted to allow private watch parties, we knew we had to make that upfront and clear when we launched and as we promoted the series.
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Sisi Wei is Co-Executive Director of OpenNews, where she envisions and executes transformative initiatives to help create a journalism industry that is more inclusive and equitable, especially for journalists of color and local journalists. Previously, she was the Assistant Managing Editor at ProPublica, during which she edited and managed news apps, graphics, visual investigations and large, interdisciplinary projects. Sisi has won numerous Malofiej, SND Digital and ONA awards, the Gannett Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism, and the 2016 Data Journalism Award for Best Individual Portfolio. She has served as an adjunct professor at New York University, The New School and CUNY, and she is also the co-founder of Code with me, a high-impact, nonprofit workshop that teaches journalists how to code. She is based in New York City.