Spark Camp expands model of connecting innovators

Photo: Matt Thompson and Amy Webb at Spark Camp. Credit: Amy Webb.

A little more than three years ago we hosted our first “Spark Camp,” then an experimental gathering for journalists funded in part by Knight Foundation. Related Press Release 

Now, thanks to new funding of $250,000 from Knight, we’re branching out beyond Spark Camp with the launch of Spark Co—a new kind of creative organization not quite-think tank, not quite-IDEO but with a clear and focused ambition all the same. The new effort will expand and complement the work we’ve been doing since 2010.

This all began because we wanted to convene our colleagues in a more productive and, frankly, fun way, than what we had seen at industry conferences. Our favorite events, such as NewsFoo and Hacks/Hackers, stood out simply because they had tweaked the conventional conference format. The participants in NewsFoo set the agenda. Hacks/Hackers designed its events to facilitate relationships between journalists who code and those who don’t. As journalists we’re trained to edit. Why not, then, follow the lead of NewsFoo and Hacks/Hackers and edit the rote, largely mass-manufactured format that now dominates?

That ambition led to our first Spark Camp. We chose the word “spark” because it suggests an energetic connection between people and ideas while “camp” is a place for relaxing with friends.

To quickly enable professional rapport, we focused the launch event on a theme—“Spark Camp: Real Time”—and we invited more than 100 journalists working at the edges of breaking news and social media to join us at the City University of New York’s CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

We’ve since held camps on topics as far-ranging as data, money and storytelling—and our sixth, to be held this week at Harvard, is on “Visionaries, Leaders and Managers.”

We’ve iterated the Spark Camp model to the point that few attendees of our first event would recognize it. We have created our own discussion formats, such as “The Swap.” Once an event for journalists, Spark Camps now convene practitioners across industries as far ranging as government, fashion, retail, toys, entertainment, energy and the law.

Hilary Mason, the data scientist in residence at Accel, told us this about attending Spark Camp: “I met so many people at Spark Camp that really shaped the way that I thought about the intersection of data and media. It’s also been a huge influence on the new company that I’m building now.”

“[Spark Camp] is the only conference of any sort I attend, because it is the only one that has ever lit me up, puzzled me, excited me,” wrote David Plotz, editor of Slate, in his feedback.

Just what does a camp look like? Our recently published “The Art of Sparking Connections” gives some insight.

Now, three years later, we find ourselves at the outset of another ambitious experiment. The goal of Spark Co is to creatively convene and organize our growing network of innovators spanning journalism, media and technology.

Spark Camps, which have been at the heart of our endeavor, will be joined by more specific, industry-oriented events and larger festivals,  as well as collaborative projects and publications between participants. We aren’t interested in creating mini-replicas of camp. Each event will have its own format and we’ll carefully select who attends to create the most diverse and interesting conversations possible.

We already have one new event on the calendar for early this fall. Following the next Spark Camp, we’ll host a summit for newsrooms at CUNY.

Together the events will build and network a community of open-minded innovators invested in social impact.

Events are just one of the many tools to bolster our network. Some of the Knight grant will cover the costs of a database and other nuts-and-bolts infrastructure. We can’t divulge specifics yet, but with additional support we hope to soon launch a Spark Prize.

Diversity, in all its forms, has been a core value for us since we started.  Women have accounted for more than 50 percent of attendees at almost every camp. People of color make up more than a quarter of camp attendees, and nearly as many identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender

Not only do we want Spark Camp to be representative of the attending industries, we encourage campers to seek out best practices and ideas from each other.

What inspired us back in 2010 still inspires us today. With the introduction of Spark Co we’re setting out on a quest to build an organization reflecting the ambition and values of our first Spark Camps.

We can’t properly grow without creative partnerships or adding to our team. If you or your organization would like to be part of Spark Co, send us an email.

Spark Camp’s founders are Jenny 8. Lee, Amanda Michel, Andrew Pergam,  Matt Thompson and Amy Webb.

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