SRCCON Ticketing—What We Did and Why

This year, as we prepare for SRCCON 2015, we’re making an effort to document our work in public as we go. This post on our ticketing process will be followed shortly by one on session selection, with more to come between now and the end of June.

Unless you have unlimited space at an event, ticketing is weird—it forces you, as an organizer, to translate your fuzzy goals and hopes into actual numbers, and then turn those numbers into actual people. How should you decide who has a chance to come to your event? Should it be random chance? Should engagement with the community be rewarded? What about people who volunteer to run sessions or do talks? If you claim to care about diversity and inclusion, what does that mean for your ticketing process? The tenor of conferences and other events is, in large part, a result of their organizers’ answers to those questions.

For SRCCON 2015, our second year doing the event, we came in with some clear parameters.

Keeping It Small

The journalism-tech community is heavily represented at two big events in the US, ONA and NICAR, along with a very wide range of smaller events. SRCCON was conceived at NICAR, as an event that centers on the incidental things we love at bigger events—things like hallway conversations, hotel-lobby skillshares, and informal collaborations. We built SRCCON to bring those chance moments out of loud bars—and off of hallway floors—and give them a well-lit, welcoming place, to see if they’d flourish. And they did.

In 2014, the event capped out at 175 people, including all staff, volunteers, and sponsor representatives—and that was 50 people more than we’d initially planned before our unexpected three-minute sell-out. We had attendees from four continents and all over the US, though our Philadelphia location drew especially heavily from New York and DC, with the largest contingent from a single organization coming from the New York Times. When everyone was gathered together for opening and closing sessions, it felt like a lot—but it was also a small enough that people could attend a few sessions on Day One and then see a high percentage of familiar faces on Day Two.

Because conversation and small-scale collaboration is at the heart of SRCCON, we wanted to keep the 2015 event small enough to function as a hybrid conference-unconference, without lectures or huge sessions, with a flow that encourages and supports informal discussion. This year, with our space at the McNamarra Alumni Center secured, we decided to expand to 225 people, 100 more than our original plan for the first SRCCON, but still—we hope—small enough to feel relaxed and friendly, and encourage extended conversations rather than rushed chats between sessions.

Centering Participation

Loosely based on the pragmatic, building-centric sessions at the Mozilla Festival in London, SRCCON’s session formats are peer-led and highly participatory. In part because there are so many other opportunities to attend lecture-style, slide-heavy talks and presentations, we don’t do those things. Instead, our sessions range from structured games to skillshares with practice sessions to straight conversation groups focused on hashing out a shared problem among news organizations, be it technical, financial, or cultural.

Given that focus, we wanted to define a ticketing process that allowed people who pitched great sessions to actually attend, and that emphasized participation by design. In particular, we wanted everyone who felt able to pitch a session to do so, and to be assured of a ticket if their session was accepted. SRCCON relies on the enthusiasm and engagement of session facilitators, and on the variety of ideas and approaches they bring to the program. (We’ll talk more about our session solicitation and selection processes in the an upcoming post.)

We also didn’t want to create two classes of attendees—SRCCON is a conversation between enthusiastic equals—so all SRCCON attendees, including session facilitators, purchase a ticket. (Comp tickets are part of our scholarship and sponsorship packages, which are the exceptions to the rule.)

Welcoming the Community

We wanted SRCCON to be accessible and welcoming to people whose communities have been underrepresented in journalism and the tech industry—primarily women and people of color—and to people working in news organizations in smaller and non-coastal markets. We also wanted to make sure local news organizations and people who are allies of journalism tech but not actually in newsrooms, like civic hackers, were represented.

We wanted plenty of space for wildcards, and for people who should absolutely be at SRCCON but are far enough from our networks that they wouldn’t have heard about it before tickets went on sale.

Putting It All Together

Given those overall goals, we discussed a lot of options, including lotteries like WWDC, applications like XOXO, and first-come-first-serve like…everyone else. We didn’t need to discuss making SRCCON invite-only, much as invitational events can be great, because that’s not our aim, but we talked about just about everything else. We went over attendee-referral plans both simple and ridiculously overcomplicated. One friend highly recommended the Grateful Dead model of paper applications and tickets awarded to the fanciest hand-drawn envelope illustrations.

After many spreadsheets and long conversations, we ended up with this year’s plan. 225 people in attendance minus OpenNews staff, the transcription team, 12 on-site volunteers, and our current cohort fellows meant we had 198 tickets to allocate. Happily, we were able to offer more tickets than last year in every category. Here’s how we did it:

  • 70 reserved tickets for facilitators whose sessions were accepted
  • 70 open sale, to make an equal number of tickets available to people who couldn’t pitch a session, or whose session didn’t get accepted, but who still wanted to attend
  • 20 tickets held back to make available to people from small and non-coastal news orgs and those from underrepresented communities
  • 20 comp tickets for travel scholarship recipients (5 of which were set aside for Knight-Mozilla fellowship alums and funded through fellowship funds)
  • 18 comp tickets for SRCCON sponsors (or their delegates)

Even after months of staring at the math, the numbers themselves seem weirdly small in every category, which is one of the reasons I wanted to document them publicly—so that other new event organizers can get a peek at the complexities and very restricted math involved in running a small conference. (We’re also very happy to discuss our approach and experience with other event organizers, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.)

Why Did You Do That?

We offered reserved tickets for session facilitators as a way to get the accepted sessions to SRCCON and to reward and support the people who make SRCCON happen by leading sessions. Last year we got the timing wrong for ticket sales because we hadn’t expected a fast sell-out, and we had to do some tapdancing (and expand the event) to make sure that session facilitators could get tickets. This year, our process began with reserved facilitator tickets as a central assumption.

Our open sale this year went even more quickly than last year’s three-minute sell-out, with the same number of tickets on sale. We suspected that would happen, so we posted ticket dates and enjoinders to prepare for a fast sell-out months in advance so that people could make arrangements for colleagues to purchase for them if needed. We did consider multiple rounds of open sale at different times of day or on different dates, but comments from organizers who’d done so persuaded us not to—we heard reports that people who tried to buy tickets on more than one occasion were particularly sad if they missed out, and we didn’t want to make anyone unhappier than necessary by offering tiny batches of tickets.

The Ongoing Work of Diversity and Inclusion

The work of making SRCCON as accessible and inclusive as possible began long before we figured out how we wanted to handle tickets this year. We picked Minneapolis for many reasons, including that it’s a shorter trip for Midwestern colleagues and a longer trip for the NYC contingent that was so heavily represented at SRCCON 2014. And we likewise worked hard to keep ticket prices low, especially for a conference that caters meals, because we didn’t want to exclude people whose teams lack a substantial travel budget—or to force them to choose between SRCCON and a bigger event like NICAR or ONA.

Our held-back tickets are one of several mechanisms for turning our diversity hopes and plans into concrete action. We considered diversity in selecting our session facilitators, tracked related information for ticket purchasers, and then, with sessions selected, were able to get an overview of ticket allocations so far and make a plan for our remaining handful of tickets. The newsroom tech (and design and data reporting) community includes hundreds of extraordinary, wonderful people who would be amazing SRCCON participants, and who didn’t get a ticket through another channel. Since we’ve elected to keep the event itself small, most of those people won’t be able to attend. Using our diversity criteria—people from news orgs in small and non-coastal markets, women, and people of color—to help us allocate held-back tickets helps us spread our tiny number of reserved spots across that pool of extraordinary, wonderful people in a way that brings a diversity of voices and perspectives to SRCCON and makes our event more welcoming to a broader community

So far this year, the organization with the largest group of attendees by a healthy margin is a Midwestern newspaper team that picked up almost all their tickets from the open sale. And as much as we’ll miss the huge NYT contingent from last year, that feels like a good sign.

Next Year

Like everything else to do with OpenNews and SRCCON, our ticketing is an iterative process. When we hold SRCCON in 2016, we’ll probably handle it a little differently—but it’s hard to say how, at this point. We’ll want to preserve the scale of the event and the human benefits it brings, so once again, we’ll have to make a whole set of difficult decisions. In the interim, we welcome feedback and will continue to aim for the most fair, ethical, transparent process we can come up with—for tickets and everything else.

posted May 12, 2015 | posted in srccon