Hacks/Hackers London: it's only going to get harder to get a ticket - and that's just how it should be

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

I’m not sure I’d have believed you if you’d told me five years ago that Hacks/Hackers London would become so popular that people are screaming and complaining at the organisers because they can’t get tickets to the event – which is moving into ever-larger venues.

And even with larger venues, the wait list for tickets for the latest event is 25% of the attendance. That’s a lot of disappointed people.

It’s a big old event – central to the journalism calendar of digital journalists, and a tribute to the hard work of the team that have been organising it.

But here’s the thing: just four years ago, Hacks/Hackers London fitted comfortably into the basement of a pub not far from Liverpool Street. Here’s The Guardian‘s Martin Belam playing up for the camera, with pint in hand, at one such event:

Belam at hacks hackers

And a couple of years before that, the event was even smaller – it was Ruby in the Pub – an evening for journos who had decided that they needed to learn to code. By 2011, when I first wrote about it, it had evolved into the London branch of Hacks/Hackers.

A pint and a talk on information security

And how did we still fit into a pub two years on from the start of this process? Well, even four years ago, the digital journalism development community were outliers. Only a relatively small proportion of us took the issues being explored by Hacks/Hackers – the intersection of coding and development skills with journalism – seriously enough that we’d give up an evening to hear journalists and coders and security experts and all sorts of other people talk.

In fact, when we held a Hacks/Hackers event at Reed Business, back when I worked for them, my boss was told off by the security team for the company for using the word “Hackers”, as they thought it would bring negative attention to the company from digital criminals…

The world has changed since then, and for the better. Digital journalism – and a wide range of digital skills that go with it – have hit the mainstream. And with that mainstreaming comes a massive surge in people wanting to know more. And one of the place they can go for that – one of the few ones – is Hacks/Hackers London.

It was always going to be thus. There were only two possible destinies for Hacks/Hackers: either the organisers were wrong about the future of journalism and the event would fail. Or they were right – and as the issues discussed trended towards the mainstream, ever increasing numbers of people would want to attend.

Guess which happened?

Victim of its own success

Geary and her mates

Yeah, that’s right. The event got so popular that people are struggling to get places – and giving the organisers a hard time. Imagine that: a digital journalism event in the country’s biggest concentration of media businesses selling out. Quelle surprise.

As Martin put it grumpily a year ago:

One of the problems Hacks/Hackers London faces is that demand for the event vastly out-strips supply. And people are understandably frustrated at not getting tickets and missing out.

The stress associated with keeping a career in this rapidly shifting environment probably triggers the worst of the behaviour you see. People feel that they need to attend events like this, and not being able to do so is putting an unnecessary bar on their career development – or their job security.

With relatively few companies offering good, comprehensive and up-to-date digital journalism training, the need for events like Hacks/Hackers is great.

The question everyone should be asking is: should Hacks/Hackers London be the only group providing it? My friends at journalism.co.uk are going some way to remedy that with the diversification of the news:rewired events into a greater range of niches, but surely we’ve reached the point now where there are enough people interested in specific niches of digital journalism, that we can get a management number of them into a cosy space. Like, say, the basement room of a pub…

Hacks/Hackers London is great – and long may it continue. But what else do we need to supplement it?

The future of journalism hidden in a pub

I must confess: I’m rarely seen at Hacks/Hackers London any more. I live in Sussex, I have two small children I want to be home for, and I’m rarely available at the right moments to apply for tickets. And so I leave it to the younger and more agile to attend.

(And then I feel guilty about how I’ve neglected Hacks/Hackers Brighton since Sarah Marshall left for London… Anyone fancy helping me with that?)

I’m still interested in the content, and follow the events as best I can, even though Martin isn’t liveblogging them any more (boo!). But one thing is niggling at my mind. And it worries me.

The thing that I can’t quite let go of is this: who are the dozen people in a pub somewhere discussing the next big thing to change journalism?

And what are they talking about?

Because somewhere out there, the new Ruby in the Pub is happening. And we’re all too busy looking at today’s digital challenges to see it coming.

digital journalismeventshacks/hackersjoanna geary

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.