What I saw at ONA 12

I go to a number of journalism conferences, and I evaluate them using various standards: energy of the speakers, number of interesting conversations, ambiance of the venue, quality of the food and drink, etc. One of the most reliable is the quantity of notes I take (using a uni-ball Vision Elite and a 5 x 8 yellow pad, thank you very much), and by that measure, the Online News Association 2012 Annual Conference in San Francisco was a great success.

ONA is a natural organization for the Knight Fellowships to engage with, given our focus on journalism innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership, and we wanted to play a key role in the conference. More than a dozen past and current Knight Fellows were featured as moderators or panelists at conference sessions, and we were a Gold-level sponsor.

But more than a chance for outreach, this was an opportunity for our fellows and staff to immerse ourselves in what’s happening now and what will be happening in the future — and to learn how we can be a player in that future.

These conferences by their very nature defy simple narrative, and I won’t try to craft one. Instead, some impressions and (I hope) useful nuggets:

Tool Time. Not surprisingly for an organization with a technology in its name, there was a heavy focus on tools, templates, techniques and the like. And some of the tools, current and future, are really incredible. One session that stood out for me was on election night coverage, with Burt Herman of Storify, Olivia Ma of YouTube and John Keefe of WNYC. Herman (a former Knight Fellow) made the point that social media has revolutionized coverage of the election: “Everyone is there, covering it for you.” Keefe provided an excellent summary of the tools available.

Taking Care of Business. Sessions that weren’t focused on tools were likely focused on business models and its first cousin, sustainability. Again, no surprise. The economic disruption of news media economics means that figuring out how to pay for the journalism we need is a top priority. Several fascinating sessions, with good advice, but the bottom line is that nobody has figured this out yet.

What’s the story? It seemed to me that there was less of a focus on the important stories that these cool new tools could help us tell. One that I wish I’d been able to attend (and couldn’t because I was somewhere else) was “Beat Reporting for the Digital Age,” with Juana Summers of Politico and Laura Amico, the founder of Homicide Watch (and also a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard.

Everyone is welcome. Too many journalism conferences I have attended have been largely male, largely white when it comes to speakers and panelists. ONA executive director Jane McDonnell and Innovation/Community Engagement Director Jeanne Brooks and the program committee made sure that was not the case here. They succeeded. My rough count shows about two out of five presenters were women and one out of four were people of color. Note to other journalism conference organizers: It can be done. You just have to want to do it.

Game on. One of my favorite sessions was on gaming, a realm in which I am decidedly not knowledgeable. “It’s Not All Fun and Games,” moderated by Knight Fellow Latoya Peterson, gave me a fascinating glimpse into how gaming techniques can be used in other realms. Real life example: Dennis Bonilla of Valador recounted using a video game as a visualization system to help NASA engineers “talk” to each other, despite using different platforms. NASA estimated it would take 5 years and $20 million to solve it; the game helped resolve it in 18 months for $1.5 million. This whole discussion focused on using existing technologies for innovative purposes, a concept I love. (Speaking of which, I just noticed that Home Depot is using Shazam to take viewers to its YouTube channel. Doesn’t it seem like news organizations could do something similar?)

Technology that will kill you. The most chilling session I attended focused on how the most sophisticated digital tools expose journalists and their sources to danger in repressive regimes. “Journalism Under Duress: Risks of Reporting Conflict” was organized by the Committee to Protect Journalists, and emphasized the vulnerability of unencrypted laptops and especially smartphones. Danny O’Brien and Frank Smyth of CPJ advised journalists to be very careful about what they put on their phones. “Use a dumb phone if you’re in a dangerous situation,” they advised: A smart phone’s GPS betrays exactly where you are.

The 10 smartest things I heard at ONA 12

“We’re in the huddling-for-warmth phase of journalism.”
Jim Brady, ONA president and editor-in-chief of Digital First Media, on why collaboration is essential.

“A really robust ecosystem needs diversity.”
Joaquin Alvarado, chief strategy officer, Center for Investigative Reporting.

“With all the new tools, we’re still telling something of the old stories.”
Dori Maynard, president and CEO, Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

“Be an organizer within your organization. Create experiments that don’t require permission.”
Joaquin Alvarado, on how reporters can foster change in their news organizations.

“You get a multi-hued view of this person, instead of this single-streamed version.”
Dick Costolo, Twitter CEO, on the value of Rupert Murdoch’s tweets.

“Making money is not the same as making enough money.”
Elizabeth Osder, Principal, Osder Group

“Media companies are better than event companies at putting on events, in part because they’re in the content business.”
Chris Seper, CEO, MedCity Media

“I think the first thing you need is a customer, if you’re going to start a business.”
Elizabeth Osder

“I want to see Wolf Blitzer give me ‘The Situation Room’; I don’t want to see him in ‘The Situation Room.’”
Barrett Fox, creative director and co-founder, Coco Studios.

“If you are truly passionate about creating it, you’ll be just as passionate about supporting it.”
Matt Thompson, digital initiatives manager, NPR, on the necessity of immersing oneself in the business side.

…and one bonus soundbite (because it’s a reprise):

“Nothing will work, but everything might.”
Matt Thompson, channeling Clay Shirky’s 2009 essay, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.”