Conference Notes: A virtual trip through #ONA14

By Susan Newhook

At the opening keynote of the Online News Association conference in Chicago last week, I found a seat next to one of this year’s 900 first-timers. He was a little daunted by the schedule and asked me, an ONA sophomore, for advice.

“Don’t worry about getting to everything that looks interesting,” I told him. “You can’t, but that’s fine—you’ll still learn lots. Relax.”

Bit of a lie there. Fact is, if you come back from an ONA conference without a case of fried brain, you aren’t doing it right.

Some journalists I’ve talked to think ONA is for the hard-core digerati, but it’s more than a giant (1902 delegates this year – most ever) techfest. As someone who doesn’t speak fluent CSS, let alone Ruby, I use the conference to learn what’s new and next, plus tips and ideas I can use in class and my own work.

The atmosphere at ONA is “we’re all digital journalists now.” Delegates and presenters come from legacy and digital-only outlets. The sessions are a Goldilocks mix: too basic for my skills and interests, outside or beyond them and juuuust right. I never know what I’ll come away with, but it’s almost all useful.

Here’s an overview of my own takeaways—probably a Goldilocks mix for you, too—with links to find out more.

Change is in culture and relationships, not just tech

When the New York Times hasn’t figured out how to get past “Page One thinking” and 6 p.m. deadlines, you know it’s not just you, and it’s not just technology. Everyone is trying to manage and keep up with changing workflows and relationships. There is a general consensus that journalists don’t have to be coding experts, but we do need to know enough at least to work with them. (That works both ways: the dazed conference newbie I mentioned was one of several tech people I met whose universities sent them for a crash course in journalism issues and practice.)

I went to two sessions that talked directly about this idea, and it percolated through others. The leaked New York Times innovation report is a case study in the struggle to adapt. Delegates packed a large ballroom (on Friday, at happy hour!) to listen to the report’s authors talk about the report, its fallout and the challenges of the new world order(s). The Times deputy editor of digital operations Amy O’Leary said she wants to do away with the conventional idea of a line between church and state in newsrooms—not to let the advertising department meddle in journalism, but to encourage conversations and teamwork across departments to improve the Times’s journalism and its reach.

A session on design thinking was thought-provoking in a big-picture way. Justin Ferrell, from the Stanford Design School, started out in print newsrooms. He talked about unhooking from standard workflows and newsroom hierarchies and starting instead with the designer’s question: What does the user need?

A few of my takeaways on this topic: small successes are better than big pronouncements. Encourage small project teams with a mix of skills, like those working on NYT Now and Cooking. Remember that nothing is “someone else’s job” anymore. And j-grads take note: digital career curves are unpredictable, and the jobs you didn’t plan for may be the most rewarding.

Immersive and structured journalism

If you’ve scratched your head at explanatory journalism projects, you know that new and new-to-digital approaches to storytelling need labels. On my last trip to ONA in 2011, “entrepreneurial” and “social” were the buzzwords. This year, I found out about immersive and structured journalism.

Immersive storytelling includes the big, high-tech, sexy, weird thing also known as virtual reality (VR), or “why would anyone wear giant goggles to watch a news story?” The case study here is the Des Moines Register/Gannett series, “Harvest of Change: Iowa farm families confront a nation in transition.” I lined up to watch some of the VR elements at the Oculus Rift booth in the conference midway and came away gobsmacked (and a bit dizzy).

A session called The Holodeck is Real explained that story choice was key to a successful VR pilot: it gave reporters and producers some control over their production environment, while letting people go virtually inside a serious topic. Gannett Digital’s Mitch Gelman said they wanted to show that VR is “not a gimmick. It’s serious and meaningful.”

My takeaway: as the technology improves, producers will be hungry for good content; just as in TV, radio and print, the fanciest bells and whistles are just carny tricks without solid journalism and strong storytelling.

After that sci-fi trip, structured journalism will be familiar to anyone who’s worked on continuing coverage or a beat. Think PolitiFact or Homicide Watch: the whole story doesn’t fit into a traditional article, but develops over time in a variety of formats including databases and archives.

This is something legacy media and j-schools should look at, not least as a great way to (buzzword alert) resurface good content. With the right help, broadcast current-affairs in particular could do great things, using long-form production skills and local and network archives. (I’m looking at you, CBC….)

Even online, the idea of building continuing coverage in one place is older than its label. Homicide Watch is a case in point. I met its cofounder, Laura Amico, at ONA in 2011, when she was a stubborn reporter determined to draw attention to the stories behind the appalling homicide statistics in Washington, D.C. This year, she was part of the structured journalism panel, and Homicide Watch is in three more U.S. cities, even as the original site struggles to pay its bills.

Canadians at ONA

Is ONA flying under the radar in Canada? Four Canadian outlets were among finalists on awards night, and two won. There were delegates and companies from a couple of dozen countries in Chicago, including a small contingent of Canadians, most from what some newsrooms would call their digital side. It’s not a cheap trip, but newsroom leaders might want to look the conference as a chance to break down those walls and encourage new ideas.

Which leads to one last thought on why I love going to ONA: it’s not just that it helps me learn more about digital journalism, which is good for me, my students and my school. It’s that the conference frames living in “interesting times” as a good thing as well as a daunting one. If you work in a place where the Voices of Doom hold sway, an ONA conference is another country, energetic and optimistic.

The bottom line in almost every session is that everything—analytics, technologies, design, culture—has to be in service of the story and the audience. You don’t need a computer science degree to get your fried brain around that.

You can find out more about ONA at the association’s website and on Twitter with the hashtag #ONA14.

A version of this post appeared on the PBS MediaShift blog. 

Susan NewhookSusan Newhook teaches television and video reporting at the School of Journalism, University of King’s College in Halifax.

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