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Thoughts & Musings from #ONA13

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I wanted to do a blog entry after my visit to Atlanta for ONA13 but I couldn’t focus on just one thing.  So here are some thoughts and musings (in no particular order):

* I left before the awards dinner and in general I try not to get caught up in awards-mania but I will say that honoring Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com’s coverage of The Boston Marathon Bombings was a sign that good journalism matters and still gets recognized. The Boston Globe’s web sites — which won for Breaking News — provided authoritative, credible information via its live blog. The professionalism of those working on the sites provided them with the strength to shy away from the hysteria and rumor which swept through much of the Twittersphere on that horrible day. Kudos.

* And, the indefatigable Michelle Johnson and her crew from the Boston University New Service also received well-deserved recognition for their efforts. Student journalists can perform at stunning levels when inspired by the right professor. Michelle is one of the special ones.

* Listening to Boston.com’s Teresa Hanafin talk about the days of the bombing at the breaking news panel – and watching the gripping video again — was one of the more emotionally powerful moments of the conference.

* I forgot how much Lisa Williams makes learning new technology fun.

* Lisa’s sessions — and all the hands-on technology sessions — were standing-room only. Probably the most popular sessions of the conference.

* Those sessions were part of the different feel to the conference. Josh Hatch described it as “NICAR-ish.” Definitely true, but there was something else. Part of it was the strong presence of first-timers (657) and a much younger crowd. The University of Georgia was No. 2 on the list of top-five organizations represented at the conference. And, academics — both students and professors — made up almost 200 of those represented at the conference.

* Got to hang with my academic friends and also did a little brainstorming with fellow professors at the “Hack the Curriculum” session. I hope this is the start of something larger — would love to see ONA sponsor some efforts for academics and professors to get together and develop specific guidelines for curriculum at journalism schools.

* The “Circle of Life” was a phrase heard from a few professors. While I had one student (Brittney Figueira) doing great things in the student newsroom, the “Circle of Life” comes when you see former students (Eric Athas) and former interns (Patrick Cooper) becoming conference regulars.

* Amy Webb’s “Top 10 Tech Trends” session was well-attended and talked about by many. I couldn’t make it this year but the strong Twitter presence at the conference allowed me to catch up via Twitter. There were 30,000 conference tweets. Wow.

* Got to hang out with the Digital First Media crew for a bit Thursday night. Great to see a dynamic, young group excited about the future of journalism.

* I missed last year’s conference so I don’t know if this is a trend but the Thursday-Friday night receptions have had some amazingly good food in past years. That was missing this year. Bring back the rocking chefs!

* I did like the band, though. Any time horns are on stage it’s a good time.

* Because Mark Briggs can’t sit for very long, he’s developed a food app dubbed FORK. Check it out.

* The ONA conference is reunion central — I couldn’t walk very far without bumping into an alum from The Washington Post or the University of Maryland. The talent at The Post’s web site in the early 2000s was stunning. That talent is now scattered all over the country at different places and it’s great to see everyone’s successes. And, keep a close eye on what the gang at Maryland are doing — some strong innovation is coming from Terp-land.

* Loved seeing (and taking part in) the ONA Ethics session. I’ve been pushing for something similar for a few years now, leading Lisa Williams to tell me she dubbed it the “Steve Fox session.” Huzzah!

* And I finally attended the legendary Greg Linch Karaoke Night…..legendary indeed.

Until next time…..

Carnival of Journalism: What is ‘Good’ Journalism & A Plea for ONA to Return to its Roots

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Lisa Williams prompted one of the wildest e-mail threads I’ve part of in a while last month when she asked the simple question of what criteria the Online Journalism Awards (issued at the annual conference of the Online News Association) should be focusing on.  The exchange lead to the question for this month’s Carnival of Journalism:

Right now, nominations are open for the Online Journalism Awards.  What qualities should awards like this endorse in an era of such tremendous change in the news industry?

It’s a great question.  During the e-mail thread, I responded to Lisa’s question with:

What has really struck me about ONA in recent years, at the conference panels anyway, is the over-focus on technology over journalism.  While I love panels on the next new whiz-bang-golly-gee-feature as much as the next person, what we do is journalism.   I’ve always viewed ONA as the intersection of technology and journalism and believe that focusing on that intersection is key.  How are journalists/editors innovating not only in the production of journalism but also in the actual collection/reporting going on?   A perfect case in point is the innovation we’ve seen on the part of Andy Carvin and Nick Kristoff (not to influence the judges but these two should get some sort of award for their coverage of the Arab Spring.)  What we’ve seen from both is a change in real-time reporting — through the use of existing social media tools.   Using tools to innovate while doing journalism should be rewarded.

My comment did not sit well with Geoffrey Samek, who responded with:  “Over focus on technology? It is an award focusing exclusively on ‘online’ and a big part of that is technology and how tech changes journalism. ONLINE! Collection and innovative processes that take place in the real world are by definition offline.”

It’s an interesting comment because it points to a separation — a division between what is online and what isn’t — that many of us who have been occupying the digital news space for the past 15 years have been seeking to shed.  Granted, ONA was founded in 1999 with the idea that professional journalists that were making their way in the online sector of their news operations would have a place to gather, share ideas and award the work of their peers.  But the “online” designation seems almost moot today.  Online work is everywhere, being produced by merged newsrooms and honored by all — even the revered Pulitzer committee.  So, of course ONA honors work online — that’s where journalism is being done — and important journalism should be acknowledged.

For those who founded ONA — and those of us who have been a part of it for a while — there was always this need for legitimacy.  The Web side of news operations forming the core of ONA in the early years was (and in some cases still is) the crazy old ranting uncle part of the family.  By creating a huge awards night, ONA and its members declared that the digital crazies with their CMS, servers and crazy code languages were here to stay.  The Awards Night has grown (and changed) over time and for many remains the highlight of  ONA weekend.

But, ironically, this stepchild attitude remains and has created ONA’s need to focus on the newest shiny object.  Awards Night is actually the one point in the weekend where the focus is journalism.  In many ways, ONA weekend has developed a schizophrenic feel to it.  This split focus is an issue that ONA has been wrestling with for years now and I’m not sure what the solution is.  ONA has many audiences — technologists, editors, reporters, educators, students, entrepreneurs, business folks — so where to focus?

While ONA has a nice mission statement, it’s beginning to feel like an organization that has lost its way.  Don’t get me wrong, the annual conference is always a good time — membership numbers are strong, the conference always sells out and large tech groups are lining up to buy sponsorships.  During a time where journalism trade organizations are struggling and bickering, ONA stands alone as a success.

But in recent years the conference has taken on the feel of South By Southwest — attendees come for the party.  And, ONA puts on a great party — it’s the one time of the year that I get to hang out with some of my favorite people in the world.  But I’ve felt for a while now that ONA is missing out on some opportunities to have some serious discussions about the state and direction of journalism — not “online” journalism — but the complete whole enchilada.

Some say that news organizations have the online journalism part of the equation solved.  I’m not sure that’s the case.  What about the growing number of plagiarism cases confronting news organizations?  Ethical issues abound in the arena of social media, comments boards, news gathering — yet rarely do we have these discussions at the annual conference. What role do journalism schools play in the future of the industry?  We’ve had these historical moments in journalism with the Arab Spring  — are we going to talk about it in September? (UPDATE: The answer would appear to be a resounding Yes!)

To answer Lisa’s original question, the awards do seem to focus on the meshing of technical innovation and journalism — my only real issue is with the three-hour long awards ceremony.  It makes the Oscars seem like a fast show :)

Some of the organizations awarded last year point to a real understanding by the judges of the changing nature of the business and that’s a positive development.  Still, I hope the judges find a way this year to acknowledge the groundbreaking efforts of Carvin and Kristoff.

….I thought long and hard about writing this blog post.

I have many friends, colleagues and former colleagues who have helped form this organization into the force it is today.  My words are not meant to critique the efforts of anyone — this is a volunteer organization that thrives on the goodwill of many.  And we’ve all been a part of trying to bring change to major organizations and understand the frustrations that can occur in trying to make things happen. After several years of persistent suggestions, ONA finally agreed to setting up student clubs at universities around the country several years ago.  That’s a positive development.

I guess my hope is that ONA’s Board of Directors recognize that change is good and will help return ONA to its revolutionary roots and understand the larger impact this organization can have.  I would love to see ONA’s Board of Directors beginning to take stances on major issues outside of the conference — ONA is a force in the field but there are many issues where ONA has remained silent.  Should it begin funding partnerships between journalism schools and news organizations?  Should it become a lobbying force for journalism?  Should it start weighing in regularly on discussions and scandals within the industry?  I think so.

I remember my first ONA conference in Chicago in 2003 and the rollicking nature of the organization back then.  (I asked my old washingtonpost.com boss Doug Feaver, one of ONA’s founders, if I could attend in 2002 but he didn’t think the group would be around long enough to warrant the company funding my attendance :)

The General Excellence award winners in 2003 were an eclectic group:  ESPN.com, BeliefNet, CQ.com and the Gotham Gazette.  I remember sitting in on one panel where Jeff Jarvis spoke about the glories of blogging and how he posted one blog entry to his blog after editors at a magazine attempted to edit it.  Gasps filled the room as Jarvis said he posted his blog entry without the edits of editors.

I remember sitting in on another panel about coverage of the Iraq War and listening to a PR representative from the Army critiquing self-censorship of images by those within major U.S. media organizations.  He told the group of us that we were failing to tell the whole story if we weren’t showing the graphic images illustrating the cost of war.

Both discussions had a major impact on me as a journalist and educator.  They were discussions of substance.  I want more of them.

I want more.

The Carnival Takes Off

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I always enjoyed carnivals growing up.  You never knew what to expect — new games, rides, foods just around the corner.   And, such an eclectic group of people that often looked and acted strangely :)

I think what David Cohn had in mind when he re-started the Carnival of Journalism was bringing together a diverse group of folks who would exchange ideas and maybe shake things up in the process. Cohn got just that Wednesday when a Google Groups discussion between Carnistas ranged over a variety of topics, spanning over two days and 70 e-mail exchanges.

The extended thread prompted this reply from the rad one:  “This thread brought tears to my eyes ;)  I never want to dictate where the Carnival goes – I just wanted to create a forum where once a month we can tackle the same topic.”

It all started with a relatively simple question from Lisa Williams, one of my favorite “new media” types out there:

I’m a judge for the Online Journalism Awards this year.

When I did it last year, one of the things that captivated me was that the discussions between the judges revealed that our basic ideas of what “good” is when it comes to journalism are changing because of the web and mobile technology.

I’d love to do a question about what we SHOULD be rewarding when we’re handing out prizes for the **Online** News Association — but I need a little help writing the question.

My sense is that the Online Journalism Awards have to be about more than solid reporting or social impact; the winners should reflect what we believe is excellent in the use of the web or mobile technology, too.

A relatively simple question, but the answers prompted a conversation that spanned criteria for contests to what makes for a successful business model to Thomas Jefferson.  It was a classic “online discussion” — starting on one topic and branching off into a variety of areas.

At one point, Chris Anderson commented on the idea that innovation and experimentation were more welcome in academia than in the news industry:  “I might say that academia currently (temporarily?) has more money to do more things than the journalism profession at the moment, and that the ability to ‘innovate’ in academia is primarily (paradoxically?) a consequence of that historical anomaly known as ‘tenure.’ Since we’re going all off topic here ;-)”

Lisa’s reply:  “Off topic forever, baby!”

Lisa’s original query promoted some interesting replies, including:

Mark Plenke:

“Number one for me is using the right storytelling tool for the job. A good site uses text and graphics to explain, video to illustrate and capture action and emotion, audio to bring interviews alive, interactive graphics to illustrate a process and involve viewers, social media and polls to involve visitors and get them to participate. I think understanding this is what makes a great online editor. Too many sites don’t get this.”

Anna Tarkov made a number of interesting points during the discussion, including this:

“I would add that engaging your readers substantively (not just: send
us a photo! like us! follow us!) is important as well as being open
and transparent about the news gathering and reporting processes. This
is still mostly not done, to the detriment of both news orgs and news
consumers.”

Tanja Aitamurto sought some clear criteria:

“Whether awarding exploration i.e. trying out new things, and bringing value to journalism that way or success (usually involves risk taking than the former option): solutions where technology is used in an efficient fashion and increases transparency in journalistic practices.”

Paul Bradshaw:

“I was one of the judges on the Press Association’s Regional Press Awards and as the title was ‘digital innovation’ that’s what we looked for – something that pushed the form forward. I also took into account whether they were having to produce to a deadline (the winner was a piece of live data journalism), how sustainable the innovation was, and how it played not just online but in print as well.”

J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer made some important points along the same lines:

It seems to me that an important component is whether a new idea actually “works.”   Cool tools are nice.  Advances in new processes for doing journalism are great.  New ways to tell stories are still being invented.   But who paid any attention?  Did it actually engage audiences? Prompt interactions? Have impact?  Or are we still at risk of talking to ourselves?

University of Nebraska Dean Gary Kebbel (an ONA judge with Lisa) also weighed in on the opportunities available in academia:

“And although we at the University of Nebraska are trying to get on the innovation path, I’m regularly reminded how, well, academic, our thoughts can be when we try to tell news organizations here’s what they should be trying. But an active combo of innovative J profs who get news and digital tools and who know how to make that into digital news tools – in combination with newsroom editors grinding it out every day with no budget – seems to me a great way to work on creating the new culture of innovation and culture of constant change that we need.”

Geoffrey Samek became passionate when some (me) wondered whether ONA was becoming too focused on gadgety gimmicks:

“Over focus on technology? It is an award focusing exclusively on “online” and a big part of that is technology and how tech changes journalism. ONLINE! Collection and innovative processes that take place in the real world are by definition offline….In a world where tech is flying forward at an exponential rate, journalism’s baby-step technological advances are killing me.

Journalism is about informing the community for positive change by collecting, reporting and inevitably organizing information in compelling ways. Technology has an enormous ability to aid in the organization of information. Tech allows for assembling and displaying information in unheard of ways. When humans use new tech to do that, then they are fully taking advantage of Online Journalism.”

Michael Rosenblum suggested profitability as a criterium, which took the discussion into another direction:

“I will never understand the inherent antipathy most journalists have toward making money.  It is in our DNA, strangely, and it is incredibly self-destructive.  The ‘Internet Revolution’ took place not only on our watch but on our turf.  Most of the primary online start-ups were largely journalism/information based.  Yet we stood by idly as others benefited from 100+ years of our labor to lay the groundwork.  What is Craigslist but an iteration of the newspaper classifieds.  What is Google, in fact, but ‘all the news fit to print’.  Movies are replete with our own image of ourselves: note Russell Crowe as a newspaper journalist in State of Play:  unshaven, generally drunk, drives a crap car, hard working, dedicated but poor.  What is our problem here?  If we OWN the product we can call the shots.  And we CAN own the product.  But we have to embrace the notion of making money and building businesses as a good not an evil.”

A few took issue with Michael’s point, including myself:

“@Michael — I take your point but not sure there is the antipathy you reference today, judging by the number of pieces being written daily in the ‘Paywalls are Stupid’ vs. ‘Paywalls Will Save The World’ debate.  Making money is very much on the minds of journalists these days.  But, to get back to Lisa’s original question, we’re talking about rewarding journalism, not the making of money.  Although, I wonder whether ONA should have a separate award for ‘Innovative Business Models’ — something beyond trying to reinvent the wheel with paywalls.”

And Dan Gillmor:

“I’ve seen absolutely no evidence that the percentage of journalists who believe this (‘profit is evil’)  is higher than the percentage of the entire population that believes it.”

And Lisa Williams:

“As someone from the tech industry — where we have few of the internal conflicts about money I observe among journalists, I’m not sure that I would put profitability as a criteria for an award series about innovation.

Many people are under the misapprehension that Silicon Valley startups are primarily concerned with making money. This is not true: they’re about getting big (by growing their userbase). In fact, many “successful” startups lose huge quantities of money for years (*cough* twitter *cough*). The idea is to get big and then sell the entire company to a large publicly traded company at a profit.

That’s not always the same as making money either (witness News Corp’s buyout of MySpace, basically a billion dollars down the drain).

If Twitter was judged on the same basis as the Guardian’s local experiment, it would be history. Most mature companies and industries don’t have the stomach for five years of multimillion dollar investment at a loss that the tech industry does, particularly when there’s no exit market (who will the Guardian sell the Local to?).”

And Daniel Bachhuber:

“Responding to Michael’s point of profitability, I think a better
criterium is “viability”. News organizations should be awarded for
intelligent internal technology investments they’re committed to for
the long term. I’d love there be the proper incentives (e.g.
journalism awards) for news executives to support visions like Matt
Waite’s
.

And, much much more….

The good news?  This discussion will continue.  Lisa will be the wrangler for next month’s Carnival of Journalism.  The topic?   You guessed it….more of the same.

ONA Comments Discussion Focuses on the Negative

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One of the reasons I like coming to the ONA Conference every year is to meet up with Mark Briggs — one of the true online visionaries out there who always has a positive perspective on the state of the media.

I got a good dose of upbeat Briggs Thursday night.

Friday morning brought the traditional naysayers.

The first official panel today chose to focus on the negatives of online commenting.  Alicia Shepard, the ombudsman for NPR who has come under fire lately, framed the discussion of online comments in a framework that felt a bit dated.  Much of the discussion focused on the negative feedback that reporters and editors for news organizations receive.  At one point last year, Shepard became so upset by the “trolls” that she suggested to NPR honchos that comments on articles should be removed from NPR’s Web site.  Much of her focus was on the criticisms that reporters and editors receive.

Seriously?

Comment boards, both the good and the bad, are a part of the new journalistic world of interactivity.  And, as one person in the audience pointed out on Twitter, it’s a little hard to interact with your audience if you’re automatically casting them in a negative context.

The genie is out of the bottle.

The era of reporters and editors as aloof, “experts” whose stories go unchallenged has come and gone.  The fact that this panel focused so much on this idea that comment boards are bad gave me flashbacks to the early years of Web journalism.  Haven’t we had this discussion already?  Several times?

The bottom line?

Reporters and editors today need a thick skin. Yes, there are critics but as several in the audience pointed out, make the comments work for you!

I remember a few times when I worked at The Washington Post’s web site where I had to tackle a few columnists to prevent them from responding in kind to negative comments on the Web.

If you’re thin-skinned, you’re going to have to adapt.  Eat more ice cream.  Watch the sun rise over the mountains, but don’t cast interactivity in a negative light.  It’s where we are and you need to find ways to engage the audience.

And, let’s move on…

ONA Opportunity

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Folks –

I’m forwarding an email I received from the Online News Association…this is a pretty good opportunity:

Applications are now open for the ONA10 Student Newsroom at the Online News Association’s annual conference, Oct. 28-30, in Washington, D.C.

All college/university students actively pursuing a degree in journalism or producing digital media as of the conference dates are eligible. ONA membership is not required. Approximately 20 students will be invited to join the student newsroom, and a wait list will be maintained. Application deadline is Midnight PT, April 16.

The ONA10 Student Newsroom immerses college students in a digital media environment by providing hands-on experience producing content for the ONA10 website — ONAConference.org — before and during the conference, under the guidance of professional mentors. Students also have the opportunity to attend sessions led by experts in digital journalism, network with attendees and acquire and flex new digital media skills.

Students selected will receive free conference registration and meals, entry to the Online Journalism Awards banquet and reimbursement for parking and local public transportation. Lodging is at each student’s expense, but ONA will provide roommate matching for out-of-town participants at the conference hotel, the Marriott Renaissance. Students are responsible for transportation beyond what is outlined above.

In return, students must commit to attending all three days of the conference and will be expected to be at the conference venue early Thursday morning, Oct. 28, for coverage planning, newsroom set-up and training activities.

TO APPLY: Complete the ONA10 Student Newsroom Application using the latest version of Adobe Reader. Ensure information has been saved in the form before submitting.

Email the application, a letter of recommendation (from a faculty advisor), resume and relevant links to Sara Kelly and Lynne Perri, Student Newsroom Chairs, at ONA10newsroom@journalists.org. Subject line: ONA Student Newsroom Application – [last name].

Application deadline is Midnight PT, April 16.

QUESTIONS? Direct any questions to ONA10newsroom@journalists.org.

Cheers,
Joshua Hatch, ONA10 Co-Chair
Amy Eisman, ONA10 Co-Chair
Jane McDonnell, ONA Executive Director

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