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

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 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:, BeliefNet, 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.


About journalismprof

Steve joined the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in August 2007 and has been working to incorporate multimedia across the curriculum. Since arriving at UMass, Steve has developed three courses modeled after his multimedia journalism course. The courses allow students to work in teams in a newsroom-like environment where they work on packages -- using video, audio and photos to tell stories. He is also working with students on developing, a news Web site staffed completely by students. Steve has more than 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at He also edits part-time for with the NFL and college football network.
This entry was posted in Carnival of Journalism, Ethics, Future of Journalism, innovation, ONA and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. Thoughtful post, Steve. I look forward to when journalists are just journalists, not online, print, TV or radio journalists, a day when we can work beyond the medium and focus on news comprehension, community and engagement. This wouldn’t mean ignoring cool new tools, but evaluating them more on their impact on these things more than on how fun, cool or disruptive they are in the larger media space. ONA is in a great position to lead us there.

  2. While I take no issue with the idea of the ONA refocusing on journalism, I don’t want it to be like every other journalism group/publication/award that over-focuses on reporting. We all know reporting is important, but what makes online news different and exciting are those innovating in data, social media, visualizations, gamification and crowdsourcing – and I’ve always appreciated that ONA recognizes that work.

  3. journalismprof says:

    Thanks, Mandy. I actually would put all of those categories into the same pot — crowdsourcing, social media, data visualization — that’s all reporting — or doing journalism — or doing new media — or whatever we want to call it. The best journalism projects are the ones that bring all those elements together.

  4. Steve, you raise some good points here. As you know from working on past/recent conferences, one of the challenges ONA has is responding to a broad constituency. For example, we have reporters, editors, publishers, developers, designers, educators, folks from business development departments, non-profit folks and more among our 2,000+ members from around the world. While it can be a challenge to fully represent and address the concerns and needs of this wide array of interests, it also presents a unique strength of ONA.

    Furthermore, ONA has to consider how we fit in to the journalism membership organization spectrum along with SPJ, ASNE, NAHJ, NABJ, SND and the rest of the alphabet, which is as much of a trick for us as it is for news organizations trying to figure out how to coexist with the explosion in media. It’s a challenge and getting feedback from members such as yourself is key for the organization to effectively navigate those channels.

    Some of the ways we’ve tried to serve and represent our membership includes offering on-site training in social media for reporting, multimedia storytelling, and online business seminars among other topics. We’ve joined amicus briefs defending the rights of those practicing journalism. We’re in the process of setting up the MJ Bear fund to help young journalists (more here: And we make sure to feature debates on some of the leading journalistic controversies, such as bringing in Julian Assange’s lawyer, Mark Stephens, to last year’s keynote session on Wikileaks.

    All of that said, you bring up questions and concerns that are very much on our minds and part of our deliberations. You can see evidence of some of that from our board meeting minutes:

    And it’s worth noting that ONA is currently accepting nominations for the board. You can find out more and put yourself (or a loved one) up for nomination here:

  5. Pingback: Carnival Round-up of July « Carnival of Journalism

  6. Pingback: Headed to AEJMC as New Journalism Conference Zeroes in on Education | UMass Journalism Professor's Blog

  7. Thanks , as a founder of ONA i feel much the same.

    I say that as an expert in the general management of news and information businesses, including technology, product and audience development, the kind of work that has spilled over to ONA.

    The sad thing is when i want to improve my bench strength in those areas, i don’t look to ONA to raise my bar.

    The best part of the conference, are the awards (which i poopoo’ed in the old days), that’s where you see the work that matters, and why the organization was founded.

    In a sea of commodity content technology, ONA at least needs to deliver the whistles bells and other geekery in the context of journalism. Some of the data and news applications projects approach this, but then things quickly spill into marketing, infrastructure and straight up business.

    Not that it’s not useful, but the organization was founded to to shine light on the work, and protecting the privileges of journalists.

    old timer, signing off..back to the management of content businesses…longing for the privilege to work on stories that matter…since that’s still what its all about…


  8. Pingback: Online News Association

  9. It would be nice for journalists to recognize excellence in Citizen Reporting.

    2011 Online Journalism Award winners announced. Citizen Reporting Ignored.

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