ONA14: ‘Transitioned into era of transition’

The Online News Association continues to amaze, and this year’s annual conference, drawing 1,700 participants, totally delivered for me (Chicago isn’t a bad backdrop either).

As I tweeted earlier, this year it morphed from being a gathering for digital journalists to being the conference for … journalism. If you missed it, check out the videos, posts and social media feeds and of course, Amy Webb’s packed trend session where, among other things, she said 2015 is the year of privacy. It was her most intellectual talk yet, beyond gadgets and apps into the very essence of journalism.

Amy introduced us to an untraceable Blackphone, as well as suggested we explore immersive technology; understand algorithmic curation of journalism; and try our hands at covering an event on Snapchat, just to explore the challenges of content that, well, disappears. Think about the legal implications, she said.

It was no surprise Amy owned the room. She always does. But it was an extra big year for women, from the Lady Leaders panel where there was talk of protecting young women from getting stuck in “the impostor syndrome,” to the news startups panel where News Deeply’s CEO said there is a “swagger gap” – women don’t have the same swagger as men and thus don’t compete as well for funding.

Like others, I scrambled to write down apps, tips, names, orgs and ideas, but it can be overwhelming. So this year I decided to step back and capture just a few of the themes that got my attention.

Startup and design thinking is center stage: I’m happy to see entrepreneurial thinking slip so comfortably now into journalism’s shoes. People are getting more welcoming of constant change, even excited about it. “We’ve transitioned into an era of transition,” Heather Chaplin said at one point. And in the NYT Innovation report session, there was the reminder that we must build newsrooms “out of Legos, not bricks.”

There’s a hunger for context. This is pretty obvious in the 24-7 vise we live in. But journalists are doing something about it. Vox cards. Explainers. The coming launch of “Ebola Deeply” and single-topic projects, not unlike Wikipedia. Apps to measure not only people being followed, but whether that means they are truly influencing people. The Ferguson panel showed that perspective matters (local vs. national, documentary vs. news), which was really obvious when each journalist shared a video. Bottom line: It seems we’re all tired of the noise – particularly those of us producing it.

Digital millennial journalists define careers by adding onto skill sets, not adding onto titles or hungering for brands. Place doesn’t matter as much as what they are doing. Disclosure: I am involved with the MJ Bear Fellows (committee chair), which spotlights journalists under 30. Doesn’t mean I still can’t be impressed with them, as well as the AP-Google Scholars. The session, expertly led by Benet Wilson, turned into a therapy session for news execs hungry to know how they think. But the best part is what they did; Beatrice Katcher, the AP-Google scholar, is trying to figure out how to get kids involved in news; Aaron Williams, an MJ Bear Fellow, has coding down pat and wants to further apply it to journalism; Anika Anand, also an MJ, works to track the impact of news stories. They are forging new paths.

I didn’t get a chance to do the workshops or training sessions, so I hope someone else can fill in on those. But overall, I found this a strong moment in journalism’s trajectory and am happy to be on this ride.