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News Biz Alive and Well at Online Conference

5 years ago
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Hundreds of thousands of people descended upon San Francisco last weekend to "spread the love" and admire Steve Martin's remarkable banjo-pluckin'. At the same time, 700 tech-savvy news junkies were busy discussing – and Twittering about – the future of journalism in the labyrinthine hallways and cavernous ballrooms of the San Francisco Hilton.

A diverse set of reporters, editors, multimedia experts and tech gurus participated in the 10th annual Online News Association (ONA) Conference. The mission of the sold-out conference? "Inspiring innovation and excellence among digital journalists to better serve the public."

Optimism and progressive thinking dominated the atmosphere at the three-day conference. The notion that "print is dead -- news isn't" seemed to be the unofficial theme. The question of "What comes next?" was met with resounding confidence in the age-old values of journalism and the ways that their practice can be amplified and supported by digital media.

All of the conference sessions, most of which consisted of a panel discussion followed by audience questions and answers, focused on some aspect of the process of delivering news and information digitally. The sessions were divided into three "tracks": The "Front End" sessions dealt with "user-facing tools and techniques;" the "Back End" sessions concentrated on "behind-the-scenes topics and issues;" and "Mulimedia Learning Labs" offered a "practical, hands-on learning experience."

For example, the session, "It's Data-Hunting Season," had a "Front End" label due to its emphasis on the internal functions of a news organization and recent innovations in database technology that could be advantageous to reporters. "Your Audience, Your Advantage" was a "Back End" session because it focused on using better audience analytics and building valuable audience partnerships through effective engagement. "Enterprising With Twitter" was a "Multimedia Learning Lab" session about leveraging the increasingly popular social media tool.

(Speaking of Twitter, most attendees feverishly Tweeted throughout every conference session, and it was rumored that – gasp! – the Twitter over-capacity signal known as the "Fail Whale" made an appearance during Twitter Founder and CEO Evan Williams' keynote address.)

ONA sponsored a student newsroom which brought together journalism students from throughout North America to cover the conference and many of the individual sessions. Keeping with the digital / online emphasis, the student reporters produced and featured their work in a variety of ways: a "confessional" take on the conventional Q and A approach, live-Tweeting of sessions, and video footage that either supplemented written pieces or served as stand-alone content.

I had the opportunity to attend the conference as a volunteer. When I wasn't fulfilling those duties, I was able to sit in on a few sessions. One session that stood out as particularly illuminating was "Covering the Economic Collapse." Alex Salkever, senior writer and programmer for AOL's DailyFinance, moderated the panel. The panelists were Maribel Perez Wadsworth, managing editor at The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla.; Ellen Weiss, senior vice president of news and information at National Public Radio; and Rich Barbieri, deputy managing editor of CNN Money.

Wadsworth represented digital media on a local level – she developed innovative ways to reach readers, adding live chats, how-to videos, live town-halls, and resource links to supplement their economic coverage.

Weiss focused on NPR's success with their Planet Money blog (its No. 1 most-visited blog) and podcast (one of the most popular on iTunes). Part of the impetus for Planet Money, said Weiss, was recognizing that the average listener and even those working in NPR newsrooms didn't have a working knowledge of the financial systems that affect our everyday lives. Weiss said that one thing the near-global economic meltdown taught us all is that "economic knowledge is no longer an option."

Barbieri said that the next phase of economic coverage will be more difficult largely because it will be more important. Much of the coverage of the economic collapse, particularly last year during the string of Wall Street bailouts and bankruptcies, was primarily "breaking news" whereas now, says Barbieri, the focus needs to be on the people "behind the numbers."

"There's a story behind every bankruptcy that we, as journalists, need to ferret out," he said. Leveraging the social media power of web sites such as Facebook and Twitter has become one of CNN's most successful tools when it comes to reaching and communicating with its viewers and web audience on such stories.

The conference wrapped up on Saturday night, ending with the 2009 Online Journalism Awards. Check out the winners; chances are that many of these individuals and organizations might be leading panel sessions of their own next year, when the ONA meets in Washington, D.C.

For those who are interested, The Nieman Journalism Lab, an extension of Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism, features a helpful blog post with curated Tweets on the conference sessions.

Filed Under: The Cram, News Media

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