Posted by Mallary Jean Tenore at 5:54 AM on Nov. 1, 2010 Jane McDonnell, executive director of the Online News Association, opened up this year’s conference by calling it “the conference where journalism doesn’t know it’s supposed to be dead.” That couldn’thave been more true.
Attendees seemed optimistic about journalism’s future and embraced the notion that it’s an exciting time to experiment and innovate as an online journalist. Speakers, meanwhile, encouraged audience members to put their ideas into practice rather than merely talk about them.
As I attended the sessions and talked with other journalists, I was struck by a few different themes. I’ve highlighted five related takeaways below and hope you’ll share yours, too.
It’s time to move beyond the “Is this journalism?” debate
Journalists at the conference talked about the need to move beyond the “Is this journalism?” debate. Instead of wasting time arguing about whether Twitter or Facebook are journalism, for instance, they want to embrace new forms of media and learn from one another about how they’re being used to tell stories.
This was especially evident during Saturday’s keynote talk on WikiLeaks. In a tweet about the speech, Gannett Digital’s Ryan Sholin said: “I’d infinitely prefer hearing from journalists using WikiLeaks-sourced data, as opposed to pundits debating ‘Is it journalism?’ ”
He later tweeted, “I’d show up at a ‘how we did it’ panel with NYT, Guardian, other data crews that did the reporting from the dump” but “I’ve no interest in religious debate about it. It exists. What’s next?” His tweets were retweeted quite a bit and they set the tone of the back-channel on Twitter. (Conference Co-chair Joshua Hatch told me that ONA invited Julian Assange and journalists from The New York Times and The Guardian to be panelists but said they had scheduling conflicts.)
There was also a sense that attendees were open to “hacking the news” and that they didn’t see the need to debate whether programmers are journalists. Just in case anyone needed a reminder, Matt Waite of Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times told attendees during his session on news apps: “Programming is an act of journalism. Simply put.”
Jobs are changing, titles reflect innovation, community engagement
Lots of people exchanged business cards during the conference. I was surprised by how many online journalists still use business cards. I would think they’d just add someone’s information to the contact list on their smart phones, or e-mail it to themselves. Kudos to TBD, which has thought along these lines and given its staff business cards with QR codes on the back.
When exchanging business cards, I was struck by how many people said something like, “This business card is outdated. My title has changed.” Perhaps it’s a sign of the times; newsrooms are evolving, and journalists’ job descriptions are changing as a result. And maybe news organizations don’t want to spend money on new business cards right now.
Several people had titles with the words “innovation” and “community” in them. The first day of the conference, I met a “community host,” “an innovations editor” and an “online community producer.” These folks told me they’re finding ways to help their newsrooms define “engagement,” reach new audiences and develop a Web-first mentality.
Investigative journalism is finding its place online
The decline of traditional print media used to raise concerns that investigative journalism was “in danger.” Now the conversation is much more focused on how this decline has sparked new opportunities for investigative journalism online. In a session about “the new investigative journalism ecosystem,” Chuck Lewis highlighted findings from his new report on 60 new and not-so-new nonprofit journalism sites/organizations, some of which are focused on investigative storytelling.
Lewis, founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, said in a follow-up phone interview that he sees great promise for investigative nonprofit sites. “I believe that increasingly, the most important journalism is going to be done by these nonprofits,” he said. It’s no surprise, he added, that ProPublica won a Pulitzer prize for investigative reporting.
During the conference, the Public Insight Network announced that it was extending its online investigative efforts by partnering with ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity.
And during an ONA discussion at The Washington Post, editors of the Post’s “Top Secret America” project talked about the importance of getting the Web involved from the very beginning.
“I had to jump-start myself into a new era,” said one of the project’s lead reporters, investigative journalist Dana Priest. “I didn’t know what [an] innovations editor did because she wasn’t a reporter.”
Working with Innovations Editor Lauren Keane, she said, helped give her a new-found appreciation for the work that the Post’s Web folks do.
Journalists debate whether they can be good entrepreneurs
In a panel on how to be a successful entrepreneur, Rafat Ali, Michele McLellan, Mike Orren and Mark Briggs offered tips for journalists who are looking to start their own businesses.
They each shared thoughts on why they think journalists would make good entrepreneurs, saying journalists have good critical thinking skills, know how to meet deadlines and aren’t afraid to pick up the telephone and call people.
Audience member Jan Schaffer, who runs J-Lab, stirred a debate by pointing out that it’s not that easy. Journalists, she said, don’t necessarily have the skills to “make the big ask.”
Ali responded: “If you cannot make the ask, you’re in the wrong business.” McLellan followed up by saying that journalists who want to create a startup don’t necessarily have to be business experts; they just have to have a business partner. McLellan wrote a Knight Digital Media Center blog post on this topic last year.
It’s important to experiment — and fail
Consultant Amy Webb called this the “golden age of reporting” — a time for experimenting with new tools to improve the way we tell stories. Some attendees told me that their newsrooms are encouraging them to experiment with new tools and giving them the freedom to fail.
Encouraging journalists to fail might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s through failure that we learn how to adapt and hopefully succeed in the end. TBD Editor Erik Wemple said as much when he told attendees during a keynote speech that failure is healthy, whether you’re a traditional news organization or a startup.
“If you run a website that doesn’t have something that’s terrible on it, you are not trying hard enough,” Wemple said in response to a criticism about the site’s lists. “You have to fail, fail, fail. You have to fail and fail miserably many times.”
Editor’s Note: The Poynter Institute and the Online News Association have agreed to a partnership in which they’ll collaborate on select training efforts, events, and digital content. ONA president Christine Montgomery announced this news during the conference.