Five major takeaways from the 2017 Online News Association conference

Insights, Roundups
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What would journalism look like if news outlets optimized for trust? What is the reporter’s role if an organization decides satire is the most effective way of covering politics? What business models do and don’t work for local media?

Last week saw 3,008 journalists convene to try to answer those questions and more. Between Oct. 5 and Oct. 7, reporters, photographers, editors, and comedians clustered into a Marriott in Washington, D.C. for the Online News Association’s 2017 conference. Dozens of sessions touched on a wide range of subjects including digital monetization and business models, ethics and issues under President Donald Trump, and new tools like virtual reality.

Below, I’ve compiled a handful of key takeaways. For more coverage, see my Storify, where I aggregated live tweets from the conference.

Tech runs through journalism, whether we like it or not  

During the first keynote, “Truth, Trust and Questions for the Media,” WBUR’s Asma Khalid first brought up tech’s massive influence in all spheres. Formerly a political reporter for NPR on the 2016 campaign trail, Khalid now covers Boston startups. Tech and politics are intimately connected, for better or for worse, she said.

VICE News Tonight correspondent Elle Reeve, for her part, argued that the tech business model has allowed Twitter and Facebook to make money off journalism for free. Still, she said, they’re useful tools for journalists by, for one, allowing for immediate connections with sources on the ground.

The platform and the publisher are not mutually exclusive – Ev Williams

Medium CEO and founder of Twitter Evan Williams, meanwhile, did his best to bridge the divide between tech giants and journalists. “They don’t want to cause the downfall of society,” Williams said of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Rather, he said, they are an “optimistic bunch” who have the energy to create but not always the foresight to avoid having their platforms host abusive content. Medium, he said, also represents a changing model; to Williams, the platform and the publisher are not mutually exclusive.

“Knowing who is responsible is very important,” he said, but that doesn’t mean that Medium is any more responsible for poor-quality content than Spotify is for “terrible music.” That’s why Medium ensures that authors and brands are displayed at the top of every post.

For ESPN’s Jim Brady, an important aspect of the digital age is the lack of privacy: “You’re always in public these days,” he said during a session on ethics in the current political climate.

Separately, True Anthem’s Chris Hart said the idea behind using artificial intelligence for routine actions — especially around advertising and reach — is to free up humans to do more creative things. That’s what makes AI human-centric. Notably, ONA founder Rich Jaroslovsky, now chief journalist at SmartNews, said the same thing at his company’s booth earlier in the day.

Audiences desperately want local news and donors will pay up

During ONA17’s first keynote, Khalid gave the audience an anecdote: after she started reporting for a national outlet, she returned home for a visit. One local said she was surprised that Khalid had come back. That’s a problem.

“I know this sounds like political reporting 101: go to communities and listen to people,” Khalid said. It builds trust. One branch of this problem is national outlets’ tendency to send journalists to areas they’ve never covered, even as local newsrooms are better equipped to handle the story. It breeds resentment among local reporters. Khalid suggested that NPR’s model, as a national center with local member stations, might be useful to other types of outlets.

Parachute reporting breeds resentment among local reporters – Asma Khalid

There are local stories with the potential for a strong national resonance. Alaska’s “Midnight Oil” podcast is one example, recommended by NPR One’s Tamar Charney. According to Charney, people are hungry for aggressive local coverage. That would seem to be held up by the stories of Berkeleyside’s Tracey Taylor, CALmatters’ Marcia Parker, and the City Bureau of Chicago’s Darryl Holliday.

Taylor said that when she and her colleagues started Berkelyside, a local news site covering Berkeley, California, they didn’t intend for it to grow so quickly.

“We did not plan this at all,” Taylor joked. “It was really just a bit of a mistake.” But clearly, there was a gap in local coverage, and donors stepped up to power the newsroom to fill it. Parker had a similar experience starting CALmatters, which strictly covers state policy.

“There is an appetite for knowledge about state government in California,” and not enough reporting, Parker said.

Metrics need to be meaningful

Across sessions at ONA17, speakers and panelists widely agreed that the best metric is how long people stay on a specific story.

“Success can be something that is not shared,” said WNYC’s Manoush Zomorodi, who led the conversation with Medium’s Williams. On the contrary, many human successes are very personal. But, Zomorodi asked, how could that be measured on a site like Medium?

Vox’s average video view time is four minutes. The Young Turks’ is five.

“There’s all these things where sharing is not a good measure of value,” Williams said, agreeing with Zomorodi. “Content does not have to be a commodity,” Williams said. He defined commodities as things that must be sold at a high volume and low cost. Attention is a commodity — that’s what sites like Twitter and Facebook sell.

Similarly, Vox’s Andrew Golis and The Young TurksCenk Uygur said they measure their video engagement in watch time, not views. Facebook counts someone watching a video for three seconds on silent as a view, Golis said. Vox’s average view time is four minutes; The Young Turks’ is five. “Make things people will actually love,” Golis gave as advice on video business models. “Not click on — actually love.”

Trust requires audience engagement

Voters and news readers aren’t the only ones sick of partisanship. Uygur, of The Young Turks, contends that neutrality threatens objectivity and misrepresents facts. Accurate reporting doesn’t always give the full picture, and Uygur thinks that divide presents a legitimate danger to journalism.

“Republicans say this, Democrats say that,” Uygur said. “So what? What’s the truth?”

For her part, Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times Magazine thinks journalists need to reconsider how much authority they’re perceived to have. “We’ve operated on the premise that people will believe us and trust us simply because we are reporters, but that is no longer the case,” she said.

We’ve operated on the premise that people will believe us and trust us simply because we are reporters, but that is no longer the case. – Nikole Hannah-Jones

Jennifer Brandel of Hearken contends that trust requires a way for the public to be heard, a way for the newsroom to listen, and consistent interest in public issues from journalists. Among other tools, Hearken provides a form readers can use to submit questions, then vote on which one they want journalists to answer. KQED in San Francisco now has a series called “Bay Curious,” where listeners — using Hearken — can submit questions they want KQED to investigate like “Is it legal to be naked in San Francisco … and if so, has it always been that way?

Rob Wijnberg of De Correspondent says it’s important to believe readers are knowledgeable. Because truthfully, they are experts in their fields. “One thousand doctors who read us know way more than our medical correspondents,” Wijnberg said. He later said that De Correspondent changed the “comments” section to a “contribution” section, coupled with an ask: “Please share what you know.”

Darryl Holliday, co-founder of Chicago’s City Bureau, has a particular set of issues in trying to cover Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods. “We’re in a position where the audience that we intend to serve is not being spoken to, in a lot of ways, or not being spoken about,” Holliday said. “It’s a continual process of getting that trust.” The best way to sustain it? Walk around, said Holliday. Go door-knocking. Hold community events. You have to prove to your readers that you care about them.

Walking Media founder John Ness agrees. “That actual getting out of the newsroom and walking around is one of the biggest things we have,” he said. During a session on “Small Changes That Made a Big Difference in Local Newsrooms,” Kristen Hare of the Poynter Institute asked a critical question: “Is it critical for our community, or are we doing it because someone before us told us to do it?”

It’s always the time to try new things

Sara Konrad Baranowski, editor of the Iowa Falls Times Citizen, has a single piece of advice for journalists: Make the time to do new things.

Cenk Uygur said The Young Turks had no real idea of what they were doing when they started out — and that’s all the more reason for legacy media companies to just plow ahead. There’s no point in worrying about failure, he said. “Just calm down. Go do it.”

“Hire super-creative, super-talented people who are just willing to teach themselves things” – Andrew Golis

What about emphasizing video? With national media organizations debating whether to “pivot to video,” Vox’s Andrew Golis fears that there isn’t much substance behind the trend. If you’re getting into video because you feel like you should, “don’t do it,” Golis said. You need to have an understanding of, and excitement about, the unique storytelling opportunities that video presents.

After the session, he added on Twitter: “If you’re ‘pivoting’ to video because you see a meta trend, but you don’t have a visual identity and mission, you’ll fail.”

“Hire super-creative, super-talented people who are just willing to teach themselves things,” Golis said. They’ll teach each other in turn.

It’s worth noting that trying new things is kind of urgent. The Washington Post senior producer of video platforms Nadine Ajaka hammered this home as her last point. “Whatever job you think you’re going to have in five years, you’re not,” Ajaka said. 

Rowan Walrath is studying journalism at Northeastern University.

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