ONA08: Digital ideas pack jammed conference
ON08 conference wrap
The historic upheaval in news was on full display at the Capital Hilton earlier this month, where anxious journalists spilled from rooms into corridors, straining to hear oracular pronouncements from within.
“Stuffed” is the best way to describe sessions at the Online News Association’s annual conference in Washington, D.C.
The organization booked its venue two years ago, when attendance was a fraction of what it is now. But the tectonic change in our industry has boosted membership 30 percent in the past year alone, and contributed to what many claimed was the only sold-out journalism conference in 2008.
There were no oracles, but five Dallas Morning News reporters and editors heard a number of enlightening ideas that we might put into practice as we transition to a digital future. Surprisingly, many of the takeaways centered on changing our culture, not tools or technology.
Changing our culture
Should we reorganize around functional rather than product-specific duties? After hearing from other participants, Karen Ayres asked whether staff members should be assigned to subjects, rather than products such as The Dallas Morning News or dallasnews.com. The BBC reorganized itself that way, Linda Leavell discovered. An idea might be to have an education team that can do video, write, blog, shoot photos, etc., rather than segmenting functions like blogging, Web production and photography in different departments.
Should someone from every area be charged with Web responsibility every day, Linda asked, meaning someone from the education cluster should know during the day what stories are going to be contributed and then make sure they get there?
That might reduce a phenomenon that Jennifer Chamberlain discussed at one session: We often send the message that the Web is a second-class product. We say, “That story, graphic or idea isn’t good enough for the paper, but we can put it on the Web.” As one participant pointed out, “You can do anything on the Web, but that doesn’t mean you should.”
Moreover, Jennifer observed that we need top-down accountability in the newsroom. There must be consequences for not getting on board with the digital revolution.
By contrast, for those who do embrace digital journalism, we need a culture that allows for failure, said Jennifer. Web acolytes shouldn't be forced to justify new projects from every possible angle before even starting.
Reporting with utility in mind
Because the Web is a two-way, “always on” medium, it allows for news to be shaped and developed in real time by users as well as journalists. Karen Ayres learned that as a result, our articles are no longer the finished product but rather a discussion point for our audience to relate to the news. So we need to add to the users’ experience, even on smaller stories, by providing links, following up on readers’ comments and the like. “We need to create more utility for our readers,” Karen noted. “Without a practical reason to come to our site, consumers will go elsewhere and our great content will go unnoticed.”
It reinforces the need to do service journalism, Jennifer learned, helping our readers get something done or protect their interests. Some examples cited were the Fort Myers News-Press’ FEMA database and the Des Moines Register’s multimedia depiction of damage from the tornado. That resonates both with our users and with journalists, who got into this profession to do some good.
Possible applications for business news might be: Data centers, lead information, local business directories. Karen Ayres suggested we assign a local reporter to be a watchdog who could respond to e-mail requests for assistance or some type of information from online readers.
Digital tools to 'knock on doors'
For reporters, Reese Dunklin discovered a host of digital tools. Someone at the conference drove home the importance of those tools by noting that as more people jump on social networks and get mobile devices to communicate, Web searching is becoming a reporter’s new way of “knocking on doors.”
Attendees were all atwitter about... well... Twitter, of course, the microblogging platform with which we have recently experimented. Jennifer took notes on a session about liveblogging with Twitter.
Reese learned Twitter just bought a site called Summize from which you can search by keywords on all “tweets,” or messages, that people are posting. Key in “Dallas” for instance, or “Plano” and you’ll see what people are saying about those communities in real time. Because people are using their mobile devices to post regular tweets, Reese said, as people at the scene of breaking news are posting, you could find them quickly and contact them.
The same is true of Facebook. It has its own search function. During the mass shootings at Virginia Tech, reporters at The Washington Post found and contacted students this way.
Other search sites and tools Reese discovered:
- Topix, a site organized via hyperlocal geography, that lets readers post story links, photos, messages. It is another way to troll for real people who are chattering about news.
- Technorati and Google both do blog search and let you browse by keyword.
- RSSreaders such as Google Reader lets you organize news feeds into an easy, one-page viewer – so you don’t have to click on 18 bookmarks to read each blog.
I found the following sites and tools worth jotting down:
- Friendfeed is a way to aggregate your feeds to Flickr, Facebook, Twitter etc., and see others feeds all in one place.
- Twittervision, a visualization of Twitter traffic.
- Memeorandum is a synthesis of the 2,000 top political news bloggers.
- Google Trends Karen Ayres says the folks at Latimes.com said they check out Google Trends every morning to see what people are checking out. It doesn’t determine their coverage, but it does influence some choices based on the dialogue. Might be something to consider.
- Online Journalism Awards finalists. Browsing these showcases the best in online journalism.
Connecting people in the 'live Web'
Former Microsoft employee and Web 2.0 geek Robert Scoble wowed the audience with tales of how the live Web literally has changed the way people live and think. “It lets me communicate in a much deeper way than I ever thought possible,” he said, as he showed how he scans news and information. Scoble doesn’t need to search out news from Web sites. He lets the army of people whom he follows via feeds from Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and a host of other applications collectively surface what’s important to know.
“The people you follow define you,” he said. “So you have to choose who to follow slowly and deliberately.” That has bigger implications for news organizations than you might first believe. When Scoble says “follow” he means receive a digital information stream from. To the digital citizen, individuals are more important than news sources because they edit news better than we do.
Our challenge is to be one of the “people” that digital citizens follow. Think about that for a second: It’s the news challenge of our age. How do we stay relevant in a world that is not looking for mass media anymore, but for personally relevant media, filtered by “personal editors”?
“Our users increasingly expect up-to-date information, delivered to them as opposed to them coming to us,” Jennifer wrote about listening to Scoble. “They absolutely expect to be able to interact with that information by commenting, sharing, rating, etc.”