In Depth

Online News Association: Sharpening the Tools of the Trade

By Daisy Whitney

There are few professions more challenged than journalism is right now.

And as journalists struggle to survive, evolve and, hopefully, someday, even prosper, they are becoming more dependent on technology than ever before.

For those who work exclusively online — particularly the one-person operations working without benefit of corporate technical experts — it’s mandatory to keep abreast of the latest technological developments in order to cultivate, engage and retain readers.

The Online News Association will help today’s growing brigade of Web reporters navigate the intersection of journalism and technology at its annual conference, to be held in San Francisco Oct. 1 to 3.

The goal of the conference is to assist attendees in wrapping their minds around social media, Twitter, technology and databases.

“There are so many different ways to tell a story, and the journalist of today and tomorrow has to do that,” ONA Executive Director Jane McDonnell said.

Over the years, McDonnell added, the organization, which was founded 10 years ago to help traditional news outlets like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal navigate the online news waters, has dealt with the how-to’s of producing news for online as opposed to print and broadcast, as well as the issue of privacy. Now, she said, the recurring issues the group tackles surround technology and what it’s done to — and for — journalism.

“Over the last two years as there has been this surge in digital news distribution and platforms have opened up there has been an incredible number of people producing news,” she said.

Reporters can run their own Web sites or build powerful and influential blogs from their homes. As such, membership in ONA is for anyone who makes a living producing news, be it for a blog, traditional outlet or anything in between. ONA also counts academics as members.

“As long as you make your living producing news, it doesn’t matter what the outlet is, for us,” McDonnell said.

With sessions exploring technology trends, Web tools and syndicating stories online, the ONA is out to provide an intensive boot-camp learning environment for the 600-plus attendees expected, said McDonnell. That’ll be down from about 750 to 800 who attended last year’s event.

But given the economy, McDonnell considers the expected attendance number a victory since she’d been planning for about 500. Many media companies aren’t paying for their staffers to attend, so some reporters are choosing to pay their own way.

“Every single session is geared to high-impact learning,” she said. “It won’t be people sitting around a room talking theory. It’s practical, and the sessions are geared toward takeaways and what you can learn and implement.”

The choice of keynoters also underscores the vital role technology plays in the daily life of Web journalists. The headliners are Twitter CEO Evan Williams, Blogher CEO Lisa Stone and technology guru Leo Laporte, who runs the “This Week in Technology” network online.

Their keynotes will largely focus on the theme of the event — how technology has impacted journalism.

Other sessions of note include one devoted to “Finding Meaning in the Metrics,” designed to help journalists use metrics to understand the type of stories that are engaging and those that are not. Attendees will learn the measurement tools for stories, blogs, slideshows, videos and the social media services Twitter and Facebook.

Another session will delve into how to get content onto other sites and in front of new users, while another will address trends in journalism for (and from) “the mobile generation.”

“What we want to do is come at mobile from the beginner standpoint, which is here is why mobile is important and here is what you can do with it, and then move to some cool mobile innovations and show what people are doing,” she said.

McDonnell also highlighted a session on designing a Web site. It won’t be a technical workshop, she said, but it will help attendees think about how the design of a site will directly impact how they produce news. Plus, she added, sites need to be superflexible today so they can accommodate any new tool that comes along.

Another panel will address how journalists are becoming entrepreneurs as some set up shop themselves and assume responsibility for both the content and business aspects of Web publishing.

It’s worth noting that conference attendees — members of the press all — must pay for a pass; ONA decided not to give out press passes. Of course, anyone who pays to attend is free to cover the event.