ONA leaders reflect on our past, championing a brighter future

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Rich Jaroslovsky, the founder of ONA, has described the first official conference in 2000 as a lunch at Columbia University to announce the winners of the Online Journalism Awards.

This year, 2,800 attendees packed the Sheraton in New Orleans.

“As I’ve seen ONA grow over the years, the reach and the enthusiasm of the organization amazes me,” Jaroslovsky said during a visit to the ONA19 Student Newsroom. “There’s so much doom and gloom in journalism, especially now, but folks at ONA are on fire for journalism.”

ONA turned 20 this year, and this year’s well-attended conference included sessions on machine-learning, website analytics and other innovations in online journalism. What began as an effort to gather together online “rebels” every year has developed into a conference filled with forward-thinkers and evangelists.

Elizabeth Osder, one of ONA’s founding members, called her colleagues “either the leaders or the misfits of the existing world of journalism.”

ONA  has consistently drawn in new participants over the last 20 years and continues to grow, said Mandy Jenkins, the current president of the ONA board of directors.

She’s proud of the way the organization has been able to maintain a sense of community among its members despite its leap in growth. ONA now has local chapters all over the country and training sessions in addition to the annual conference.

Mandy Jenkins gives a presentation on B.S. detection for digital journalists at ONA11.

Irving Washington has been the executive director for three years, but his overall involvement with ONA spans a decade. The shift to more diverse leadership teams internally on the board and session leaders at the conference has been one of the major successes for ONA over the years, he said.

“When I started out with ONA in 2011 as a social media producer, I was not very well connected and less comfortable taking the lead,” he said. “But this organization really allowed me to find my voice. And my leadership was really able to thrive and develop through speaking about mentorship and sponsorship.”

Irving Washington, executive director of ONA

ONA’s future will be focused on uplifting and supporting fellow journalists with the tools they need to tell powerful stories, said Jenkins. “We’ve seen collaboration over the years. Now it’s about taking that same spirit back to local newsrooms,” she said. “We’re so used to competing with each other, this is sort of a mind blowing concept.”

 

An ONA Timeline

The Online News Association was founded in 1999. It was conceived as a forum for digital news pioneers with two main goals:

  • To collaborate on common challenges.
  • To encourage the practice of the highest journalistic standards.

ONA19: 20 years of innovations from ONAnewsroom on Vimeo.

Read through the 20 years of ONA by clicking on each year:

1999

1999

I knew that what we were doing was journalism. I knew we were trying to create a new form of journalism and, instead of embracing it, there was a lot of resistance back then.

Rich Jaroslovsky, founder and first president of ONA

“We had to find colleagues amongst us to answer questions, to navigate a new world where we didn’t know how to solve problems.”

Elizabeth Osder, one of founding ONA members

In 1999, many U.S.-based news organizations had websites but mostly just re-published the newspaper online.  It was not common to see journalists working for online publications. But a small group of journalists involved in the early days of digital journalism decided to create a group that allowed them to address issues they encountered in their new roles.

2000

2000: New York City

A few months after the launch of the Online News Association, the group celebrated with its first conference in New York City. Partnered with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, it also organized the first Online Journalism Awards.

“From the first conference, I remember we ended up eating potato chips and that was a good thing. That meant we had exhausted our food supply because we didn’t expect that many people to show up.”

Rich Jaroslovsky

2001

2001: Berkeley, California

Quote from the program of the 2001 conference
Extract from the program of the 2001 ONA conference.

The second ONA conference took place in a convoluted context. The conference was held soon after the 9/11 terror attacks and organizers didn’t know if people were going to show up. And it wasn’t, indeed, a huge audience.

“I remember saying that it was a coming of age for journalism. In the wake of 9/11, the audience was coming online.”

Rich Jaroslovsky

Cover of ONA credibility report
Cover of ONA’s Digital Credibility Study, published in early 2002.

That conference featured not only the usual conversations about new tools – at that time, blogging and self-publishing. It also offered the results of a study on digital credibility that showed one reality: People were interested in digital news and they trusted online media.

2002

2002: New York City

Nearly 200 journalists and people working within online journalism attended this conference. There was still one concern: How to be taken seriously by the news organizations and how to stop justifying what their work was.

Revenue streams seemed to be the buzz word of that year. News organizations were increasingly interested in getting users to pay for online content.

2003

2003: Chicago

 

Blogs were the main focus during ONA03.

Would blogs replace op-ed columns? “I think that in the future, newspaper editorial pages will have five bloggers rather than five columnists,” Andrew Sullivan said during one of the sessions.

Screenshot of the coverage of ONA04
Mobile phones were starting to have a role in news delivering.

2004

ONA04 logo

2004: Hollywood

https://twitter.com/laurahertzfeld/status/115335297328980787

Business models and free content on the internet were a big topic at ONA04 as well. Converging newsrooms was one of the most important issues for an industry that was in the early stages of embracing digital.

Panel at ONA03
Arianna Huffington spoke at ONA04 in Hollywood.

2005

2005: New York City

The nation turned to the Web after Hurricane Katrina to find the latest news, as it has during other recent disasters.

(From the program of ONA05)

During ONA05, participatory journalism had one of the leading roles. Blogs, wikis, and podcasts are just a few examples of the formats that were discussed in the conference. Reporters mentioned the advantages but also the challenges and risks of potential misuse for citizen journalism.

2006

2006: Washington, D.C.

 

Some of the sponsors and speakers at ONA06.

The 2006 conference panels were divided into three tracks:

Content: Focusing on practical advice on key skills, techniques, and trends in online news, like podcasting

Convergence: Concentrating on the challenges of making the single newsroom vision a reality

Commerce: Centered on how to adopt technology and business imperatives while still maintaining the highest journalistic standards

2007

2007: Toronto, Canada

By 2007, Facebook was already online and Twitter had recently been launched. Managing online communities soon became a major issue for news organizations. Discussions in the industry also included strategies for user-generated content, engaging readers and metrics.

Flashback:

Listen to a superpanel from ONA07 about the impact of aggregators, blogging and social networking on the industry.

2008

2008: Washington, D.C.

 

In 2008, ONA went back to Washington, D.C. And while the logo of the conference showed an arrow cursor, one device started gained notice during the sessions: Everyone was using their phones.

ONA08 also featured a new category for the Online Journalism Awards: General Excellence for non-English language site. ELPAIS.com and Soitu.es, both based in Spain, won it.

2009

2009: San Francisco

 

ONA celebrated 10 years in San Francisco with a conference focused on entrepreneurship, diversity, video production for the web and SEO.

Flashback:

2010

2010: Washington, D.C.

After two years, ONA is back to Washington D.C. for it is 2010 edition with nearly 1,200 people in attendance.

Twitter’s experts revealed the best hours for tweeting, between 10 a.m. and noon, as social media increasingly became a topic at the conference.

Flashback:

2011

2011: Boston

 

ONA heads to Boston, where over three days it saw 21,000 tweets sent by around 1,200 journalists. Google brought two innovations: +Circles, the company’s third social attempt, and Google S+ to personalize search results. Digital notetaking hit the newsrooms with a pen that records all being said.

2012

2012: San Francisco

 

ONA heads back to San Francisco for the second time in three years, where the first day was welcomed by protesters boycotting the host venue.

The conference went mobile, with conference-goers keeping track of their schedule on their phones. WNYC won in the Breaking News Awards category for its story about Hurricane Irene featuring infographics with map data.

Flashback:

2013

2013: Atlanta

 

For the first time in 14 years, ONA went to Atlanta for its 2013 edition. Drones hit the online journalism world with a session on how to fly them and Watchup launched an app for Google Glasses.

The conference took place five months after the Boston Marathon bombing with Boston University’s News Service winning two awards for its coverage, joining the Boston Globe and Boston.com.

Flashback:

2014

2014: Chicago

 

It was the year of new technology for video. ONA14 went to Chicago with 360 degrees cameras and game platforms dominating the Midway. Gannett and Des Moines Register introduced a series of stories with interactive viewing using Oculus VR headset. Google glasses were the rage as attendees learned about virtual reality storytelling.

And, journalists started to debate the role of social media and the risks that these platforms presented.

Flashback: Listen to Jeff Jarvis talking about social journalism

2015

2015: Los Angeles

 

Mobile apps, tech companies and online harassment were some of the newer topics that dominated discussion during ONA15. As usual, the conference included sessions about the most popular new formats, like drone journalism and podcast.

 

Flashback: 2015 OJA

2016

2016: Denver

 

At ONA16, culture was one of the main categories. Sessions offered insights on how to train the new generation of journalists and how to build a more inclusive newsroom and provide more diverse coverage.

Flashback:

 

During 2016, ONA also organized a conference about audience engagement in London, which focused on diving into how audiences find and interact with news.

2017

2017: Washington, D.C.

 

The opening day of ONA17 at the National Association of Broadcasters Conference Center on October 5, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photos by Anya Semenoff/for the Online News Association)

Audience engagement ruled the conference. From analytics and metrics to measuring the public’s participation to optimizing news for the trust of the community, ONA17 focused on the reach and impact of online journalism.

The conference also featured sessions on business and revenue, career-building and ethics. On the tech side, attendees were interested in mobile apps and newsgathering tools.

Flashback: Exhibit Hall at ONA17

2018

2018: Austin, Texas

 

Like each year, the conference gathered experts who discussed a variety of topics that go beyond online journalism and technology.

The industry debated the role of UX/UI in solving some of its problems and talked about the advantages and challenges of design thinking. Journalists also asked themselves about how to cover conflicts and dramatic situations. Attendees worried about the situation of diversity and inclusion and discussed tips to bridge the hiring gap.

Flashback: 2018 OJA’s

2019

2019: New Orleans

 

And here we are in New Orleans, with 2,800 journalists celebrating 20 years of ONA.

Apart from emerging technology, the conference-goers have been focused on  trust in journalism and the problem of misinformation.

The conference has also featured sessions on collaboration between organizations and audience engagement and participation. Climate change, a major concern around the world, also makes its appearance at the conference.

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