No more whining at 2009's Online News Association conference

SAN FRANCISCO – If there’s a theme to this year’s Online Journalism Association conference, it’d be: “No More Whining.”

Several of us have commented on the lack of the whining from newspaper-dot-com employees, which weighed down past ONA gatherings. Perhaps now, at long last, a tipping point of online news managers from traditional news companies have moved beyond the old print-driven model of trying to protect crumbling monopolies, and instead are now embracing competition, so that they may engage it.

Or, maybe, most of those folks got laid off and now they have no choice but to compete.

Either way, the focus has moved beyond protecting the past and on to finding one’s way through the future. As Paul Bass of said during a session yesterday, “The only people who think journalism are dying are working at dying news organizations.”

ONA appears to be making long-overdue advances to those not working for those “dying news organizations.” One of the all-day pre-conference tracks yesterday was devoted to talking about how would-be entrepreneurs could fund start-up online news initiatives. This morning, ONA President Jon Dube announced that the organization would run a one-day training seminar in Ann Arbor, Mich. next month “tailored specifically to the needs of 100 independent, community, non-profit, displaced and employed journalists, bloggers and entrepreneurs in the area,” according to an ONA press release.

[Note: the following graph was changed to correct that non-FT online journalists always could join ONA as associates, as Jon Dube just reminded me.] At one time, ONA barred many independent online journalists from joining the organization as professionals, by requiring that applicants be able to document that they’d earned the majority of their income from working in online news. (That was easy for employees of newspaper-dot-coms. Not so easy for many influential news bloggers and freelance reporters, many of whom were relying on outside or non-Web income to survive as their blogs grew and found revenue.) Those who couldn’t do so could join as associates, but up until recently, they could not vote for or serve on the board. To the organization’s credit, it has now opened its board elections to non-full-time pros.

This year’s ONA event explicitly acknowledges and discusses alternate models for news companies and initiatives, as well as alternate career paths for journalists. Yesterday, Jay Rosen and many others tweeted a link to former Rocky Mountain News editor John Temple’s keynote address at the UC Berkeley Media Technology Summit. Temple’s piece damns an old-media obsession with doubling-down on old habits in order to protect the institution’s business model. The Rocky Mountain News, under the direction of the E.W. Scripps Co., cleaved to its print ways as its audience (both readers and advertisers) shifted to the Web.

The Rocky should have known better since, unlike almost all other U.S. dailies, it published in a highly competitive media market, locked in a newspaper war with the Denver Post. Just as wrongly as the French building the Maginot Line, the Rocky believed that the front in its war was being fought in print, ignoring other possible models and methods for serving local readers and advertisers.

I have a unique perspective on what happened at the Rocky, bring the editorial and technical head of the Rocky’s website during 1996-1999, the early years in the narrative that Temple offered in his speech. I could write a “Rashomon”-like response to Temple, but allow me here merely to note that our small Web staff had developed a hyperlocal news network strategy and a daily, downloadable audio newscast in 1997, a reader-driven, Yelp-like local entertainment guide in 1998 and one of the Web’s first live news blogs, covering the Columbine shootings in April 1999.

The Rocky’s failure was not in developing new services and models, it was in management failing to embrace them. As Temple wrote, the print side never promoted any of our Web initiatives. In 1999, the paper convened a task force on the Web, and including no one from its then-current Web production and tech development team. That task force led to another business management shift at the website, after which I left to take a job with the Los Angeles Times and the new management team dropped almost all the interactive features we’d developed.

Temple urged his audience to look beyond the old ways. At ONA, plenty of speakers and participants are doing the same as well. Take the serendipitous route, and create a site such as Debbie Galant’s Baristanet. Or put together a smaller, local version of the non-profit ProPublica and Center for Public Integrity projects, as Bass did with Explore the still-lucrative segment of B2B news publishing, as E&E Daily Publisher Kevin Braun detailed.

Oh, and don’t forget about niche-topic online news reporting (which yours truly and many others are using to stay in this game).

If there’s still a weakness in the event, it is that the ONA conference remains a one-way event, with speakers lecturing from the front of the rooms. Journalists have been listening to sources their entire lives. Collecting and publishing information is not their weakness. Acting on that information often is. Journalists making the transition from an old model into a multitude of new ones need to learn not just to listen to new ideas, but to act upon them. A more hands-on approach, such as that found a so many tech conferences, could help lead not just to inspiration, but fresh new projects and initiatives emerging immediately from ONA events.

Still, inspiration is not a worthless result. It’s a welcomed one, given the negativity that’s defined too many journalism gatherings in recent years.

“Journalism will survive the death of its institutions,” founder Lisa Williams told a ONA session yesterday. Those who are willing to consider and embrace new models will be the individuals whose journalism careers survive that passing.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. > “Journalism will survive the death of its institutions,”

    This is a profound statement. Hopefully, its correct and the journalistic ethic will survive this huge paradigm shift in publication technology.