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Thoughts on ONA 2007

posted at 3:00 am
on Oct. 24, 2007

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I just spent a half a week at the ONA 2007 conference, and I come away with strongly mixed feelings about the state of what was once called “new media”

During the ceremonies on Friday held to present the top online media awards, at one point the effervescent MC Ruth Gersh of asked everyone in the audience who was a finalist or a winner to stand up and get some recognition for their effort and expertise.  Turns out, well over half the people there were associated with a finalist organization.

(Even I could vaguely have claimed that: Hop Studios did a tiny amount of work for New West, which was up in several categories, but I didn’t think of that until after the moment had passed.)

But I think an interesting truth was revealed in that simple moment.  I’m not cynical and I don’t think it was a case of too many awards for too few entrants—in fact, I know the ONA had a huge number of entries to choose from this year.  I think the reason the room stood up en masse is that those finalist orgs are those that are doing well, have the time and the inclination and cash to send editors to a conference to learn and share what they’re doing.

I believe more and more of ONA conference attendees are not beginners in online media any more, they have attained a level of proficiency and skill that puts them into range of award-achieving work.

So, if we accept that we have an industry that has a large pool of talent that does advanced work, and yet a much larger pool of people who aren’t attending the ONA conference, that raised the question for me: did the panels serve their advanced audience, and is the conference serving the whole industry?

In both cases, I feel like perhaps it isn’t.

For attendees, the panels that I attended were for the most part decent, but seemed aimed at an introductory level.

In general, the rule of reviews is to judge based on what you’re given, not on what you wish you had been given—for example, judge a movie based on its actors and plot, not on what you’d have liked to see.  So I’m trying to skirt the line between wishing for a panel that didn’t exist, and wishing that the existing panels pushed further.

The news games panel was more overview and summary than a full study of what it takes to make a news game.  Good for introducing people to the ideas of a game and the benefits of it, but light on detail and example of what it takes to actually produce one.  For example, Paige West demonstrated the New York Times’ daily news quiz on Facebook.  But they didn’t talk about what it takes to support a quiz, in terms of hardware, software, licensing, etc.

West also showed that old (still relevant but old) luggage screening game from MSNBC, but the audience seemed ready to learn more about the process of actually planning and implementing a game—what drafts look like, how you balance game play.

In the user-generated-content panel, I thought the panelists went into great detail about their operations and how they’re integrating user-generated content (a ponderous label, and are we really supposed to refer to it now as simply “U.G.C.”? Ick!).  But Patrick Cooper presenting USA Today’s award-winning embrace of user feedback and blogs still didn’t really go far enough into what’s happening at the edge of UGC today.  What about the proliferation of placeblogs? What about the development of news-based wiki projects?

The issues of payment and legal risk seemed glossed over, when they are at the root of many existing companies that are contemplating UGC.

And why was spam never once mentioned, when that’s probably the biggest headache of any open system?

Lila King from CNN talked about UGC gathered under their iReport umbrella, but then talked about how they vet each submission, and then integrate it into CNN content. The Calgary Herald had that when I worked there in 1992: They called it a tip line, and I answered it late at night.  Just because people can now send cell phone photos instead of giving you quotes, doesn’t make it UGC.

Or rather, news organizations have used user-generated content since the beginning: whether it’s letters to the editor or the Zapruder film, it seems that UGC only gets really interesting as you start to let users actually start controlling the means of production: determining what’s on the front page, remashing stories, directing how reporters are deployed, digging through the data you’ve collected and finding the nuggets.

Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive because I’m such a proponent of participatory journalism (don’t call it citizen journalism!) and the long-term effects the growth of PJ is going to have on the society we’ve built. These examples at ONA were still too trepidatious for my taste.

Ok, enough about the panels.  I see I’m being a little overly critical—but in an odd way, the panels that were most interesting to me were those I didn’t agree with.

A general thought: I hear people compare news organizations to all sorts of earlier doomed industries, like buggy whip salesmen or mainframe manufacturers or town criers. But I think those analogies miss a very basic point:  News organizations are the dairies of the 21st century: they currently make the product and also deliver it directly to the individual. But when was the last time you met someone who had their milk delivered instead of picking it up themselves?

Dairies got out of the delivery business and refocused on the production, and are doing just fine after consolidation and retooling. Next time someone says the news industry (newspapers, broadcast news, news magazines) is in trouble, remember that.

OK, last note I wanted to raise: I thought it was great to see non-traditional news organizations represented so well.  Google News on the superpanel, Hilary Schneidner of Yahoo as a keynote, GreatSchools, Council on Foreign Relations, and so on).  Each new participant in online news becomes either another voice and source of information, or another distribution channel for that news.  As we continue to improve methods to filter and assess trust in what we are learning, we benefit from a proliferation of information.




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