ONA 2011: conferences are good for more than just their sessions [VIDEO]

My colleagues Sean Blanda, Brian James Kirk and I learned plenty at the 2011 Online News Association conference in Boston, but we also did more touring and connected more with old friends and colleagues than last year. We even sneaked out to use the city's new bicycle sharing program and visit Fenway Park, among other sights. We were in Boston for the conference from Sept. 22-25. Photo by some lady who took the camera from her elderly father.

Sometimes, if not most times, what happens outside of the sessions can be what’s most valuable about a conference.

I learned plenty the traditional way at the 2011 Online News Association national conference, held in Boston this weekend Sept. 22-25, but I surely got more out of reconnecting with friends and colleagues from other markets, even more than I remember doing at past professional events. It also didn’t hurt that I dove more into Boston than I have while visiting elsewhere for work travel.

ONA has been a national convener among news innovation conversations for more than a decade, and more locally, I’ve been involved with reviving the Philadelphia chapter of the group.

Full disclosure: this year, I was able to attend thanks to the very generous support of the Center for Public Interest Journalism at Temple University and the Wyncote Foundation. I was able to attend last year with similar support from the William Penn Foundation, which has additionally funded the Transparencity reporting project I have led.

After a few years co-running a sustainable niche news site, participating in the online discourse around news innovation and attending events like ONA and others from the Aspen Institute, the University of Missouri and, yes, our own BarCamp NewsInnovation, I felt like attending the event was just as important to talk shop with others doing similar work across the country as it was to catch up on a lot of in-session conversations that felt less relevant to where we are professionally.

Tourism and good, smart friends aside, below I share what I learned in a conference’s traditional way.

A Morning Conversation with Vivek Kundra

Kundra, who served in the Obama administration as the first federal Chief Innovation Officer, kicked off the conference.

Tweets and Takeaways:

  • Shorter @vivekkundra: Let’s get the government out of the re-inventing wheels business. @eyeseast
  • Why the cloud makes sense for government now: “In the 1960s the greatest innovation in tech was happening in government. In 1980, innovation moved to enterprise. In 2005, something big happened — all innovation moved to the consumer side.”
  • Being able to, say, scan baby crib and see if it’s recalled only benefits parents w/access to that tech. $$$ creates tech divide  @AmyZQuinn
  • Will data.gov survive the election? “It’s a one-way street,” he said.
  • On @WikiLeaks, @VivekKundra cites “inherent risks,” but says “it shouldn’t have happened,” security was insufficient.  @EricCarvin

You Can’t Duck the Math: Entrepreneurial Journalism

B. J. Roche, Jeremy Caplan, Laura Frank and Jennifer Lord Paluzzi get set to start the session.

I was a little disappointed by this session and don’t think it much pushed forward the conversation, with little actionable advice or experienced details. That said, there were some small takeaways.

Tweets and Takeaways

  • @Laura_Frank: try to be an ‘intrapreneur’ before you’re an entrepreneur. Now’s the time to pitch ideas within legacy orgs. @McKennaEwen
  • “Be revenue promiscuous.” @meghannCIR
  • When you start one site people pat you on the head and say, “Isn’t that cute.” When you launch six at a time, they take notice. @eyeseast

Below watch a video chronicling ‘five minutes in the life of ONA 2011.’

Five minutes in the life of ONA11 from Curt Chandler on Vimeo.

New Platforms for Longform Journalism

Panel (L-R): Tim Carmody, Mark Armstrong, Evan Ratliff, Joshua Benton

I’ve been interested in the movement to use tablets and even more read-friendly smartphones to return to longform roots, celebrated by this session.

Tweets and Takeaways

  • Longform content movement is in some ways a rebellion to the shortening and speed of content online, says @jbenton
  • Already an emerging vocabulary, in which #longform fits for 1-5k word mag-style pieces and ‘short books’ for longer, I think
  • Mac Lion @arstechnica tutorial was free on site, still sold 3k in 24hrs at $5 Kindle ebooks, says @tcarmody
  • We make ‘short books’ not ‘longform journalism,’ because offering something LONG isn’t a good sell says @ev_rat of @theatavist
  • And how many of those are really read later? MT @alicyp: Pieces saved online to “read later” are only between 250-2k words. @hbillings

A Conversation on the Front Lines of the Arab Revolution

Friday ONA 2011 keynote 'A Conversation on the Front Lines of the Arab Revolution' panel, from left: moderator New York Times reporter Jennifer Preston, NPR social media star Andy Carvin, former Egypt Today editor Rehab El-Bakry, noted Middle East freelance journalist and blogger Issandr El-Amrani and American Islamic Congress outreach director Nasser Weddady.

The lunchtime session was timely and interesting, hearing from those involved with the coverage of the Arab Spring.

Tweets and Takeaways

  • It’s good to be reminded how relatively small my contribution to the world of journalism. ….Remarkably small. ….Inconsequential, really.
  • At #ona11, in session on Arab Awakening, @acarvin warns of not romanticizing a “hot mess” of political transition. @paufder
  • @acarvin sometimes the best sources are also the biggest activists @VOAHutch
  • “I think of my Twitter feed as a sort of an open-source newsroom,” @acarvin

B.S. Detection for Digital Journalists

My buddy and strangely proud Canuck Craig Silverman presented with Huffington Post star Mandy Jenkins drew me to this session, which had some small takeaways of value and for which you can find their notes and slides here and coverage of the presentation here.

  • New users w/o photos, dated updates and few or spam-centric followers are easy signs of less credible Twitter users: @mjenkins
  • Image verification tools like errorlevelanalysis.com and regex.info/exif.cgi and tineye.com shared by @CraigSilverman
  • “The best verification tool a journalist has is still the telephone,” says @CraigSilverman
  • If you get tricked into spreading a hoax or false information ‘it is your responsibility’ to do your best to contact every person online who is continuing to spread that falsehood, said Silverman.

Making It Work with a Small Staff

Silicon Prairie Insider Managing Editor Danny Schreiber and my colleague Sean Blanda presenting at ONA. Yes, notice the local Harpoon beer we gave out.

My colleagues and I submitted three sessions to present at ONA and one was accepted, this one on working with a small staff, which Sean led on our behalf, with Danny Schreiber, who is the managing editor of Silicon Prairie Insider, not unlike a Technically Philly for the Midwest. They shared this sheet (bit.ly.com/small_staff) of their takeaways from their experiences.

Yes, we gave out beer, as depicted above, to note that small staffs have to develop good environments, and the people loved it.

Tweets and Takeaways

  • Check out their brain dump sheet here.
  • Video Sean Blanda handing out beer from local Boston brewery Harpoon
  • best panel ever @harpoon_brewery
  • Content departments and scheduling evergreen resources and features can make staff time more efficient, says @seanblanda
  • Video of their ‘How large is their editorial staff’ quiz
  • How much do you work? @seanblanda notes @technicallyM now limits to 40-50 hrs to fight burnout, @dannyaway says 70+ but says he loves it
  • @AmyZQuinn @jerseyshorejen are understandably nervous for freelance rates. @siliconprarie pays $50 & we’ve limited freelancing due to costs
  • Screenshot of @dannyaway @siliconprarie 400+ feed Google Reader account for leads, a ‘time suck’ that leads to insight, he said

I Screwed Up (And You Will Too)

My friend David Cohn, of Berkeley and Spot.Us fame, led this session and shared, with Denise Change of the Grand Rapadian, professional failures they had encountered and what they learned from it. Grab their notes here.

  • Rule of the Internet: It is faster to try something than debate about trying something, says @digidave
  • “The journalism community has begun to recognize failure as something positive. The journalism industry hasn’t.” @moniguzman

Below, watch a video interview collection around challenges various conference attendees felt were the most daunting for the industry, including what looks like a less than thoughtful addition by this reporter.

Other #ona11 Tweets and Takeaways from other conference sessions

  • Journalists who add analysis to FB postings about stories get 20% better response. @kmingis
  • Twitter doesn’t take down parody accounts like @BPGlobalPR. But will take down impersonators. @lheron
  • 40% of Twitter users are just listening, using Twitter as a wire service – @EricaAmerica
  • About 200 million tweets are sent every day, @ericaamerica said. @lheron
  • General consensus in the room is you never delete a tweet, even if it is wrong. Clarify, be transparent. @PoppedCulture
  • I attended briefly an un-conference called Tango with Django, which was a small kick-in-the-pants in us non-developer journalists about trying to learn some basic programming languages.
  • The candidate voting guide is one of the dullest yet important things news orgs do. Could really use spicing up online. @kev097
  • Some question came out of the annual awards show about whether enough independent and niche sites are being honored. I didn’t want to dive into that mess, though I did not that we at Technically Philly have never even thought about applying, despite doing some pretty substantial journalism projects.