What a difference a year makes. The Online News Association Conference in Boston looked a lot more like America in terms of diversity than last year’s Washington, D.C., gathering. People of color were included in most sessions, including timely discussions on elections and crowdsourcing. From the opening plenary with Vivek Kundra, the former U.S. chief information officer, to the Mini-Law School for Digital Journalists, where five of the nine presenters were women, to the workshop on Augmented Reality, the conference felt more inclusive.

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The Saturday morning plenary on Diversity was well-attended — and as the moderator, I thank all who got up early to come out. The panel was knowledgeable about the role of minorities in the early days of digital media, innovators who are making waves now, and why diversity is important — even if any one of us can go out and start the next Politico or Huffington Post. Get a recap here or on the National Association of Black Journalists Digital Task Force blog.

Of course, there were the usual questions about just how to find minority content producers or other employees for digital companies. For younger ones, the student newsroom at ONA was a good place to start. For more experienced and executive-level digital media types, all you have to do is tap into the digital pioneers from BET.com, AsianAvenue, LatinFlava, 360Hiphop.com, the Baltimore Afro American Online, Black Voices or dozens of other companies started by people of color over the past 15 years. We’ve been here all along, even if none of the attendees at the Diversity plenary — save Benet Wilson from the NABJ Digital Task Force blog — could correctly answer a pop quiz on diversity history in digital media.

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Some of the NABJ members at ONA. Photo by Benet Wilson.

Or just check the ever-growing list, maintained by Emma Carew, of expert digital media people who also happen to be people of color. Or check out the NewMe Accelerator for diverse companies for partnerships and advice.

Kudos go out to co-chairs Michelle Johnson, Teresa Hanafin and John Davidow for their attitudes toward inclusion.

Diversifying sessions

“We really pushed to make sure that ONA 11 was inclusive. From the keynote and a follow-up panel discussion on diversity issues, to the makeup of the sessions and speakers, we were on a serious mission to make sure that women and people of color were represented and felt welcome at the conference,” Johnson said. “I have to credit Program Chair Teresa Hanafin of Boston.com for getting the track captains on board and seeking help in diversifying the sessions. They reached out to everyone, including me, for contacts and it showed.

“I have to admit that I stopped coming to ONA for a few years because I didn’t feel particularly comfortable there. That’s ancient history now. And I’m hopeful that this is just the beginning.”

Hanafin said that diversifying the sessions was one of her goals as the programming chair. “I told each of my track captains that I wanted to severely limit the number of all-white sessions and emphasized that throughout the process of choosing participants,” she said. “It was a goal fully supported by the ONA staff as well, who made a lot of good suggestions to me.

“In addition, early on [co-chair Johnson] circulated the spreadsheet of people of color in the digital space, which was very helpful. And she also invited her NABJ, NAHJ (National Association of Hispanic Journalists), AAJA (Asian American Journalists Association), and NLGJA (National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association) buddies to her academic meetup,” she said.

The numbers speak for themselves: “Not counting the J-Camp sessions with Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube (those companies decided who they wanted to send), there were 30 keynotes and panels on Friday and Saturday,” Hanafin said. “Of those, 21 had at least one person of color or international speaker at the head table. I wanted it to be higher, but I have to admit I was thrilled to see the diversity and proud of what we were able to accomplish. “

reaching out to regulars

The UNITY journalism groups played their part in making sure they had representation as well. NABJ this summer did a great job of reaching out to ONA regulars to infuse its annual convention with digital sessions thanks to program chair Sybril Bennett, and the group returned the favor in Boston. A couple dozen NABJ members were there as attendees and speakers. There was a good turnout of NAHJ folks as well.

Sam Diaz, former board member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists who was on the Diversity plenary panel, said it was his first ONA but won’t be his last and he’s looking forward to the group coming to his territory in San Francisco next year. I hope more members of the Native American Journalists Association can regularly come, because many native people are still cut off from Internet and wireless access and that should not stand.

While there is still work to do to make sure our digital media organizations are inclusive, and lots of work to make sure all Americans are represented on the pages of our media sites, as Dori Maynard pointed out at the session, this ONA was definitely a great start.

Now, if we can only get the ONA board to give Webbmedia’s Amy Webb a larger (and cooler) room for her future presentations, life would be good indeed.

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