“Welcome to the conference where journalism supposedly doesn’t know it’s supposed to be dead.”

Those were the welcoming words from Online News Association executive director Jane McDonnell as she opened the 2010 Online News Association Conference.

Many of the top people in online journalism in the Unites States, Canada and other countries are in Washington, D.C. this week for the conference. I’m here representing PBS MediaShift and OpenFile, the online news startup I’m involved with in Canada. This post is where I’ll collect my thoughts, impressions and all of the notable things I see and hear at #ONA10. Also see the bottom of this post for a visualization of the ONA membership.

Friday TBD Keynote

The conference program officially kicked off with a keynote discussion featuring key people from TBD.com, the recently launched local news website for the D.C. area. Jim Brady (general manager), Erik Wemple (editor), Mandy Jenkins (social media producer) and Steve Buttry (director of community engagement) took part. Some notable quotes and information:

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“The way I phrase [our revenue model] to people is that there’s no silver bullet — it’s just shrapnel … there isn’t one stream that’s going to make us successful.” — Jim Brady. He also later noted that TBD could roll out paid mobile apps that offer very targeted information and functionality. For now, though, their main apps are free and will likely stay that way.

“Borrell & Associates predicts there will be $1 billion spent this year in local mobile advertising, and they are seeing $11 billion by 2014*. That’s bigger than last year’s decrease in print advertising.” — Steve Buttry

“Our editorial vision is that we try to focus on a few key areas: Transportation, arts and entertainment and sports that cut across the region. We can’t be in every jurisdiction. For politics we are doing a fact checking approach … The vision is just work really hard all the time, and always be checking your device. We are just trying to keep the site refreshed at all times.” — Erik Wemple

“If you run a website that doesn’t have something that’s terrible on it, you are not trying hard enough. You have to fail, fail, fail. You have to fail and fail miserably many times.” — Erik Wemple

Mandy** Jenkins said that in order to do her job she has 22 columns open in TweetDeck, has keyword searches running constantly, and is reading around 200 news feeds constantly. “I follow a ton of our readers — pretty much anyone who has sent us a news tip,” she said.

“Social media, while it’s a great source of information, you have to treat it like a tip line, not like a reporter. It’s a matter of checking all of your sources before you run with them, and it’s an important part of using [social media tools] responsibly.” — Mandy Jenkins

A lot of news organizations think social media “is a way to get our stuff out to people. [Mandy Jenkins] pushed an idea that it’s also the police scanner of the 21st century.” — Jim Brady

“The commodity that’s most restricted in people’s lives is time.” — Jim Brady

Friday Tim Armstrong-Vivian Schiller Keynote

The lunchtime keynote at ONA featured Tim Armstrong of AOL and Vivian Schiller of NPR in conversation with Kara Swisher of AllThingsD. Some notable quotes and exchanges:

Nature of NPR, Stats, and API

“We are a news organization first and foremost … Our mission couldn’t be simpler — it is to provide news and information to more people in more ways, and digital media is at forefront of that. We are not moving away from radio one iota. I think there will be more and more people listening to NPR member stations on IP radio, but terrestrial radio is not going away anytime soon. Our role is to make sure we are there where our audience is, and however they want to consume us.” — Vivian Schiller

Schiller noted that NPR has 15 million podcasts downloaded per month and 10 million unique visitors on NPR.org. They have also had 650,000 downloads of the NPR iPad app.

“Due to the foresight of folks at NPR before I got there, we had all of our content in an open API. That doesn’t mean developing all of our applications is free, but it enables us to do more much more faster, and much more nimbly. We built our iPad up in a matter of a few weeks. Without an API, that would have been impossible, or at least we would have had to stop whatever else we were doing [to build it].” — Vivian Schiller

Local Media

“The big opportunity — and where the most disruption is — is in local media.” — Vivian Schiller

Armstrong on the market for local news and information: “I have little doubt in my mind that, whether it’s us or somebody else, this is going to be a very big space in the future.”

“First of all — to be very blunt — AOL’s struggle in profitability is not because we can’t be profitable. It’s because it has to be set up properly,” Armstrong said.

He added that everything needs to be measured. “When you talk about measuring some people stand up and say, ‘You don’t believe in journalism anymore’ … but the reality is if physically and mechanically [journalism] isn’t going to work [as it has in the past], we have to figure out how it’s going to work.”

“You can’t just say news should be paid for. You have to take a step back and ask ‘What are we charging for?’” — Tim Armstrong

Importance of Brands

“Users need curated experiences … brands within content are one of the only things that bring trust to people … Distribution is changing and is going to continue to change. That migration of distribution is not going to stop.” — Tim Armstrong

Armstrong said he views AOL as being like Disney, in that they have some offerings branded as Disney and lots of independent brands like ABC and ESPN.

“If you’re number 17 in something the reason generally is because you don’t have the right people working on it … The difference between being number one and number 17 is that number one has the right people, they have a business plan that works, they are learning [as they go]…” — Tim Armstrong

Data is King

Armstrong emphasized that it’s essential to be able to present data to advertisers. “If you don’t have the data and capability to tell people who your audience is, you are in trouble. You better have a plan about how to feed data to advertisers.”

AOL has tried placing one ad per page on some of its content brands. “The results have all been positive. Online content companies need to think in this direction.”

Mobile

“Some news organizations made a mistake with the iPad in saying, ‘Oh, it’s a big iPhone.’ The fact is the way people use the tablet versus the iPhone is so completely different … which is why our iPhone and iPad apps look nothing alike.” — Vivian Schiller

“Mobile is enormous and massive, but I think the sneakily little thing that three years from now … we are going to see will be just as big if not bigger is the plasma screen.” — Tim Armstrong

What’s Overhyped?

“One thing that is overhyped is everything having to do with platforms. The brand space is so underhyped at this point. We did some research and consumers use 20 brands per month in the online space. They flip-flop out of one or two per month.” — Tim Armstrong

“One thing that is wrongly hyped is social media … For many media organizations, they think it of it as distribution, and yes it’s good for that. What’s missing is the power of social media for engagement with the audience and for newsgathering.” — Vivian Schiller

Is Patch Evil?

One of the final questions was asked by ONA board candidate and USC Annenberg professor Robert Hernandez. He said there’s been a lot of discussion around one question, so he might as well ask it: Is Patch evil?

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Robert Hernandez at ONA

“What are the theories on why it’s evil?” Armstrong said. “Give me the three-legged stool of evil.”

Hernandez listed the main points that people cite: The people being hired as Patch editors, the quality of the work, the expectations being set for editors, and the fact that this is a corporation going into the hyper-local scene where there are a lot of local bloggers.

Armstrong said he “never would have started Patch to have that outcome [of being evil].”

Then he cited some stats: The average local Patch editor has 6.6 years of journalism experience. As to the charge that “we are working them to death,” he said 75 percent of editors are paid as much or more than their last job.

“If you think it’s evil, put on your consumer hat for a minute,” he said. “What does the consumer need in their town and are you meeting it?”

In a recent talk with Patch editors, Armstrong said he told them to cover stories “straight up the middle” and to be honest with the community. “Those are good things,” he said.

As for the hours and demands of the job?

“You are going to have to work hard, it’s a startup,” he said.

“The essence of what Patch is bringing to a community is information,” Armstrong said.

“And competition is not evil,” Schiller added.

Saturday WikiLeaks Keynote

“It’s nice to see so many hungover people from different parts of the country,” said
Dick Meyer, executive director of NPR, as a way of greeting everyone for the morning keynote.

WNYC’s Brooke Gladstone lead a panel aimed at examining what WikiLeaks’ data dumps “could mean for journalism and the role of the Internet in news and information.” Panelists were Gavin MacFadyen (Centre for Investigative Journalism), Jim Michaels (USA Today), Clothilde Le Coz (Reporters Without Borders) and Mark Stephens (a lawyer with Finers Stephens Innocent).

“Technology and the pace of change in media is pushing us into an uncomfortable area … The media have perhaps become more cavalier towards pushing confidential information.” — Jim Michaels

“The country that published the least amount of [the WikiLeaks documents is the United States], and that should be the subject for some embarrassment for our colleagues here.” — Gavin MacFadyen

“What the papers show, what WikiLeaks really presented to us … first is the treatment and protection of detainees in Iraq. We realized that there were 1,365 cases of alleged torture by the Iraqi authorities … There were American soldiers reporting this stuff and little of that has been published in the U.S. The second issue is civilian deaths. What they have discovered was that there were 15,000 new civil deaths that were accurately recorded by soldiers and officers on the ground …15,00 gruesome cases that were never included [in official totals]. — Gavin MacFadyen

What the leaked documents show is “that there was a massive attempt to preclude from public access the extent of death and the horror that actually happened in the war. This information never would have come out, so I think WikiLeaks did an extraordinary service, whatever the flaws of their methods.” — Gavin MacFadyen

“Bradley Manning is a source, WikiLeaks is a source, and they have to be protected.” — Clothilde Le Coz

“One of the things that concerns me about this is … no longer are journalists getting a single document, the smoking gun. What’s happening now is they are getting data dumps. If a source comes along, they come along with a CD of documents… I think that part of what WikiLeaks is about, and I speak in a personal capacity, is providing that cipher.” — Mark Stephens

When it comes to the WikiLeaks documents, “there is a really stark difference I get when I talk to friends who are not this side of the Atlantic. People in Europe think this is vital information that has come out … it’s the democratization of information.” — Mark Stephens

“This will be first time in history that the victors will not write the definitive history; the first time the victor’s history will be challenged, and challenged with the victor’s own documents.” — Mark Stephens

“Every civilized country in the world except America has a shield law.” — Mark Stephens

“To say that WikiLeaks is not a journalist organization when it supplies to us such vast amounts of journalism material … is to deny the danger of excluding them from the journalist community.” — Gavin MacFadyen

“You are a reporter depending on the value of the information you are putting out there.” — Clothilde Le Coz

Saturday Workshop Led By The Onion

I finished the conference with a session led by Baratunde Thurston, the web editor for the Onion.

He began with a bit of a (fake) history lesson, explaining that the paper started roughly 250 years ago. At one point it was called the Mercantile Onion. He showed a front page from 1783 that featured a “mule death and a story about George Washington hinting at bid for the presidency.”

Thurston also shared a list of Ben Franklin’s inventions that had been published in the paper, including the “death kite, power windows, math and the U.S. patent, which Franklin himself patented.”

He then gave us a tour of some of the Onion’s stories, such as “Mexico Killed In Drug Deal” and “Man Already Knows Everything He Needs To Know About Muslims”, and “Lady Gaga Kidnaps Commissioner Gordon.” There was also this recent media-related headline, “Huffington Post has launched a new print edition featuring articles torn out of other newspapers.”

And he showed this Onion News Network video, which is a pretty biting commentary on 24-hour news networks:


Breaking News: Some Bullshit Happening Somewhere

Thurston shared some made-up stats about the Onion News Network:

  • It reaches 92.2 million U.S. households and 500,000 U.S. prison cells
  • 9 billion viewers worldwide.

And some real ones about their website:

  • 7 million unique visitors per month.
  • 2 million uniques for avclub.com.
  • 2.5 million comments in their database.
  • They built their own CMS, mobile and video ad servers, and they manage their own source code.
  • They run their site using four servers and one database.
  • They have three developers, two web designers and Thurston and a web producer on staff.

“We’re very lean, very efficient and we reach a large number of people,” Thurston said.

Asked later about how they manage to scale so effectively while being so lean, he said, “Free your people to think of things and execute them. Well, don’t execute the people.”

In terms of their social media presence:

  • 2.4 million followers on Twitter, and “We don’t follow any of them in return.”
  • They have 1.3 million fans on Facebook and say that platform is growing faster than Twitter for them.

Thurston said they use social media for a variety of things, such as “content distribution, viral distribution, breaking news, real-time coverage.” What else? “Nation-building.”

He also talked about the difference between what they do and what someone like Jon Stewart does.

“The Onion doesn’t talk directly about real-life — it’s a parallel universe,” Thurston said.

They use that to their advantage by creating fake websites to support their characters and stories and games.

The Onion’s mobile app has had more than 1 million downloads and is available on Android and iPhone. Thurston said it’s generally among the top 10 news apps in terms of downloads.

“Apps are like children, you gotta feed and clothe them,” he said, noting that they are seeing more growth on Android that on the iPhone these days.

They are currently working on being on tablets, Google TV, and Foursquare and are developing their own television content.

Marc Lieberman, the Onion’s VP of business development, took the stage at the end to answer questions. He was asked what has helped them grow at such a fast pace. The answer, he said, was video.

“We were only doing online and printed articles until 2007,” he said. “Now almost half of our traffic comes from video. People come and watch and then stick around and do other things.”

ONA Membership, Visualized

The 2010 ONA conference may be over, but you can stay connected all year round using the membership directory at journalists.org.

You can also use the below interactive data visualization to find out where ONA innovators are located, and what they’re talking about online. The viz was built by Anthony Calabrese using data scraped from the ONA member directory on October 30, and it features a map that is broken out into U.S. geographic regions. Mouse over a circle to see membership stats; or use the mouse to drag and highlight states and display the number of members in the table on the right.

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