For the Online News Association, the Future Is Now.  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2011

For the Online News Association, the Future Is Now.   

There will be no “future of” panels later this month at its convention, which will focus on digital tools that news organizations and journalists should be embracing at this moment. Mon., September 12, 2011

By Tim Ebner
Tim Ebner (tebner86@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


These days, you don't have to go far to find a journalism conference or panel grappling with the future of news.

It's a topic that many industry executives, journalists and academics have pondered, with some wondering whether there even is a future to talk about.

But that's not a topic on the schedule at this year's Online News Association Conference, says Jane McDonnell, ONA's executive director. "It's important to note that we banned the phrase 'future of' anything this year," she says. That, she adds, is because journalism has already entered that future.

This year's conference, which will be held in Boston from September 22 to September 24, focuses on the digital tools and technologies currently used by news organizations across the country.

The event includes a preconference trip to the Boston Globe's recently opened media lab, workshops on multimedia production and Web programming, an opening night reception at Microsoft's New England offices and a discussion of technology trends for reporting on the 2012 election.

The conference will feature several keynote events, including a Friday luncheon that examines the role of social media in reporting on the Arab Spring. The session will feature New York Times reporter Jennifer Preston and NPR's Andy Carvin, both of whom play key roles in social media engagement for their respective newsrooms.

"This year is one of the first years where it all is coming together," McDonnell says.

ONA has seen consistent growth in its membership, now 2,100, which increased by 18 percent in 2010 and is on a similar track this year. The conference sold out earlier this month. and ONA estimates that 1,200 media professional will be in the house for the three-day event.

ONA's growth comes at a time when other professional journalism organizations are scaling back and refocusing their approaches to their annual conferences.

In 2009, the American Society of News Editors canceled its conference in Chicago because of low registration numbers. ASNE has since retooled the event to include more emphasis on digital media and has broadened the definition of those eligible to join the organization.

Later this month, two well-known journalism organizations, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association, will host their first joint conference, which will take place in New Orleans from September 25 to September 27.

"Our membership has grown as more and more journalists are going online," McDonnell says. "There's a new sense of optimism in journalism, and people are really getting excited about the technologies that they are grasping."

On Friday, ONA announced its keynote speaker will be Vivek Kundra, whom President Obama appointed to be the first chief federal information officer. Kundra had previously worked with federal, state and municipal governments to overhaul technology and data systems, cutting costs by adopting new techniques including crowdsourcing, cloud computing and mobile application development.

In August, Kundra left his post in the federal government to begin a fellowship studying disruptive technology at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Kundra says he is focusing on emerging technologies in key business sectors, like media, that are undergoing a fundamental transformation. "Media definitely experienced a shift," he says. "We need to understand the technologies and harness them. Otherwise, those who are trying to hold onto the old model are going to become extinct."

Kundra refers to it as the "Amazon.com effect," in which an industry, like the book publishing business, experiences dramatic change as a result of outside forces and moves to a new model, emphasizing efficiency, speed and low-cost operation.

"It's happening in journalism, too," he says. "Many of the startups are based around these principles."

Kundra points to advances in cloud computing, application development and geospatial analysis, which have changed how newsrooms gather and report news. Data visualization is just as much a story technique today as is traditional reporting, he says.

In his keynote address at ONA, Kundra will address how cloud computing has led to openings for startups in the news industry.

As the ability to share and store information online has grown, so too have the number of nontraditional news sites, using operations like WordPress, Dropbox and Google Docs to collaborate and produce news content. "The economics of journalism has changed, and we've seen it before in history."

Kundra points to moments when radio and then television debuted, causing revolutionary change.

"Right now," he says, "we are seeing something very much the same."

Tim Ebner (tebner@umd.edu) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He will be live blogging and tweeting from this year's Online News Association Conference. You can follow his coverage at ajr.org or via Twitter @ebnert .

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