Five takeaways from the ONA 2016 conference

Photo by Daniel Petty/for ONA

While the war between the presidential candidates and the press rages on, more than 1,000 journalists gathered last week at the 2016 Online News Association conference in Denver for a conversation on the future of journalism. 

Here are five takeaways from the conference:

Facebook was dominant. Fidji Simo, the social network’s director of product, offered an olive branch to publishers from Facebook, the largest sponsor of the event. Her keynote conversation was mostly focused on the ins and outs of how publishers can use Facebook’s newest tools—Facebook Live, 360, Instant articles—not only to grow their audience but also to engage. Simo also tried to dispel the idea that Facebook is aloof from the industry, using softer language than co-founder Mark Zuckerberg about the role of Facebook in the media. When asked whether Facebook is a media company, Simo said, “We play a big role in the media industry, and we take that responsibility very seriously….[but] we’re not in the business of picking which topic the world should care about.”

Publishers are desperate to connect. Publishers are looking for new, robust ways to engage with their audience and build communities—on and off social media: everything from simply responding to emails and becoming an active presence in Facebook groups, to listening to the audience before reporting with tools like Hearken. But because the platforms have set a strong example, there was the sense that publishers have fallen behind—and now there is a scramble to catch up. Many journalists are still having to convince their newsrooms not only that developing social media is important, but that it takes resources to do well. This seemed to be true especially for smaller local publishers, who came to ONA with questions about how to best allocate their limited resources given the huge range of social media tools.

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Tech companies are lining up to help journalists find that audience. ONA’s Midway expo, which features tools and tech for the future of journalism, was focused this year on helping journalists sift through the massive amount of content on social media and discover stories. There were advanced analytics companies like Chartbeat and Parse.ly, which drill down into traffic on news sites and learn something about the audience. But there were also companies with newer models, including Dataminr, which combs Twitter to find breaking news and trending stories first. Facebook, too, demonstrated a tool that allows you to look at a map of the world and see all Facebook Live broadcasts.

The buzzword is monetization. How to generate revenue from content seemed to be at the bottom of every conversation, but the process these days is piecewise; filtering piles of dirt for tiny nuggets of gold rather than striking it rich. From Simo’s keynote—about how Facebook can help monetize through advertising on Instant articles and by growing your audience in general—to the small conversation on business and revenue (more detailed talk about pre-roll ads and CPMs), everything pointed toward monetizing. Even in conversations about audience engagement, there were whispers of building a subscription base or membership. There wasn’t much discussion of some of the more creative services trying to wring money out for newsrooms—including micropayment sites such as Blendle.

Trump is still the 10,000-pound gorilla in the room. For all the discussion about reaching the audience and sustaining publications, there was very little talk about the press’s role and responsibility in this unprecedented election year.

In a panel on covering the election on social media, the main focus was on how to create great moments for social media from the election rather than on how to maintain balance in an election that has turned into entertainment. When asked how social media has influenced the election, Ashley Codianni, director of social media at CNN, said there wouldn’t have been great hashtags such as #FeeltheBern if it weren’t for social media. In the same panel, Versha Sharma of NowThis Election noted that fact checking in real time has become crucial. Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented immigrant and founder of the new media organization #EmergingUS, said the press’s failure to adequately cover immigration has led to the centrality of anti-immigration rhetoric in Trump’s campaign.

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Nausicaa Renner is editor of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s vertical at Columbia Journalism Review. She tweets at @nausjcaa.