The problem with ONA

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About 3,000 journalists gathered in Washington, DC this weekend to contemplate the future of journalism. A $989 ticket for non-members of the Online News Association, or $659 for members, bought you access to a Google News espresso bar and three days of panel discussions on technology and journalism.

The annual conference was blissfully free of the same old Trump talk, and instead focused on the ripples the political climate is making in the press: on trust, revenue, and bias. But many of the conversations showed that journalists, especially in smaller newsrooms, are looking for short-term solutions to declining business models rather than viable long-term strategies. At times, the prevailing mood was desperation; one session was titled, “Getting the Most Out of Your Content: Maximizing the Value of Your Journalism with Fewer Resources in a Multi-Platform World.” Here are some key takeaways from the conference:

 

Developing new metrics. What if, instead of assessing an article’s performance based on clicks, search engines, social platforms, and news organizations could take into account quality, relevance, and attention? The hope of some of the most innovative journalism-adjacent companies is to realign revenue strategies with what makes the best journalism.

ICYMI: There are three kinds of journalists. Which one are you?

At a “fireside chat,” Ev Williams, one of Twitter’s co-founders and the founder and CEO of Medium, discussed Medium’s ambitions to support quality journalism. Early this year, Medium laid off staff and stopped supporting ad sales on its sites, prompting some, like The Awl, to leave the platform. In place of ads, Medium introduced a monthly subscription model that allocates reader money based on the number of “claps” they give an article. Williams sees Medium as, potentially, the cable TV of the internet. “I’m optimistic,” said Williams, because, in every industry, “there are higher-end products that people will pay for… If there’s something better available, people will pay for it.”

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Tony Haile, who CJR wrote about in 2015 for his work on Chartbeat, demoed his new venture, Scroll, for the first time. For $5 per month, Scroll gives news consumers a smoother experience on a number of news sites—eliminating ads and popups and speeding up the sites. Haile plans to return 70 percent of subscription revenue from Scroll to the news organizations themselves, which will provide a higher return per user than what they receive on digital ads.

 

A more lenient wall between editorial and funding? A panel on local journalism (sponsored by Google) repeated the now-common wisdom about engaging with local communities as a way to build trust in journalism and overcome polarization. On top of that, it’s also supposed to help news organizations convert readers into subscribers, by making them more invested in the work.

But more subscribers alone won’t solve the decline in funding for local journalism. Bill Church, senior vice president of news at Gatehouse Media, questioned whether partnerships with organizations “in other markets” who share a “common mission” are the way forward—though such a move, he acknowledged, would necessitate a “change in culture.” Similarly, moderator Kristen Hare, who covers local news innovation for Poynter, wondered whether new funding opportunities might renew local journalism. Ashley Alvarado of KPCC, a public radio station in Southern California, also suggested that ideas without a budget might prompt a trip to your organization’s underwriting committee.

 

Understanding the future of news means understanding the future of tech. For the 10th edition of her annual, notoriously epic presentations, “quantitative futurist” Amy Webb distilled 75 emerging tech trends. By 2027, the world will be a very different place, with wearable computers and advanced AI, she predicted. She encouraged newsrooms to become familiar with terms and trends they may have been ignoring so far, like machine learning and generative adversarial networks. In a global survey of newsrooms, Webb’s organization, the Future Today Institute, finds that most journalists they spoke to are not planning for the future, or reporting on it. Luckily, she has made her research available in a 91-page PDF. Webb acknowledges “resource issues”; journalists are not focused on the future because they can’t be. Shoestring budgets, a shortening news cycle, and a necessity to feed the social platforms all contribute to an inability to look ahead.

 

We’re better at covering government than covering tech. Obviously, reporters (and the public) have access to far more data about the government than about tech. Some of the best financial investigative reporting is derived from campaign finance disclosure, for instance; because tech companies are private, no such transparency is required of them. Now that Silicon Valley companies are subject to large questions about their relationship to democracy, the difference is all the more stark.

 

At this point, we need big thoughts, not small solutions. ONA’s focus is on tools and practices for working journalists. As a result, it was disappointing that the wide-ranging conversations in journalism were passed over in favor of the micro-level fixes. Notably absent were the larger conversations happening in other sectors, such as the role of social media in the election, the future of free speech online, and how to report on tech companies. As Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, said, now that “some of the biggest issues of our age are central to the practice of journalism in a digital environment, one might argue that the conference could benefit from focusing on connecting the conversation about much broader areas of policy and practice.”

ICYMI: “I spent 45 minutes on the phone with Megyn Kelly asking her to not run that show” 

Correction: Amy Webb lists 75 tech trends, not 78. The piece has also been updated to more accurately describe her comments on resources and the local news panel.

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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.