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Making the ONA conference MY ONA conference

Posted by on Sep 28, 2012 in Uncategorized | One Comment

Greetings from Chicago, where I’m hanging out for a bit after a whirlwind few days at the Online News Association conference in San Francisco! I had a fantastic time re-connecting with many of my friends and colleagues across the United States and the world. It was great to see so many of you.

In a typical conference wrap-up post, I like to write about the great sessions I attended, and what the panelists had to say.  Just one problem. I DIDN’T ATTEND A SINGLE ONA PANEL AS AN ATTENDEE.

Hacking the typical panel structure

Wait, what??? Did you just slip away and tour San Francisco? Maybe hit up Fisherman’s Wharf for the first time in a decade? No. Not quite.

I’ve been doing this journalism thing for three years now, and I don’t really love the status quo. Last year, at this conference, Chicago Tribune developer Heather Billings and I held a session on Django and programming in a hallway, on the floor. We tried to pitch it as an official unconference, and lost by a slim margin. I still maintain it was one of my best ONA experiences. I learned about what the struggles were in the community. I felt like we really helped and encouraged some folks, on a much smaller scale than a larger session. I proposed two official unconferences this year, and was prepared to hold them both in the hallway. (One was voted in, and held in a room, and one wasn’t, and we held it anyway.)

A few days before the conference, I learned there would be a new section called “The Midway”, a large space with booths for awesome projects (including AP’s Overview Project, which I should write about sometime), and large sprawling tables. Dear ONA, this MADE my conference! Thank you! To me, the main awesomeness here was — chairs in which to hold off-agenda sessions! No more sitting on the floor!

I’ve always said the strength of our community is the community. Panels are successful  because of good people. When all those people are in one space, that is one of the greatest things about the conference. I love the official reasons for these get-togethers, but sometimes you get what you want, you must take what you want.

So, a new type of conference began for me. I would run into someone who wanted to know about how to brainstorm data stories, I’d pick a time, tweet it, and gather some quick examples. One of my official unconfs wasn’t picked and I did the same thing. Some people couldn’t make the time, I reran the session. When I wasn’t running sessions in the midway, I would MEAN to head to a panel, but get caught in a side conversation. It literally NEVER ENDED.

Accessing panels after the fact

My friend Greg Linch streamed most of the sessions anyway, and I’ve been watching them now. While they’re meaningful, I feel I got twice as much out of the conference. I feel a little distanced from the main sessions, but am okay with that. I wish I had attended Jen LaFleur’s data session, the slides for which are unbelievably awesome, but that’s just Jen being great.  Also, I truly enjoyed soaking up Dave Wright’s design presentation. But I am content accessing this content via video.

My point here, I guess, is that in journalism school — we’re told to do things one way, and I didn’t really listen. There is a default way to do things, and a way to push the envelope. USC professor Robert Hernandez will recommend you take control of your education. No one tells you that you must go to panels when you are at a conference, but we all do. Why not bust that system open?

A number of people come up to me and ask if they should learn programming, if they are doing it the right way. I’m trying to help all of you, but as with so much, you know what’s even better than asking if you can do something? Just doing it.

Key learnings, even if vague

So, with this experience, what did I learn?

-Talking in small groups can be more effective than larger panels.

-A lot of us are struggling to figure out how to do this work.

-Often, we are given large datasets, but figuring out what the story is can be hard.

-We can and should do better at combining data and narrative.

-Heard amazing examples of how others combined data and narrative

–How to embrace crowdsourcing when it’s useful, and how not to do it for a buzzword’s sake (also brainstorming how to apply such principles across our system at AP)

-Using D3 with IE can be hard, and I learned about ten ways NOT to do it

-Small impromptu group sessions can attract a certain skillset. Explaining JavaScript libraries, but being able to say “Then I used jQuery to grab the window’s width” or “The fourth parameter passed to the function” and having a group of people nod with understanding, enables us to move forward faster. Harder to do that with a more general audience, although I love that, too.

Balancing hacking and embracing the system

Don’t get me wrong, I love ONA. But I think our organization has a great struggle. The field of digital journalism is so incredibly broad right now. And I, even at my age, have fallen into a specialized niche. Not all the sessions can serve my needs at any time. I would love to see more mainstream coverage of various aspects of data and programming at the conference. And not just in unconference sessions, or as a separate paid pre-workshop. We are no supplementary sidecar!! So, while I try to help along, and yearn for, a new day, in the meantime there are two options. I could wait, or I could grab the opportunity by its head and take it on NOW. I chose the latter.

Next year, I want to find a happy medium — I do want to make it to some panels that I’m not speaking on, but will feel free to skip to have important convos/learnings/teachable moments. I’m still learning how to manage so much, including my conference attendance.

Conferences are really about education

The primary point of the mission is to pay it forward. AP’s Social Media Editor Eric Carvin stopped me in a hallway and commented, “You’re really in your element — you love to educate!” But, of course. I learn a bunch of stuff during the year, and ONA and NICAR are my opportunities to learn and share with you. That’s what journalism is to me, a way to share knowledge with our readers and users, as we produce content, and with others, as we determine HOW to produce that content.

People of the Internets: Know this. Just because something is where it is, doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference now. In conferences or in your organizations. Because, to quote Apple’s Think Different slogan, which hangs in my bedroom in my DC apartment:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

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Election 2012: What I learned making an auto-updating results map » »
  • Doug Mitchell

    Thanks for sharing.Michelle and thanks to Jeanne of ONA for re-tweeting the link. I.too didn’t go to one panel. I too hung out in The Midway. My conference (post Career Summit) was to talk with people, in person. Lots of coffee and talk. It worked. With online resources so abundant for educating myself, I think the art of talking to people remains vital to practicing journalism. My plan wildly succeeded. I go to a LOT of conferences every year. My time is best spent lurking. I learn a lot that way and oftenr learn something that I.can start trying when I get home.

    Doug Mitchell

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