10 lessons from beyond the classroom at ONA13

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of reports from five Digital First Media journalists who attended ONA13 through the Digital First Represents program. 

ONA 2013

A view from above at the Online News Association convention.

Sometimes, the biggest lessons don’t come in a perfectly packaged workshop or classroom.

At the Online News Association convention in Atlanta, I learned so much in the sessions that most of my neurons short-circuited from the excitement. But I also learned a lot outside of the sessions — just observing, talking, thinking and, above all, listening.

Here are 10 things I learned at ONA13 — outside of the classroom — about journalism today:

1. We used to say “digital first.” But to be forward-thinking, we should now be saying “mobile first.” 

Increasingly more readers get their info on their mobile devices. Beyond asking, “How can we tell this story online?” we should be asking, “How can we tell this story on a smartphone?” Anything you do online should be mobile-compatible. Forget apps and websites that don’t work on smartphones. They are already outdated.

If your newsroom doesn’t have a mobile editor, assign that focus to someone yesterday.

2. Data is god.  

Yes. Data. Not words. Not AP Style. Not the nutgraph.

Aspiring journalists, learn from my mistakes. Once upon a time, at least 10,000 years ago when I was a young whippersnapper, I thought I would not need math as a writer. So I only took one super dumbed-down math class in college. Big mistake.

Sorry, Right Brain, but you’re going to need math every day of your life — especially as a writer. And the better you are at crunching and managing numbers, the better journalist you will be.

I know. It hurt me to hear this, too. But think about the best stories you’ve read. Chances are, they come down to beautifully used data. As my best friend, an ex-journalist, used to say, “Every story comes down to money.” Jerry Maguire said that, too, in slightly different terms.

Sign up for a statistics refresher course. Start challenging your left brain on the job. Intentionally seek out data-centric stories.

3. Drink whiskey. 

Let this be a metaphor for: Get out of your office and talk to other journalists. Some of my most influential experiences and inspirational ideas at ONA13 emerged in a social setting. And yes, somehow whiskey seemed to always be prevalent.

Probably a total coincidence.

4. Don’t wait for everything to be perfect before you publish. 

I think the desire (or even demand) for perfection is one factor that holds back many newsrooms from evolving. Accuracy has always been a cornerstone of this profession; it’s in our code of ethics. So it’s hard to let go of that overly thought-out control and publish information in real-time on Twitter, or trust reporters to publish stories directly to the web without editing.

This is particularly evident with new apps, programs and methods of storytelling or information-collecting. As digital toolmaker Hong Qu advised, “Ship early and often. … Don’t try to finish everything. … Ship it and let users try it.”

That’s how you know if it works, and that’s how you know what to tweak.

Which brings us to lesson No. 5:

5. The readers are not your audience anymore. They’re your team. 

The sooner we stop separating ourselves from the readers and pretending we are something bigger, stronger and smarter than they are, the better our stories will be.

We are all one big reporting team, and you are the curator.

Laura Norton, the CEO of Homicide Watch, believes we can understand modern journalism by likening it to jazz music. She explained how in jazz, the production of a song is a process — a conversation. Everyone, including the audience, influences the way the song unfolds and, ultimately, the final product.

In modern journalism, with social media and live online coverage, “The interaction with the audience becomes a part of the story, and that’s exactly what happens in a jazz performance,” Norton said.

6. Take risks. 

Even small ones. Just keep moving forward into the unknown.

As Norton said, “The most successful journalists I know are the ones willing to try the new tools early on.”

7. Diversity is just plain smart.

Beyond your personal opinions. Beyond being “politically correct.” Beyond it simply being the “right” thing to do, if you want to honestly cover any community, expanding your coverage and reaching out to all pockets of the population is smart business.

There’s money there, too.

But this quote from Steve Buttry, the digital transformation editor at Digital First Media, is what really struck me: “The journalistic ethic to seek truth and report it calls on us to debunk stereotypes.”

And that is achieved by breaking outside of your comfort zone and finding those stories far beyond your immediate range of vision.

8. Competition is dead. It has been replaced by collaboration.

Since my newspaper began sharing stories, sources and tips with the other regional papers that used to be our competition, this has become clear. At first, it felt dirty. Like without competition, what would motivate us?




In a world where tweeters or bloggers may break a story, there’s simply less value in being first. Today, it’s all about working together to offer more comprehensive and useful information. The Shine Theory says the so-called Highlander era — ”There can be only one!” — is gone. To elevate a story, you can’t own it.

This is an awesomely selfless perspective on reporting. “If you don’t shine, I don’t shine.” Find your group of trusted colleagues and lift each other up. Challenge each other.

My roommate at the convention taught me this firsthand.

9. Comments are broken.

And no, this does not contradict No. 5.

Many comments sections of online news outlets have disintegrated into cesspools of useless blatherings that not only distract from the quality of the above article, but actually spread misinformation. Some comments are helpful. Most are junk. All are unaccountable. The typical comments section of a news site upholds zero of the journalism ethics that distinguish a reputable news site from any ol’ rumor blog.

We know this. We complain about this. Yet we are afraid to do away with comments because we’re afraid it will hurt our traffic, or make us look like we aren’t listening to the community.

But we all know something needs to change.

10. Our ability to succeed is directly tied to our ability to personalize the news experience for readers.

The current website model, where it is the reader’s responsibility to search for stories that may interest him or her, doesn’t cut it. We need to be building apps and websites that are intuitive and can be personalized. Not just a one-way information blast.

Readers are no longer simply consuming content. They seek out sources that solve problems for themselves, I heard someone say. And it’s true.

Something CNN Mobile Editor Etan Horowitz said may be depressing, but it’s a reality check: “Every news app has to become personalized in the next few years. Frankly, Facebook is a better news experience right now.”

Think about it. Where do you go first to find breaking news in an emergency? I hit up Twitter. Because it’s my own personalized list of news organizations and community leaders, and I don’t care about the sports stories on my local paper’s home page. Sorry, team, but I don’t.

We all want our own home page.

That is the modern information standard.

This post was originally published on the Modern Lois Lane blog, a Digital First Media Idealab project. 

Aimee Heckel

By Aimee Heckel

Aimee Heckel committed herself to journalism in kindergarten. She's a features writer for the Boulder Daily Camera in Colorado and a member of Digital First Media's Idealab team. Heckel also writes a humor fashion column, a fitness column and has covered nearly every beat during her 13 years as a professional journalist. She is a full-time mobile journalist -- the "modern Lois Lane."

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