Every day I fill 2 pages of a blank paper book with spots and lines of ink. I’ve been a spotty diarist since I could write words but my daily habit started several years ago as a result of buying into the “morning pages” practice outlined by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. So know that I am a user of dead trees when I say this: The sheer amount of blank paper notebooks and ink pens given as swag at the Online News Association in Chicago (#ONA14 – Sept. 25-27, 2014) is a sign of the apocalypse.
The vendors, many of whom were huge online content or Web measurement agencies, thought the best way to attract attendees to their tables was distribute notebooks. Only the Knight Foundation (a USB stick) and the Tribune Content Agency (portable phone charger) had any “online news” appropriate gadgets. Any tech conference worth its fee has its share of silly toys, and in a minimal show of effort there were yo-yos, frisbees and some teddy bears, but the ubiquitous swag was still the lowly pen and paper flip book.
We techies are known for our impatience when it comes to the world’s slow acceptance of reality. Ranting lends us a certain amount of catharsis. I’ll keep it short(ish): ONA14 seemed to be a refugee/re-entry camp where old school newsroomers become assimilated into a new world. I should’ve had a clue the crowd would be less-than-technically-savvy when I read the word “Online” in the group’s title. It’s the same pet peeve I have with the term “social media:” It’s news and it’s media. It’s time we said “paper news” and “private media” and use the non-designated terms of “news” and “media” to mean electronic, meant-to-be-shared communications.
Why rant about free stuff? The tone of any organization is in the swag given out by the vendors. In ONA14’s case, the sheer amount of blank paper notebooks and ink pens demonstrates the vendors’ expectations of the attendees: paper-loving journos and older crowd. The vendors were spot-on, it seems: My analysis of the attendees list showed less than 3% techies (“developer” or “engineer” listed as job title); Most attendees held some sort of administration or editing position. Here’s my point, though: Aren’t we trying to move the news industry closer to the current context? Wouldn’t a few more USB sticks or even the traditional, tongue-in-cheek propeller hats send a better message? We want to journalists and their bosses to “learn the language. Get comfortable with the environment. Embrace the techies as your new people.” I’m oversimplifying here but you get the idea.
Technologists come with varied interests, but one thing they all have in common is a deep respect for information and the machines and programs that process it. I may be reading this whole situation poorly, but it seems a bridge must be built from the newsroom to the server room. Datavisual demos, Snapchat sessions, Vine integrations all stepped the audiences closer to the revolution, but knowing how to use the front-end of social networks to distribute content is not the same as embracing technology into the news process. That would be like saying eating a Snickers gives us enough cooking skills to survive on a desert island. Not. the. same. Systems process, architecture, flow, all of these elements and more need to come together to make the news industry work the way it should. (I’ll try to write more about this later. I attended the one “design thinking” session at ONA14. Elementary intro, but it’s a start.)
All in all, the ONA14 conference is geared toward newbies. I’m a news newbie, but I’m tech oldie. The imaginary Sims jury in my head is still out on whether or not there’s a place for me in the news world.
One bright shining light at ONA14 was a vendor with a small, plain table tucked in the back corner. They had one poster and two guys with laptops, and they were giving out shirts printed with the phrase “Open Source Means Free Speech.” SourceFabric is an open-source initiative for the sharing, production and distribution of news. “We share technology, stories and experience to help address the challenges facing media.” In this age of corporate takeovers of news channels, nothing has ever been more true. Open source and an open Internet are the keys to freedom.
So yes, you can tell a lot about an organization by the types of toys handed out by the vendors at their annual conference. I’ve gotten much better stuff (USB power strips, data storage devices, etc) at free Podcamps and Barcamps. Hopefully the ONA can stop courting the old schoolers and bring in more of the techies. Our freedom depends on it.