Before ONA15, looking back at lessons learned in past ONA conferences

Before ONA15, looking back at lessons learned in past ONA conferences

Selfie from the ONA14 party at the Field Museum
Selfie from the ONA14 party at the Field Museum

As I look forward to traveling to the ONA15 conference in LA next week, I’m doing all the normal things I do to get ready: picking out the sessions that I want to attend, contacting colleagues who may be going and establishing a blog where I can share my notes with my coworkers.

But this upcoming conference will be my third consecutive year in attendance and it seems like a good opportunity to look back on the lessons I’ve taken away from past years.

ONA13: Atlanta

  • Google Fusion Tables — Gosh, have I only been using this tool for 3 years? It seems like I use it all the time. Perhaps the most impressive use of it, however, was when we used it to live-update election maps on TV as well as online.
  • TileMill/MapBox — I used this tool professionally just once, but created a map that busted my account because it was viewed so often. Unwilling to pay for an account, I’ve since switched to other options.
  • My first introduction to Tableau — I saw it used and knew it was powerful, but it wasn’t until the 2014 conference that I really understood how it worked.
  • Nate Silver’s thoughts on statistics, including: “Data requires context” — Silver’s memorable presentation has inspired conversations in my newsroom and questions I frequently ask of my teammates. For example, today we received taxation data that we realized was misleading because the tax rates on the two commodities are very different. As a result, we’re going to be able to do a much fairer story.
  • The importance of powerful photography — Frequently I spend time fussing over whether we have the right image for each headline, or even for each individual platform. Perhaps many of my strong feelings in this regard can be traced back to the 2013 National Geographic photography discussion. 
  • Micro-storytelling — This idea may still not be fully realized, but in 2013 I attended a session that questioned what the “atomic unit of content” truly is. I thought of this recently when I heard a speech about an upcoming app, and I think of it when I see Microsoft’s Windows 8 or other similar designs that focus on simplified content. It is interesting when you consider how often we can build multi-paragraph stories out of a single Tweet or Instagram photo.
  • Simplifying user choices and interfaces — While I’m not a designer, I do often build pages for our website or app. When I do so, I often take a moment to consider ways to make links to other sections more easily navigable.

ONA14: Chicago

  • Dimetrodon is not a dinosaur — OK, I didn’t really remember that one until now, but I did remember the overall lesson of the session where it came up: Simple guidelines for good, social videos. I’ve even written a version of that myself, though I admit mine was longer.
  • Creating titles that engage the curiosity gap — Often before I start fussing over images, I fuss over titles. In ONA14, one session dared to speculate on why certain stories with certain titles have the indefinable factor that make them viral. It is something we try to achieve over and over, day after day in local newsrooms.
  • Exposure to a new version of Tableau and seeing it in use made it possible for me to deploy the software in my own work. It is now a tool I use for public reporting and internal analysis.
  • Good visualizations lead to better questions — If you haven’t noticed yet, ONA has apparently taught me a lot about data journalism. Perhaps this is because that really wasn’t included in my broadcasting degree. Using visualizations to help understand data is a strategy I’ve brought home to use with my newsroom’s investigative reporting team on projects like an analysis of where children are unvaccinated. 
  • Use analytics to win the web — This thought came from a few places in my notes, including Amy Webb’s assertion that smart use of data will help newspapers to win the web and also this quote from an NPR analytics presentation: “You could write the best piece of journalism in the world, but if nobody reads it, it doesn’t matter.” In my own work, I run analytics every day to evaluate the day before and search for opportunities for new content.

Follow along with this year’s Scripps at ONA15 conference blog.