Report: Journalism not completely doomed

I spent four days in San Francisco with a crowd of journalists, and this meeting did not require the services of psychoanalysts or grief counselors.

This was my first trip to the Online News Association’s annual conference, and I’m glad I went. (I joined ONA in 2009, didn’t think to go to the 2009 event in San Francisco, blew off the 2010 conference even though it was right in D.C. and I should have been busy networking then, and wistfully read tweets from the 2011 gathering in Boston.) Three reasons stand out.

One was the chance to re-connect with old friends from the Post and newer acquaintances that, until then, I had known mainly as Twitter handles and e-mail addresses. As a full-time freelancer who works from the same desk at home almost every day, renewing those bonds means a lot. (And I won’t mind if some of these conversations yield future business.)

Another was why I’d go to any gathering of interesting people engaged in the same work: learning from those more informed, intelligent, experienced or connected than me. The lineup of panels and ONA’s awards ceremony reminded me of how much creativity goes into telling the truth to strangers, and how much of this we’re still figuring out.

ONA speakers shared such practical advice as the importance of a good business-card design if you freelance; different ways to clean up the mess when you tweet out an error; effective tools for mobile reporting; and reminders that story comments aren’t all bad (“my commenters were my mentors” said Twitter’s Mark Luckie of his early blogging). And some committed actual news: In an onstage interview, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said we’d be able to download all of our tweets “before the end of the year”–although he then walked that back slightly by noting his engineers’ reluctance to get so specific.

But the thing about ONA that sticks most in my mind is its absence of pessimism. This could have been a consequence of going to a deliberately post-print organization’s conference, but it was still heartening to see that much enthusiasm for the bold, persistent experimentation this industry needs, both on an individual and organizational level. To steal a line from Lauren Orsini‘s account of how she had wormed her way into writing about online communities through freelance work: “What do you when the job you really, really want does not exist? You make that job.”

Is that foolish optimism? Maybe, but not nearly as crazy as a 20-year-old guy thinking that a part-time newsroom job sorting mail and answering phones could ever lead to a front-page byline.

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