I spent the past two weeks betraying a basic rule of self-employment: Don’t go someplace without having enough work lined up to pay for the trip. Worse yet, I paid for a conference badge–twice.
I had my reasons. The XOXO festival in Portland promised a repeat of the mind-expanding, heartening talks I watched with rapt attention in 2013 and 2015, plus the side reward of getting to spend a few days in a city I like but hadn’t visited since 2015. The Online News Association conference in Austin, meanwhile, would bring its usual mix of professional development and catching up with old friends.
I had hopes of selling a post or two from each, but I’d still lose money from each trip (and then I wound up not selling anything at all). So what did I get for my $500 XOXO pass and $439 ONA registration, plus airfare and lodging for each?
This year’s XOXO was not the same independent-creativity pep talk as before, because most of the speakers didn’t address that theme. But there were some seriously compelling talks anyway:
- Jonny Sun and then Demi Adejuyigbe talked with candor and hilarity about battling impostor syndrome;
- Jennifer 8. Lee explained how she worked the emoji-governance system (yes, there is one) to get a dumpling emoji added;
- Claire L. Evans retold some forgotten stories about female computing pioneers;
- Helen Rosner spoke about being defined by an out-of-context tweet and having to defend her expertise, then led the audience in a recitation of this pithy, profane self-affirmation: “I am really smart, and I am really good at what I do, and you should fucking listen to me.”
Trust me, you will want to watch these whenever the organizers post the video to their YouTube page.
XOXO also had a day of meetups across Portland and endless conversations with fellow attendees. Somehow, this conference manages to attract some of the kindest, nicest people on the Internet; it’s a wonderful contrast to the acid bath that is Twitter on a bad day.
The people at ONA may not have been as uniformly pleasant–look, if we journalists had a full set of social skills, we’d all have real jobs–but that event had the advantage of being much more tightly focused on my professional reality. It’s not by accident that I’ve gone to every ONA conference since 2014.
There, too, the talks were terrific:
- Microsoft Research’s danah boyd gave a fantastic opening keynote about the risk of enabling bigots and other hate merchants in your coverage by using their preferred search terms.
- I know firsthand that writing an advice column can help pull in regular readers, but Slate’s Evan Mackinder, the Texas Tribune’s Alex Samuels and the Nashville Scene’s D. Patrick Rodgers offered some eye-opening details about just how well their publiciations have been able to develop those reader relationships.
- A panel on covering gun violence, featuring The Trace’s Akoto Ofori-Atta, University of Oregon journalism professor Lori Shontz, March for Our Lives activist Delaney Tarr and NowThis editor Versha Sharma unpacked serious problems with how we treat those stories.
- McClatchy’s Sarah Whitmire, the Honolulu Civil Beat’s Anthony Quintano, and the Chicago Tribune’s Kurt Gessler vented constructively about the difficulty of using Facebook to connect with readers.
ONA was as great as ever for networking, I had more than my fill of delicious tacos, and I got to hear Dan Rather give a brief talk at an evening event and then shake his hand afterwards.
In retrospect, XOXO is an expense I wouldn’t repeat–although I’ve yet to go to that festival in consecutive years anyway. My takeaway from this year’s version is that instead of flying across the country to get these different perspectives, I should try harder to find them around D.C.
ONA, however, is pretty much guaranteed to be on my schedule next year–the 2019 conference will be in New Orleans. How can I not do that?