Going to the Online News Association (ONA) conference each year is a key event in Public Good’s schedule. There are few if any better places to both connect with media and get a sense for the media landscape. Needless to say, a lot has happened over the last year ranging from Facebook’s changing policies on how it treats news and how much news to serve to the President describing the media as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.” Behind that there’s been a backdrop of technological changes like deep fakes and natural language generation that have journalists concerned. Even the nature of how to report is changing – in a plenary session the speaker castigated journalists for encouraging copycat crimes by popularizing the term Incel while the CDC has published sadly necessary but often ignored guidelines for how to report on mass shootings. We’ve even had to revisit techniques for fighting propaganda (like the “truth sandwich“.) The ongoing saga of shrinking newsrooms and the struggle for digital revenue have not gone away.
But strangely, I left this year’s ONA more optimistic than I was last year, and there are a few reasons why.
First, the industry finally seems to be coping with and maturing in how it views social media. In the past, although I’d hear some digital producers refer to Facebook as “crack”, they’d admit that while they loved the traffic they didn’t quite know how they were going to make money on it. This year, they’ve begun to come to grips with fact that they have no control over that spigot and that those who become too dependent can suffer greatly (as has been seen in the collapsing viewership of a lot of digital first publications.) To combat their form of social media addiction, publishers are starting to think in terms of reader loyalty instead of just clicks. While that change in thinking is just beginning to wend its way into their products, it’s a crucial first step. It feels like history is repeating the transition from William Randolph Heart’s sensationalism and selling by the headline to the New York Time’s model of selling by subscription and being accountable to readers to keep them informed.
My second reason for optimism is the realization that although a lot of consumers are perfectly happy in their bias-reinforcing echo chambers, there’s an increasing movement of those who rely on information they get in the news to make choices that directly affect their welfare. For all a trader or bank boss might like, say, political coverage that supports their views of tax cuts, they also want reliable coverage and analysis that tells them what is actually going to happen so they can plan for it. This movement of pragmatists is starting to be felt, especially by smaller subscription-based sites and newsletters.
More than anything, though, I felt a sense of determination and purpose at the event. There was much less grandstanding than in the past, especially by newer entrants who were (sometimes briefly) experiencing rapid growth and attributing it to things other than social media savvy.