This past week brought the Online News Association conference to Chicago for the first time. Markedly different from so many other news conventions, ONA focuses entirely on digital without an ounce of print or broadcast–except to discuss the struggles of working within legacy organizations.
It was the first time I’ve attended ONA, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Extraordinarily well managed, the conference brought an all-time high of 1,900 attendees, according to the organizers, and exuded a vitality and optimism missing from most news-related gatherings these days. I ran into colleagues I hadn’t seen for years, met some people I’d long admired and got some great insight into how other news organizations are thinking about their work. Well worth the experience, and I’ll try to go again next year when it’s in Los Angeles.
While the rest of the media writes about the same five so-called-innovative-news/media/content-startups over and over again (check any Carr/Ingram/any-other-media-reporter article about BuzzVoxViceAtavistQuartz538GawkerUpworthyFirstLookInformation & ilk), verticals in digital have been buzzing even before blogs became mainstream, and a lot of them have experimented and thrived beyond just media-as-product.
Ali, who spends a lot of time writing and thinking about news business models slams the media world pretty hard. But, the post is well worth reading all the way through, especially for the list of models he likes. I’m not sure if he meant to publish his post smack in the middle of the ONA gathering, but in my eyes he certainly pointed out the biggest problems with the convention: the lack of connection between news production and money-making, and the tendency to laud the same well-known brands again and again.
Granted, ONA did host an interesting track of sessions on Business Leadership, but most of it was focused on the operations of building news organizations, rather than the monetizing. The conference also made a concerted effort to bring a number of news startups to the exhibitor hall (including my own, Rivet) which was probably one of the most interesting exhibitor halls I’ve seen at any conference. There were also numerous other startup workshops and judging panels that, while I didn’t attend (because there was just too much other good stuff), certainly looked like they had worthy speakers and discussion.
That said, the vast majority of the conference was about the craft of news making, reaching and building audiences. But I don’t think that was really the fault of the conference organizers as much as an ingrained way the news industry encourages a vast gulf between business and editorial. One editorial colleague I talked to at ONA, contemplating a move from news to advertising, spoke of it as, “selling my soul to the dark side,” for the sake of supporting boring brands.
And there, in a nutshell, remains the biggest problem the news industry needs to overcome: Believing that making money with news, branded content or advertising is not an evil deed. When the salesmen in your company say, “Readers want to see the ads, it helps them,” they are not bullshitting you. Devoting time to creating enticing branded content is not hucksterism: It’s paying the bills. Which is noble, creates jobs and makes the world go around.
While news, through digital distribution, is experiencing some of it’s biggest readerships and investment ever, the truly knotty problems are not in editorial or audience growth: They’re in business models and the broader news industry’s sluggish pace to adapt to new ways to profitably serve audiences. Most news editorial folks, shielded from the grubby process of money-making and sales from the outset of their careers, are shamelessly unaware of how news organizations sell their product. And many news organization business leaders, used to decades of quarterly gains, remain generally clueless about why audiences consume their product, or any other media product.
I’m not sure how, but I’d like to see some sort of conference that brought out people like Ali to talk about new business models and their money-making viability. News business leaders need to learn why audiences choose certain content. Editorial leaders need to learn how things get sold. Only when there’s more hybrid thinkers, will the news business really return to it’s glory days.