In case anyone needs a reminder, conferences are awesome. 

The buzz of a big crowd and the energy generated from new ideas and shared challenges always leave attendees feeling optimistic about the future and motivated to return home and create change in their organizations.

ONA23 in Philadelphia, the just-completed annual conference of the Online News Association, was the perfect example of the conference magic created through the thoughtful combination of brilliant experts, engaging topics, and a network of industry professionals who consider themselves a news family. 

Whether it was their first (684 of the 1,546 attendees were first timers) or 24th ONA, the excitement of adding your “years at ONA” button to your badge was equally fresh and genuine. 

Our LMA team was lucky enough to join the crowd this year. What did we see and bring back home? Here are our three big AH-HA moments and takeaways. 

Artificial intelligence 

As a 12-year ONA veteran, Apryl Pilolli, director of technology and innovation for the Knight x LMA BloomLab, has witnessed giant changes in tools and tech over the years, but one common theme stood out this year.

“AI was center stage and on every other stage at this year’s conference. ONA featured no less than five sessions on AI,” said Pilolli. “While no one had all the answers, everyone was ready and willing to share their learnings and resources.”

AI session in Knight Foundation Lounge

And if you know Apryl, you know she wants to use her AH-HA moment to help everyone get to work. She shares a roundup of great AI resources she collected: 

Collaboration 

John Celestand, program director for the Knight x LMA BloomLab, moderated a panel discussion called The Power of Collaboration about the collaborative elements of the $3.2 million initiative funded by the Knight Foundation. Panelists included Paris M. Brown, associate publisher of The Baltimore Times; Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of The Washington Informer; and Clyde Jiles, strategic alliance manager of Defender Network in Houston.

Power of Collaboration Panel
Power of Collaboration Panel

“The BloomLab helps advance and support local Black-owned and -operated news organizations. It’s really about sustainability, digital transformation, and helping these important Black-owned media entities who are pillars in their communities. We want to help them to thrive. Some of these organizations are legacy publishers, some are over 135 years old, and some of our publishers are second- and third-generation owners.” said Celestand. “We talk about collaboration and the shared learning opportunity component of the BloomLab, how media companies have been able to leverage opportunities to collaborate with other publishers and share successes, learnings, and challenges in the lab.”

“The first thing that comes to mind is this old African proverb that says ‘I am because we are.’ Collectively, we’re strong. Separate, we stand alone.”

Clyde Jiles, strategic alliance manager of Defender Network

Jiles also discussed the power of collaboration: “When you talk about that type of collaboration, the first thing that comes to mind is this old African proverb that says ‘I am because we are.’ Collectively, we’re strong. Separate, we stand alone, and there’s weakness there. In the BloomLab, when it came to collaboration, we approached things less from a competitive nature and more from a collective nature.”

Celestand’s takeaways from the session included ways the BloomLab could expand and grow. Listening to the BloomLab panel and the questions from the crowd, he realized there are opportunities to push future collaboration concepts:

  • Ah-Ha #1: “Many publishers need accounting/financial help. What we are offering in the BloomLab is great, but if you can’t get the books right, it doesn’t matter.” 
  • Ah-Ha #2: “A gentleman asked about sustainability once programs like the BloomLab go away. It hit me because our program is anchored on advancement and sustainability. Are we working to a point where our teams can function at a more efficient and sustainable level once this is over? And how do they continue to collaborate?”
  • Ah-Ha #3: “Capacity is still the major issue and is not talked about enough. Capacity has to be a focus. How can we help our publishers focus on building capacity to sustain any new technology and sales infrastructure being pushed?” 

Community 

My biggest takeaway and AH-HA moment from the week at ONA is the consistent need for community. And community takes many forms that are integral to our industry. 

We must continue to serve our communities, audiences, and local businesses with the information that helps their daily lives.

We must find community around shared solutions. The resources, ideas and knowledge sitting in the Midway at ONA were outstanding examples of how the R&D community is prepped and ready to solve the technology, audience and content challenges facing our newsrooms. 

We must find our work community. I heard many mentions of the “news family reunion” over the few days in Philly. The journalism community will be the one that creates strength where there was once weakness, finds solutions in collaboration, and inspires us to continue to try new ideas.