Five personal ONA10 highlights

The opening Portrait Gallery reception was great. The “Is Patch evil?” question was classic. The SND bar fundraiser was a win. The food and drinks were well above average. The awards gave NPR three trophies. Josh Hatch and Amy Eisman raised the bar this year for Online News Association annuals, and Boston had its work cut out for itself in ’11.

But stepping back, just a bit, here were my five personal highlights…

1. Jonathan Harris. Two years ago, a click came to this blog from a site called We Feel Fine. The surfer clicked though to find answers to the questions, “What would I look like with a beard? More importantly, how would I feel with a beard?” I blogged the click-through and spent the next hour loving We Feel Fine, a stunning aggregator of modern feeling and visualizer of intriguingly exposed discrete emotional data.

At the conference Friday, when I was about to skip evening keynote because I didn’t recognize Harris’ name, thank God I stopped to read his bio. He’d made We Feel Fine and all kinds of other IDEO-meets-art projects that slam me to the wall in Post-It wonder. His presentation didn’t let me down. Not every seat was filled, but anyone there would tell you afterward the short hour was the runaway ONA10 highlight.

Harris worked through explanations of a number of his project, from dataviz to Internet diving to explorations of lives, others and his own. He was a computer scientist for whom art met expression across the digital transom, with emotion and experience at the core of our slice-ready (but still real) hearts. I ran to the Web afterward and ordered the book he’d made from the We Feel Fine project. I waited for ONA organizers to post video of his remarks, so I could watch him again.

If the video surfaces, count on this blog to link and quote liberally.

2. The hallways. I skipped a few panels because the conversations were so good. Mark Stencel and Ken Sands joked about spending the entire conference in the hallways, but the reality this year was you made a choice with every time slot. It was fantastic to catch up with former Post.com, CNN and USAT and St. Pete Times colleagues, both reminiscing and talking current work. News21 with its eye-tracking monitor was a hit. Space was good, and the wireless was plentiful.

One of my favorite side projects from the conference happened in the hallways, Fabrice Florin’s “What’s your idea for restoring sanity?” He took the picture of everyone who played along. Some of us went in information directions, and others went for life decisions. Just before leaving USAT, I worked with Fabrice in arranging On Deadline’s user-generated project with his NewsTrust organization. It was great to meet him in person and see the fun and care behind his journalism.

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3. Youth. Damn, the 18-35 ONA crowd was good. The elders were in top form as usual, but young talent exceeded itself with what it could offer journalism now. Friends Dave Wright and Tyson Evans captured the room with their “Coders Are From Mars, Designers Are From Venus” session and not just because they gave everyone beer. They would’ve topped the conference if Tyson hadn’t also recruited Jonathan Harris.

Others: former colleagues and still API masters Tim Carlson and Dan Jacobson, the Greg Linch video army, the Post design team, the AP multimedia team, Dan Victor and Mandy Jenkins from TBD, Kathleen Sullivan from Gannett, Elizabeth Chuck from MSNBC, Kim Bui from KPCC, Jessica Estrepa from Roll Call, Warren Schultheis from City2, Daniel Bachhuber from CoPress, Mathilde Piard from Cox, the Medill National Security Initiative squad (with Jessica Binch and I finding we’d written the same paper six years apart), the Argonauts, Ryan Thornburg’s UNC gang (with Ashley Bennett awesomely becoming the first student ever to answer my question “What do you want to intern in?” with “Front-end development!”), and so many others whom I’m now friending on Facebook or following on Twitter or RSS. Sorry to not list everyone!

The University of Miami won ONA’s student video award this year and deservedly so. The program’s multimedia storytelling, especially at the graduate level, blew me away last summer in Salzburg and again at this conference. Rich Beckman (whose last UNC generation is now deep in D.C. digital media circles), Tom Kennedy and others have set the bar so high, and their students aren’t scared. Take the master’s thesis project from Lauren Santa Cruz. “Just for Fun” is following the last traveling carnival train in the country, a storytelling choice that’s bizarre, challenging and wonderful. I can’t wait to see the final cut.

4. I want to teach. I haven’t had a chance to blog this experience yet, but friend Kristen let me teach her Interactive Multimedia Storytelling class at the University of Maryland a few weeks ago. The hour was the first time I’d been the sole instructor, not just guesting or answering questions, and the class was a mix of grad students and seniors. I loved it. Kristen wanted me to talk on the topics of social media and finding jobs, so I came up with a theme of “Am I breaking through?” I sketched a few aspects in my head — breaking through narratively, organizationally and personally — and bookmarked a few good links — the Johnny Cash project, the Russian students, the Cruise Log, the NPR Facebook page, others. Then I spent the next hour working to explain how these threads came together and why their alignment excited me. The students seemed to like it. And, like I said, I loved it.

The “Rewiring the Ivory Tower” panel at ONA reminded me of that feeling. My seat was between friends Alissa and Steve, one a college journo lecturer and the other a professor. We watched Medill professor and sometimes Jeff Tweedy sideman Rich Gordon, AU professor and sometimes caffeinated pirate David Johnson and many others dig into aggressive efforts to not only convert departments but, a theme of ONA10, move beyond conversion to producing industry results. Most academia discussions I’ve heard in my life have been utterly boring. With Florida’s Mindy McAdams pounding the table and all of us in a similarly amped-up mood, this panel was gloriously the opposite.

5. Volunteering. With much work and who knows how many e-mails, friend Laura co-organized the dozens of conference volunteers and is now qualified to run a busy, medium-sized rail yard. Or take a long-planned vacation to the Caribbean Sea. I was lucky enough to work the registration desk and, as you know, had a fantastic time. An NPR colleague at Friday’s public media dinner asked me why I would spend 12 hours at the desk, even if it did reducing my registration fees some. I told her the ONA  conference was the best chance all year to share one’s digital news passion and find sharing’s dividends made you rich.

Terrific to work alongside the ONA staff and the other volunteers, all interesting and friendly, easily layering life on top of digital. I felt at home with them. So many people in the halls felt at home as well.

12 thoughts on “Five personal ONA10 highlights”

  1. So glad you discovered the hidden, networking gem that is the registration desk. Thank you so much for investing your time — ONA isn’t possible without volunteers.

  2. Good point, Ken — missed Amy’s session but heard lots of good things. Liked her wristband giveaways in the hallways, though. Love those hallways, Mathilde. See you all in Boston!

  3. Patrick, I don’t know you, but I really enjoyed your blog post. Unfortunately you linked to so many interesting things, it took me half an hour to read it! That’s not really a complaint. And you are the second person to say I thumped the table, so I guess it must be true — although I don’t remember doing so. I think you should try teaching. Any j-school would be happy to have you.

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