Next Trends from ONA: Curation, Entrepreneurship, the Real-Time Web

How’s this for an endorsement of the Online News Association conference, from University of Massachusetts professor B.J. Roche: “It’s so nice to be at a journalism conference that doesn’t make you want to shoot yourself in the head.” Spacer Spacer

Instead, several hundred people discussed emerging best practices and trends in online journalism. Here are some of the themes that I noted at the conference, which I think you’ll hear more about in the months to come.

Curation is the new aggregation. (Hat tip to Joe Grimm for that.) In a Q&A with Susan Mernit, Twitter’s Evan Williams described in ascending order the ways journalists use Twitter:

  • Promoting and linking to stories
  • Reporting between the stories
  • Researching stories, identifying trends and asking questions of sources and followers
  • Filtering the signal from the noise

The last one is still developing, Williams said, and Twitter wants to help people do it better. “If we can give journalists better tools to pull out from this endless stream … just the pulling out and the editing offers a lot of value.”

To help filter the best stuff flowing by, the company is working on something called Twitter Lists, which will enable users to group users, label the lists and share them with others. You could create a list of journalists at your organization, for bloggers in your area, or for people who follow a particular topic. “It’s about controlling the information flow,” Williams said.

Publish2, which won the Gannett Foundation Award for Technical Innovation at the conference, is part of the curation movement. The site enables journalists to “curate the real-time Web” by saving and publishing links to content on Twitter, YouTube and other social networks. 

Journalists must work to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset. Entrepreneurship was an obvious theme, and several speakers offered inspiring, if general, advice about taking the great idea you have and acting on it.

But what struck me was how different entrepreneurship is from journalism. So many journalists are risk-averse, said Stanford University’s Ann Grimes  — they want to be paid to do journalism and are uncomfortable with the uncertainty of striking out on their own. That’s contrary to the entrepreneurial ethic.

Here’s more startup advice that doesn’t come naturally to journalists: You can’t spend too much time planning what will happen. “We try not to get too clever with what we’re doing,” Williams said, because one can’t predict how users will respond and employ something. “We assume we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

And from VoiceofSanDiego.org’s Scott Lewis: “You have to be ready to be completely shocked by what it turns out to be.” That’s a lot different than doing pre-reporting on the big project and knowing that the time you invest will turn into something worthwhile.

So how do you know whether you should pursue that idea you’ve been kicking around? Williams, who has been behind several startups, described his approach: “Do I like this thing we’re creating? Do I want to see it exist in the world? If so, then it’s worth creating.”

Look back and forward at the same time. Forecaster Paul Saffo brought an upbeat message about media innovation. Citing multiple examples of products that failed in their first iteration, but succeeded 20 years or more later, he encouraged the crowd to cherish failure, “especially if it’s someone else’s.”

If someone responds to your idea by telling you that someone tried it ages ago and it didn’t go anywhere, you may have an opening. Look back twice as far as you’re looking forward, Saffo advised. “The rearview mirror is an extremely powerful forecasting tool.”

You can oversimplify his message, of course, but that would violate another one of Saffo’s points: The one thing that’s worse than being wrong is pretending that things are more certain than they are.

Understand your audience and who is competing for it. “I think a lot of people don’t care where information comes from, what the brand is,” said Om Malik, founder of GigaOM, a network of business and technology blogs. From the user’s point of view, the information you produce is quickly commoditized. That’s pretty difficult to hear if you work for a legacy news organization that is used to being the authority.

Meanwhile, Lewis said, it’s important to understand who your competition is. For instance, The San Diego Union-Tribune isn’t necessarily a competitor to the nonprofit VoiceofSanDiego.org because it has a different business model.

Lewis suggested a membership approach that, like most good ideas, seemed obvious once he said it. Offer something substantial in exchange for membership: access to people who can explain how the local community works. That’s what VoiceofSanDiego.org is doing in its current membership drive. This approach leverages the deep knowledge of journalists to attract people who want to understand more about their community.

Get ready for the real-time, personal Web. There are so many tools to help people figure out what’s going on around them, right now. Location data is being added to more and more information online, soon to include tweets.

Consultant Amy Webb predicted that we’ll see a lot more people walk around staring at their mobile screens, using augmented reality applications such as Yelp, Layar and Wikitude that display information about landmarks and businesses around them. Applications such as Flock, Social Mention and Samepoint deliver instant updates of social networks and other feeds. And search engines now learn from your previous searches, browsing history or even the contents of your hard drive to bring you exactly what you want. (Webb’s links to her “10 Tech Trends You’ve Still Never Heard Of” are worth checking out.)

Video is alive and well. In panel discussions of video and mobile, it was clear that video drives a lot of traffic when you find the right mix for your audience. Short videos continue to dominate — about 83 percent of plays last year — but Olivia Ma, news manager for YouTube, said more and more people are watching longer pieces online, dominated by full-length television programming.

Technology is putting high-quality live Web video in the hands of more producers, as new tools such as Livepack emerge that use multiple cell signals to send higher resolution images to a server.

The rapid growth of video served over phones had Roeland Stekelenburg, head of new media for Dutch broadcaster NOS, declaring that “2009 is the year of mobile video in Holland.”

There are plenty of questions still to be answered in mobile news. Just as more video is being served on mobile, sites are seeing strong growth in mobile news traffic. Speakers urged people not to think only about the cell phone, but to consider the growth of other mobile devices such as the Kindle. The large number of mobile phone systems and new devices, each with different design demands, cause a lot of headaches for anyone trying to create for many platforms.

The mobile audience is a moving target, as more and more people — not just young people — upgrade to Internet-capable phones.

If you want to dig in some more, read tweets from the conference, see what struck me during the sessions, or check out the conference site (which has video, too).

(Thanks to Poynter faculty Regina McCombs for her contribution to this.)

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