July 5, 2016

Jane McDonnell’s first week as executive director of the Online News Association coincided with the 2008 ONA conference in Washington, D.C. She remembers seeing two distinct mentalities: “On one side, those who only heard journalism’s death rattle and on the other, the revolutionaries, champing at the bit to move forward.”

The next year, at ONA’s conference in San Francisco, you could feel the change, McDonnell said.

“People were starting to crack the code on the uses of social media platforms, data, development and design,” she said. “ONA had our work cut out for us, but the most amazing thing was how everybody just dived in. They were just so ready to be proud of their profession and get back to the business of public service again.”

Last week, McDonnell announced that she’s leaving her position at the end of the year. McDonnell spoke with Poynter via email about what she’s seen over the past eight years, what’s changed and what hasn’t.

What are the big changes you’ve seen (both at ONA and in our industry) in the last eight years?

Those first years for ONA were triage — helping folks find jobs, get trained up in digital skills, setting up avenues for input. But most important was inviting them to be part of a wider community with the same goal: excellent journalism. We talk a lot about technology, which certainly was and continues to be the most disruptive game-changer. But the most sweeping and healthiest transformation I’ve seen is a willingness among media to collaborate and experiment, to admit to not having all the answers, and to listen to — and trust — our audiences. We have a ways to go, but we’re on the right path.

ONA conferences, in particular, are a great way to learn in our fast-changing industry. What have you learned from leading ONA for eight years?

Shoot for solutions. It’s so much easier to rant and point fingers now — the weight of social snark can be overwhelming at times — but you have to get past it, break down specific problems into manageable components, and then go to your community for help in finding answers. So it’s too hard to find verifiable sources on social during breaking news? Let’s pull together journalists, public safety officials and technicians to talk. Let’s use design thinking to approach solutions differently. Let’s use the wisdom of the community. They’re right there and they’re an amazingly generous resource.

Where are you headed next?

Great question. There’s a lovely place in Maine calling my name, and I’ll be there part-time enjoying IRL. But as far as journalism, ask me again in a few months.

Where do you think ONA is headed next?

That is, of course, up to the new [executive director]. But the board and staff tried to set a course by drawing up a two-year plan that puts us on the road to international expansion with advice and input from our global colleagues, managed by Deputy Director Irving Washington. We’re also putting more energy and funds into the “College to C-suite” philosophy, which means offering programs and mentorships to journalists every step of the way. Our funders have been prescient in seeing the value in that.

One of the things I’m proudest of is how we’ve helped in a small way to bring together diverse talent — two of the happiest memories I’ll take with me is seeing all of the beautiful faces at the ONA15 diversity reception in LA, spilling out of the room, and listening to the whip-smart ladies who supported each other as part of the Women’s Leadership Academy. So much expertise, so many voices that we desperately need, especially now. I hope ONA continues to focus on the demographics that are reshaping the world.

You’re an example of a journalist who’s grown with the industry. What advice do you have for other journalists (new or vets) for keeping up?

It should be obvious — I mean, it’s pretty much journalism 101 — but always be curious, about everything. In my experience, attitude is 95 percent of success, so approach stories, products and projects with an open mind. What does this story mean? How can I tell it in a different way? Is there a rockstar I can work with inside or outside my organization to make it better? Show me how this new tool works. How do I get my work out with this platform — and is there a way to make money with it?

For all the changes in journalism, it still boils down to a few basics. I haven’t met a journalist yet who doesn’t love to tell an untold story.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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