ONA, Conferences and Diversity: One Step at a Time

By on September 13, 2015

By Irving Washington and Jane McDonnell

When 2,000 journalists land in Los Angeles for the 2015 Online News Association Conference (ONA15) this month, the makeup of the folks in the room will look much different than it did in 2008.

ONA15 speakers include 52 percent women, 36 percent people of color, 25 percent local news and eight percent international representation. Those numbers got the attention of the GenderAvenger’s Hall of Fame, and have attracted even more resources for diversity-focused opportunities and events throughout the three days of the conference.

But it wasn’t always that way. As ONA struggled to help journalists deal with cataclysmic changes over the past 10 years, diversity slipped out of focus. That loss is difficult to make up, but it’s nowhere near as daunting as annual discouraging data suggests. The really hard part? Starting.

We humbly offer one hard-earned piece of advice: Take one step at a time, baking diversity into everything you do. While it’s an ongoing, organic process, we’ve made some progress that we’re happy to share in the hopes that our experience can help other organizations develop their game plans to better represent and cover the communities they serve.

Attendees at an ONA dCamp work together to tackle a human-centered design challenge.

When you’re told you have a problem, listen.

ONA has been best known for our conference; recognizing and acknowledging our diversity problem started there. If you scan early conference websites, it’s easy to see what was missing. We had cutting-edge topics, inspiring sessions and early digital adopters, but we lacked important diverse voices in the room. Rightfully, and thankfully, we were called out for it. When any community you serve gives you a failing grade for not fulfilling your mission, your job is to listen. We did.

Start at the top.

Change requires a firm hand and a united front — aka leadership. Our Board of Directors helps set strategy, so imbuing diversity into the organization means it has to to represent our community and the public. Members have made terrific choices when they vote, but we added appointments specifically for diversity and international voices. These weren’t intended to be the sole voices for any community but they pushed us to have inspiring ideas and perspectives at the table. Having two women lead ONA — as Board President and Executive Director — and a Deputy Director who’s a person of color helps ensure diversity is in play in every initiative. Which leads us to …

Talk about diversity every day.

This is not an exaggeration. Diversity is one of our key metrics when planning any event or program. We are incessantly asking whether we’re including under-represented voices. Our Digital Director Trevor Knoblich, Senior Communications Manager Jen Mizgata and the rest of our staff, our conference program chairs and program committees (a diverse group, by the way) made sure to tap into our growing community to enrich recent conferences with expert talent and viewpoints that challenge the norm. But the statistics from our year-round ONA Local events, fellowships, scholarships, micro-grants and trainings are just as important to us, and the ONA team happily trades ideas and contacts to keep engagement inclusive and percentages high. The numbers tell us we’re doing our job; the resulting conversations prove it.

Open up the doors.

We’ve worked hard to put to rest the tired “there’s no diverse talent” excuse. Journalism doesn’t have a talent problem. It has a problem committing to finding diverse talent. We’ve actively sought out partnerships with Google, Knight Foundation, Ford Foundation, Poynter Institute, the MJ Bear Family and CNN to develop programs that are helping to open up the diversity pipeline. ONA15 will boast some of the best and brightest diverse talent — and current and future leaders — in digital journalism.

Our Student Newsroom and HBCU Digital Media Fellows will cover the entire conference; our MJ Bear Fellows and Women Leadership Academy alums — emerging professional stars — will lead inspiring sessions, and our inaugural CNN Diversity Fellows will participate in one-on-one mentoring and networking. ProPublica and Mashable will host our first-ever Diversity Mentorship Program at ONA15. If you’re really serious about talent scouting, stop into our NBC-sponsored Diversity reception on Saturday night. If you’re really serious about learning more, sit in on the Diversity Workshop.

Venture outside your network.

There’s no better way to change up your perspective than to step outside your usual circles and into new ones. Join these groups. Find others. Read their blogs. Sign up for newsletters and mailing lists. Make time to stop into events when they host them. Stay a while. You’ll find new friends, ideas … and great hires.

Spread the word. And the love.

We thank our generous colleagues, who help us not only think through diversity issues, but tackle them head-on.The list is infinite, but we’ll start with: Benét Wilson, Robert Hernandez, P. Kim Bui and Steve Herrmann, ONA Board members; Michelle Johnson, Student Newsroom chair; Doug Mitchell, career development guru; innovator LaToya Peterson; thought leader Raju Narisetti; Nadine Hoffman, IWMC; former ONA Board members Juana Summers, Amy Webb and Katherine Fong; Erin Polgreen; former ONA Digital Director Jeanne Brooks; Lam Thuy Vo and all of our diversity scholars and fellows, who teach us.

Jane McDonnell

As executive director, Jane oversees and manages the day-to-day operations of the world’s largest membership organization of digital journalists, working closely with the Board of Directors. Her purview includes membership, partnerships, global community outreach, budgeting and revenue generation, fundraising and development, the Online Journalism Awards, and providing vision for ONA’s state-of-the-art annual conference.