Photo by Daniel Petty/Online News Association

What we learned at the ONA Local Summit

By on October 16, 2019

We hosted the 2019 ONA Local Summit Sept. 11 in New Orleans, just before ONA19 officially kicked off. This day-long workshop is an opportunity for ONA Local organizers from across our network and other community builders in journalism to meet each other, get in-person leadership training and celebrate their hard work.

I asked attendees, including 13 local news community leaders who were awarded scholarships to attend with support from the Google News Initiative, what their big takeaways from the day were. Here are a few of the themes that emerged.

Community leadership isn’t something you do on the side; it is tied into your role as a journalist.

One of the broad themes was recognizing all the ways we contribute to communities within newsroom roles and outside of them. Samantha Ragland, Director of Digital Content Strategy at Gatehouse Media’s Florida Group and organizer of ONA South Florida, led a session that encouraged attendees to tap into their creativity skills as they work on making change in the way their communities have access to the information they need.

“I met so many people who are invested in numerous communities within their cities yet still find a way to take the responsibilities of each and apply it to their work,” said Evan Washington, a freelancer from Charlotte. “You should be committed to truth, honesty, facts, and serving everyone in the community, not just those who have the means to be served. How you do that can be through art, through education, through organizing, through working at a library, through journalism — or, it can be through a combination of  a number of those things. I think that’s what’s re-animating the relationship between the news industry and the community.”

We can sometimes make change faster as individuals working together in a coalition than through newsrooms.

The ONA Local Summit is focused on helping leaders build the skills to lead change in their communities and bring what they learn back to their newsrooms. Yet one consistent theme that came up among attendees was how restorative it is to spend the day with other people who were dedicated to making journalism better in their communities, beyond their day jobs. “Lots of people are stuck on the steps as you are,” said Imani Mixon, a freelancer from Detroit. “Collaboration can change that.”

“The best use of your time isn’t always the most efficient.”

This quote from Alicia Bell, News Voices Organizing Manager at Free Press, stuck with Natalie Van Hoozer, Program Assistant at the International Center for Journalists and an organizer of ONA DC, as it relates to a volunteer activity like leading a local meetup group. Alicia’s session led attendees in thinking about how they could engage their community members both in their work as journalists and as community leaders.

“Community journalism and organizing require showing up in real life to build trust,” said Julie Zeglen, Managing Editor and organizer of ONA Philly. “How can we better show up regularly for community members to build trust, and not only reach out when we need something?”

Understand the power dynamics at play in your community.

Attendees focused on ways they could build trust as journalists and as community leaders working to improve the field of journalism locally. “Recognize that we need to bring ‘us’ to ‘them,’” reflected one group in a breakout activity on building communities. “Understand where your community is coming from, where they get their information, and who they trust.” And when you are gathering a group of journalists like in an ONA Local group, think about who has power and how you can work to even the playing field — based on where you meet, how inclusive and accessible your meetings are, and whether your community is truly reflected in the voices you choose to elevate to the stage.

Want to learn more about leading change in your local journalism community by starting or joining an ONA Local group? Check out our map to find one nearby, or apply to start a new group by Nov. 1, 2019.


Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy is ONA's Director of Programs. She is currently leading the AI in Journalism Initiative and ONA's emerging technology strategy. She is responsible for creating programs and initiatives to train ONA members and connect them to tackle big issues facing our field.