ONA CEO Irving Washington speaking at a conference
Irving Washington speaks at the 2016 Online News Association Conference in Denver, Colo.

Letter from our CEO: A new season after 11 years of service at ONA

By on July 26, 2022

Having grown up in the Midwest, I have a fondness for seasons. The blooms of spring, the heat of summer, the coolness of fall and the chill of winter each represent a beautiful and natural cycle of beginnings and endings. Today begins a professional change of season for me.

After an incredible 11 years, with nearly six as CEO, I’ve decided that 2022 will be my last year at the Online News Association (ONA). Yes, I’m leaving the best job I’ve ever had, working with the best staff, board, and community I know. Why? Because I believe great leaders are caring stewards of people and organizations, and great stewards know when their season of care is complete. That time for me is now. My last day will be Dec. 31.

When I joined ONA as a consultant to manage the organization’s first scholarship program, we were a small and mighty staff with an optimistic membership committed to pushing innovation in journalism. We’ve transitioned from fighting for respect and recognition of digital journalism as a medium to a community of members who are now leading transformation across newsrooms worldwide.

I’ve been honored to lead ONA during a period of tremendous growth. Our annual conference has more than doubled in participation. Our team is still lean, but twice as big. Our members are unstoppably optimistic, despite bigger challenges and threats. And that $20,000 scholarship program that brought me to ONA in 2011 has led to programs that have awarded nearly $3 million to journalists and organizations championing digital innovation worldwide. This funding, and many other programs, has been made possible by our generous and growing network of supporters and funders.

And most importantly, together as a community, we’ve acknowledged the imperative of prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion in all we do. We’ve demonstrated the diversity that board leadership can reflect. We’ve advocated for gender equity and advanced women in leadership. We’ve fostered the next generation of leaders through our fellowships, collaboratives and equitable access to our programming, including support for caregivers. And we’ve said enough is enough with the status quo of journalism and collaborate with sister organizations to fight systemic racism to build institutions of belonging and support the Pivot Fund’s mission to invest in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-led community news.

This was only possible because of you.

ONA was founded on the idea that people passionate about online journalism would come together as a community to propel the industry forward. At ONA’s inaugural meeting, founder Rich Jaroslovsky said, “The only way this works is if everyone here takes ownership of the organization starting right now.” People did exactly that. And 23 years later, we all continue to do so.

It’s impossible to adequately thank all the dedicated volunteers who form the heart and soul of ONA. Whether you’ve volunteered for one hour at a conference or 10 years for one of our programs, you’re part of the ONA family and I’m grateful for you.

I’ve long heeded the maxim that says if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. I’ve never been in the wrong room working with the remarkable ONA staff and consultant team. They’re thoughtful, creative, innovative, purpose-driven and the source behind so many smart ideas. If you’re part of the ONA community, please know there is not a day when this team is not thinking of you. Jess, Trevor, Meghan, Karolle, Bill, Diana, Hollie, Liz, Kelsey, Lauren, Leah, Hanaa, Brian and Hallie — thank you!

Our board of directors is unmatched in its strategic thinking, and they’ve embodied the joy and satisfaction in working hard. They’ve redefined what it means to be an exceptional board because they’re exceptional people. I’ve been privileged to partner and learn from outstanding board presidents such as Josh Hatch, Mandy Jenkins, Shazna Nessa and David Smydra during my time as CEO.

I also want to offer a special thanks to ONA members and journalists everywhere. The challenges in journalism today are vast, from business sustainability to misinformation to systemic inequities. Despite that, you wake up everyday with a dogged mission to make the world better.

The energy and spirit that imbued ONA’s founding in 1999 still thrives. Just revisit our 20th anniversary to see that. What connects us now is the same spirit that connected journalists back then — a fresh vision for the future of journalism that others don’t see, and a determination to push our industry to achieve it, albeit sometimes kicking and screaming because democracy depends on us.

If that sounds like you and you haven’t experienced the ONA community yet, you’re missing out on an incredible network. ONA members are changemakers and we’d love for you to join us.

So, what’s next? First, my amazing job will open soon. A search committee will do its due diligence in finding the next leader of ONA in the coming months. I’ll remain with the organization until the end of the year to work on a smooth transition. I’m also excited to take some time during this transition to explore what the next season holds for me.

There are no words that can truly express how grateful I am to be part of this community. Fortunately, I’m around for the next several months to continue the search for those words. Today, it’s simply, thank you!

Now, it’s time for me to get back to work. See you all at ONA22 in Los Angeles, Sept. 21–24.

Irving Washington
CEO, Online News Association

Read more

Learn what’s next for ONA, from Board President David Smydra

Irving Washington

Irving Washington is the Executive Director/CEO for the Online News Association (ONA), the world’s largest membership organization of digital journalists. As a media diversity advocate, Irving has led programming and fundraising initiatives for journalists, media professionals, and students worldwide.