The (very unofficial) blog of ONA15

Bits & pieces from the Online News Association’s annual event in Los Angeles

Matt Carroll
Sep 24, 2015 · 9 min read
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By Matt Carroll <@MattatMIT>

ONA15 is in Los Angeles this year. It’s a great chance to learn about industry trends and meet with colleagues, friends, and meet new people. I’ll be blogging about sessions I attend and what I learn over the next few days. You can follow me at: @MattatMIT.


And the winners are…

It was a great year for online news coverage, and here’s the best of the best, from the ONA2015 awards dinner.

Spotlight, the movie

2 pm, Saturday: I was a member of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, whose reporting in 2002 on the coverup of the Catholic priest sexual abuse crisis was turned into the movie “Spotlight.” The movie is being released on Nov. 6.

Four members of the team — myself, Walter “Robby” Robinson, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Mike Rezendes — had the privilege of being keynote speakers as we discussed our experiences as reporters during the investigation.

Joining us as moderator was Josh Singer, the co-writer of the wonderful script with director Tom McCarthy. We were introduced by David Smydra, co-chair of ONA15 and the editorial director of Google Play Newsstand.

Cassandra Jaramillo, a student reporter for ONA15, did a wonderful video interview with us, here.

Reshaping Social Newsgathering

11:30am Sat: The ever changing social media landscape means it’s always fertile ground to learn more about how news organizations are using social to find and report stories.

The Reshaping Social Newsgathering panel, with Andy Carvin from, Mandy Jenkins from Storyful, and Niketa Patel of Twitter, shard interesting insights on a number of issues. Some key points:

  • More and more people are using closed networks, where it is very difficult to to reach people to verify imagery or even find original uploaders. It’s a major concern for companies that do verification. The trend seems to be more pronounced in the emerging countries.
  • Both Carvin and Jenkins take a hard line on corrections — fix them fast. Carvin says he tries to be as transparent as possible in explaining how a piece of information went bad. Jenkins said trust is a cornerstone of their business. When there is an error, or it’s usually because an uploader supplied misinformation or did not tell all they knew. Carvin said he has only deleted one tweet, tied to an image posted by the recent shooter in Virginia. “He pulled an Isis on us,” said Carvin, meaning, he had played into the shooter’s hands by posting a horrific image.
  • Jenkins says Storyful pays for some content, if it is unique and important, although most people are simply happy to share what they have in order to get the word out.
  • Both Jenkins and Carvin said colleagues can suffer from “vicarious trauma” from seeing horrible images. Jenkins also said this has become a more widespread problem because of the popularity of autoplay on Twitter and Facebook. Her mother was recently shocked to see a video playing of a shooting.
  • The rise of closed networks requires new skill sets for cultivating sources, said Carvin. He also said it makes a lot more sense to build relationships with sources over months and years, so they are there when needed, rather than “parachuting” into a crisis and asking for help from people you’ve never had contact with before.
  • Using social to report is changing and quickly. It’s a much “noisier” place because there are so many more people out there using these tools, but on the other hand, that means there are more people to tap as a resource.

Great work by student journalists

3:30 pm Thurs: A group of students from around the country (and one from India) are doing a tremendous job covering ONA15. They do this every year, covering all the sessions, writing, tweeting, and videoing. It’s impressive work. (Transparency alert: I was interviewed by Cassandra Jaramillo, of the University of Texas in Austin, for a story on the “Spotlight” movie.)

Their bosses are Michelle Johnson, a journalism prof at Boston University, and a former colleague of mine at the Boston Globe, and Katia Hetter of

Fun facts from Pew

2 pm: I picked up some factoids from Pew Research Center reports, which are available in the Midway area. I’m a fan of their research. There are always interesting nuggets.

  • About two-thirds of Facebook and Twitter users get news from social sites. That’s up a lot from 2013, when the percents were 47% for Facebook and 52% for Twitter.
  • The percentage of Twitter users who follow breaking news there is nearly double the percent on Facebook (59% vs 31%.)
  • Millennials rely on Facebook for news far more than other sources. About 61% of Millennials get political news on Facebook. By contrast, about 60% of Baby Boomers get their political fix from local TV.
  • Millennials are far less familiar with 36 political sites than two previous generations. Those sites included Slate, Breitbart, and The New Yorker. However, they are familiar with two digital-only sources — BuzzFeed and Google News.

Twitter, for newsrooms

3 pm: Twitter sent a small crowd of folks to ONA, with five on a panel about “Twitter for News.” It turns out Twitter has been very hands-on in its approach to newsrooms, helping a lot of journalists in their work in India, Canada, and Australia.

Some pieces:

  • A person in the audience asked a very interesting question: How can people not get graphically awful pictures tweeted at them? It turns out that you can block NSFW pictures (not sure how to do this). But that raises question too. Sometimes images that people consider newsworthy get blocked as well. That requires human curation.
  • Twitter likes working directly with newsrooms. They think they can help newsies think through their digital presence more fully and help them maximize impact.
  • A culture conflict?: The folks from Twitter when dealing with newsrooms are sometimes frustrated because some newsrooms do not want their photogs tweeting pictures from the field. Editors want the photogs to come back to the office, pick out the best pics, color correct, etc. Meanwhile, the Twitter folks argue that photogs (and reporters) should tweet from the field, get ahead of the game. Will the tweets be a little rougher, lacking a little bit of editing? Yes, but better to send the tweet first.
  • Tips for searching Twitter: Try Boolean searches.

Bell vs Gingras: Google’s role in the news ecosystem

9:30 am: Emily Bell, the Tow Center’s founding director, and Richard Gingras, who oversees Google News, kicked off the conference with a fascinating conversation over how Google and the news ecosystem work — or don’t work — together.

The talk, before a packed room of journalists touched on a number of issues: Google’s role in the news ecosystem, whether mobile is turning into a closed system of apps, how to keep the web a creative vital place, how can local news outlets survive and prosper, and why should journos trust Google when it is not transparent about it’s (incredibly complicated) search algorithm.

Some points:

  • Bell noted that some people are worried about a free and open web. Gingras immediately agreed, noting that the mobile web was in crisis. It can be a slow, frustrating experience. Part of that is caused by slow-loading ads, which is why ad-blockers have become so popular, he said. Google is working with publishers around the globe to find technical ways to make the mobile web experience much better. (My own two bits: Google obviously has a vested interest here — they’re business search model is based on the web. If the web is seen as having less wonderful, rich content than mobile apps, that hurts them too. People like apps because they work so well, but they are by their very definition also closed systems. People are increasingly spending time on apps and less on the web.)
  • Google’s possible sharing of user data with news publishers was raised several times: Gingras answered politely but firmly: We’d like to do it, but only if it can be done in a way that preserves user privacy, because that is such a big concern of users and goes directly to the issue of people trusting Google. In other words: Don’t count on it.
  • Bell said that local news producers have been hit much harder by the web and have a much more difficult job. Gingras shrugged it off. That’s not necessarily true, he noted. Some local organizations are doing just fine. Local newsrooms need to innovate and redefine who they are. If their focus is sharp enough and they find their audience, they will do fine.
  • Many concerns have been raised about how dependent news organizations have gotten on social media (and Google) for news referrals. Bell noted that the Washington Post had recently gone “all in” with Facebook, and would put all its content on that site. Gingras thought it was the “absolutely right” decision. Publishers need to embrace every tool they can find to build audiences, he said.
  • Gingras talked a lot about how important it was that web remain free and open, especially when it comes to mobile. But then he was asked how Google can talk about transparency, when it refuses to disclose how its algorithm works, a question which raised applause. Gingras said the algorithm is stunningly complex and it’s tweaked all the time. He noted even if the algorithm is not open, the results are there for everyone to see and analyze. “We show our work.”
  • The speaker setup was interesting and guaranteed a good talk. Bell over past few years has raised pointed questions about the growing dependence of news organizations on tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and social media. She has talked about how the cultures of each are tremendously different — news is focused on openness and uncovering often difficult truths, while social media and others have engineer-dominated cultures that do not particularly value transparency. Bell did not disappoint with her questions, and neither did the audience.
  • Bell graciously thanked Gingras at the end, noting that it’s difficult to get people from the tech giants to come stage before journalists who tend to ask pointed questions.
  • In a nice aside, Gingras said his passion for news came partly through his dad, who worked for the Providence Journal.
  • Google is (still) not interested in a direct news making role. Google’s role in the news ecosystem is identifying knowledge and making it available to the audience which wants to see it, he said.

Jogging LA

7 am: The good thing about waking at 6 am LA time is that my body thinks it’s 9 am Boston time. It was a nice sleep-in.

I usually jog in a new city to get a feel for the place. It was very warm at 7 am (supposed to hit 100 degrees the next three days). Saw some nice flowers that (maybe) we don’t have in Boston.

Matt Carroll runs the Future of News initiative at the MIT Media Lab. He can be followed at @MattatMIT.

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Briana O’Higgins ID’d the top left flower: Bird of paradise (cool name for a cool flower.) I still don’t the names for the others. If you know, drop me a line @MattatMIT.

3 to read

A weekly trio of stories, videos, and data viz about the…

Matt Carroll

Written by

Journalism prof at Northeastern University. Ran Future of News initiative at the MIT Media Lab; ex-Boston Globe data reporter & member of Spotlight

3 to read

3 to read

A weekly trio of stories, videos, and data viz about the news media. Curated by Matt Carroll, journalism professor at Northeastern University.

Matt Carroll

Written by

Journalism prof at Northeastern University. Ran Future of News initiative at the MIT Media Lab; ex-Boston Globe data reporter & member of Spotlight

3 to read

3 to read

A weekly trio of stories, videos, and data viz about the news media. Curated by Matt Carroll, journalism professor at Northeastern University.

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