ONA '08: Notes and Observations

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A record-breaking crowd of journalists, academics, students and various media professionals and assorted hangers-on gathered last week for the annual Online News Association convention which is fast becoming the digital media social circuit equivalent of Comic-Con.

This year's event, which ran from September 11th to 13th in Washington, D.C., attracted an official count of more than 850 participants (compared to about 600-something the previous year in Toronto), although at times it felt like more given the small size of many of the conference rooms at the Capitol Hilton. Many panel discussions spilled over into adjacent hallways. (Organizers booked the venue a couple years ago when the event was much smaller.)

This was the fifth ONA conference I've attended. Historically, it's been a great opportunity to rub elbows with leaders and young professionals in the online media space, learn about research and forward-looking business and journalism trends. Although the gathering is typically upbeat, this year I was a bit nervous at the outset that given the current economic challenges facing many media companies, too much doom-and-gloom "my parent organization is in a death spiral" chatter would permeate the discussions.

While there was indeed some of that, on the whole, the confab lived up to its billing.

At one incredibly popular session, consultant Amy Webb presented her list of "10 tech trends you've never heard of." Her predictions: 2D barcodes, visual search and geobrowsing are about to get hot. Also the evolution of the "lifestreaming" trend from Twitter and FriendFeed into something scarier. One example: Spokeo, which searches inside your social networks and other sites you thought actions you and your friends take are private. Webb showed off Amazon purchases made by an ex-boyfriend that she discovered by entering his e-mail address into the site. "Not like I'm a stalker or anything," she joked. Full list including links to some ventures she presented are here.

One of six simultaneous tracks was geared towards academics. During the session "Sharing the Research," Virginia Commonwealth University assistant professor Marcus Messner presented results of a study in which 99 percent of his students used cell phones regularly while 3 percent read newspapers -- or about half a dozen of the 210 surveyed. This sent the few print journalists in the room heading straight for the hotel bar.

Not too many bold-faced names attended. Keynoter and magazine veteran (Vanity Fair, New Yorker, Talk) Tina Brown offered vague information on her new online startup, The Daily Beast, a venture backed by Barry Diller's IAC and set to launch in the fall. She didn't want to turn the Q&A session into a "press conference" she said, rather nervously and increasingly agitated, when audience members tried to hit her up for details of the high-profile project. Later, I literally bumped into Huffington Post blogger Mayhill Fowler, the "citizen journalist" who reported Sen. Barack Obama's "bitter" guns and God comments from a San Francisco event.

On a personal note, the opening reception at the Newseum took on a poignant air as guests took in the newly opened media museum's 9/11 gallery on the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attack, which outside the building, was just another day on the street in D.C.

More coverage of the ONA is available here (written by journalism students in attendance) including the list of award winners announced at the closing-night banquet. Next year's gathering is scheduled for October 1st through 3rd in San Francisco.

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