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March 11, 2024, 10:26 a.m.
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Feeling the industry-wide pinch, ONA makes programming cuts

“ONA is not immune to the challenges facing journalism. The industry continues to contract, and that impacts all of us.”

The Online News Association will end some programming, including its long-running Student Newsroom and Innovation Lab, for financial reasons.

For 20 years, the newsroom was “a signature component of ONA’s annual conference” that brought together hand-picked student journalists and experienced mentors to create coverage and experiment with digital journalism tools. The newsroom had been sponsored by the Knight Foundation, Microsoft’s Democracy Forward, TEGNA Foundation, and Canva in the past.

“ONA is not immune to the challenges facing journalism. The industry continues to contract, and that impacts all of us,” CEO and executive director LaSharah S. Bunting said. “We have seen many newsrooms and other journalism support organizations go dark in recent years. We do not take that lightly, and we have a responsibility to ONA’s membership and the broader journalism community to be diligent about our sustainability, even when it involves difficult decisions like this.”

As the news industry continues to shrink, journalism groups are grappling with the fact that there are fewer journalists and fewer still with the free time and funds to participate in professional organizations. Some groups have faced “dire” financial situations as membership numbers drop. Others have merged or shuttered entirely. The News Leaders Association, for example, announced in December 2023 that it would dissolve and “distribute its remaining assets to nonprofit journalism organizations that can carry on NLA’s leadership, diversity and First Amendment focus.” (The NLA Awards will live on as the Poynter Journalism Prizes and Sunshine Week will be run by the University of Florida, but other influential NLA programs — including the news industry’s largest diversity survey — have not yet had new homes announced.)

Currently, ONA has roughly 2,000 members. Its resources and programs, though, are not restricted to dues-paying members, and the association saw more than 5,000 people participate in training, volunteering, fellowships, or other ONA programs in 2022. The nonprofit association, founded in 1999, also relies on foundations, individual donors, and industry partnerships for financial support.

Like other professional organizations, ONA has local chapters. ONA notes on its site that these local groups took a hit during Covid. Of the 51 chapters listed in North America, 35 are listed as inactive. Only four (D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, and Atlanta) are listed as holding an in-person event within the last year.

Discontinued ONA programs include the Student Newsroom and Innovation Lab, Executive Women Leaders Salon, ONA Career Day, and the Covid-era Community Circles, among others. Ongoing ONA programs include the Online News Association Conference (to be held in Atlanta this September), Online Journalism Awards, AI in Journalism Initiative (thanks to a new grant from Microsoft), and the six-month Women’s Leadership Accelerator, as well as fellowships for journalists under 30 and from HBCUs. ONA’s online resources include an outlet and tool directory, Slack community, on-demand workshops, and career board.

“We believe it’s important to experiment with our programming, and that means some events or programs may last for a short time,” explained Bunting, who took over the top post at ONA one year ago. “We elected to not continue our virtual Career Day this year, which we held in 2022 and 2023, but are looking at other ways to diversify our career support and recruitment opportunities. We also experimented in 2023 with an Executive Women’s Leaders Salon, which consisted of meetups that took place both virtually and in-person at ONA23. The salon isn’t returning this year, as we are developing other ways to support executives, including in the programming at our ONA24 conference in Atlanta.”

Other changes for this year’s conference, based on feedback, include more affordable passes and a renewed focus on practical training. (Investigative Reporters and Editors — now the largest professional organization for journalists — has found success offering relevant hands-on training.)

Bunting noted the ONA Student Newsroom’s educators remain interested in mentoring student journalists. The number of applications from students, however, had dropped sharply. The program was paused for the pandemic in 2020 and held virtually in 2021. In 2022, the first full program in three years, there was a “large dip” in student applications, and in 2023, despite what ONA described as “a coordinated push,” the number of applicants did not increase. Ultimately, Bunting said, though ONA considered the drop in application numbers as part of the decision to scrap the Student Newsroom, the primary factors were financial, i.e. “the rising costs of travel, meals and audio/visual expenses as well as staff capacity in the planning, coordination and execution of the program.”

Peg Achterman, co-chair of the ONA Student Newsroom before it was discontinued, said its participants “received a certain kind of networking experience that was different” from networking at other conferences that bring student journalists together. “These students were also recruited by the professionals attending the larger conference,” she noted.

Michelle Johnson has mentored student newsrooms for a veritable alphabet soup of organizations — including NABJ, NAHJ, NLGJA, NLA’s precursor ASNE, and UNITY. She co-chaired the ONA Student Newsroom alongside CNN’s Katia Hetter for many years.

“I know how critical these types of programs are and I’ve seen the amazing results of the training and importance of the connections these young people make with professionals in the industry,” she said in an email.

Johnson stepped down from running the ONA newsroom in 2022 when she retired from her day job as an associate professor teaching multimedia and digital journalism at Boston University. “I was a professor of the practice, so I didn’t do traditional research and publish in journals,” she noted. “For me, the ONA Student Newsroom was my annual ‘lab experiment’ where I could try out stuff that I would bring back to my classes at BU.”

The idea of a hands-on student workshop isn’t quite dead — Johnson will lead one focused on AI for NABJ this May, for example — but Johnson noted how special a fully funded ONA Student Newsroom had been.

“Our applicant pool was stellar. It was extremely competitive, so if you got in you were among the best in the country and internationally,” Johnson said. “We put a lot of thought into diversity among the students and the volunteer staff that we brought in to work with them. Many visitors and the students commented on this. None of us worked in newsrooms as diverse as this one.”

“Recruiters used to practically beat down the newsroom door trying to get to our team while we were covering the conference, so we eventually had to tighten up on who got into the room and when. We were on deadline,” she added, adding a smile emoji. “Needless to say, our students were superstars who have gone on to do great work in the industry. All over the country and around the world.”

Johnson said she hopes ONA will be able to bring the program back at some point, but acknowledged that could be “very wishful thinking.”

“I know this must have been a heart-wrenching decision for ONA’s leadership. The organization and the sponsors were extremely generous and supportive of us over the years,” she said. “Funding is limited these days, so you can’t underestimate the financial blows organizations are taking.”

Bunting said ONA’s decision to end the ONA Student Newsroom doesn’t signal an end to the group’s dedication to student journalists. She pointed to discounted membership rates ($25) and conference passes ($150) for students.

“We still intend to be a home for innovators and changemakers in journalism,” Bunting said. And, she noted, “students in our community are often doing some of the most cutting-edge experiments in news.”

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     March 11, 2024, 10:26 a.m.
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