I’ve been asked to reflect on my experiences at ONA ’08.

Last month, I attended the Online News Association Conference in Washington, DC from September 10 to 14.

I originally wasn’t planning to attend. When I first heard of ONA, I was in the middle of a summer internship and focused on deciding if I would attend graduate school after W&L. About a month before the conference, I exchanged emails with my adviser, Professor Artwick about my “future plans,” or what I was going to do with my life after graduating. I didn’t get a clear career path figured out, but I did get plans for the nearer future: ONA during the 2nd weekend of September.

Since I was planning on continuing in online journalism, I couldn’t think of a reason why not to attend ONA. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to network and learn more skills from the seminars, but there was more in store for me.

Once I returned from the conference, the first thing our journalism department head asked me was if they worked my tail off at ONA. When I replied yes, he said, “Good, we got our money’s worth.”

ONA is a conference full of seminars, panels, and keynote speakers relating to online journalism, and I was not simply sitting and soaking up information. I was standing in the back with my notepad, scribbling as much information as I could at the seminar about a website’s redesign process. I was typing furiously on my laptop as I tried to synthesize what media lawyers were saying at a legal panel. I was on my cell phone, texting exactly what was happening to Twitter and contributing to a live feed of information.

Instead of simply attending panels, I was reporting on them as part of ONA’s student newsroom. The student newsroom was made up of student journalists from across the country who were assigned to mentors. These mentors, who were among the most prominent voices in online journalism, reviewed the students’ work and gave suggestions for improvement.

The room for the student newsroom did not even look like a newsroom at all. It was a small room with only tables and chairs along the walls and a group of tables in the center. Completely bare of the elements that normally constitute a newsroom, such as TV screens, routers, and desktop computers, we the students had to work with what we brought. As someone planning to go into online journalism, technology plays a huge part in what I would do, in terms of new programs (Flash) and a new language (HTML). Looking at that bare room, I realized that though we can have whatever new technology at our fingertips, we are journalists first. What truly mattered were the questions we ask ourselves and our sources and the analysis involved in synthesizing information into something understandable, clear, and relevant.

Regardless, I did have some fun experimenting with new technologies like FinalCutPro, Soundslides, Moveable Type, and especially Twitter. One of the nights, coverage ended early, and we decided to go out for dinner. After skipping out on other seemingly legit places, the whole student newsroom ended up at an Asian bistro. Since it was still Happy Hour, we ordered some drinks and sushi and thought all was well, until our food arrived. It wasn’t on my plate, but on someone’s dish there was brownish, rancid-smelling broccoli. We immediately Twittered this news and it showed up on the ONA08 feed, just in case another online journalist was in the mood for Asian cuisine.

Other than reporting, there was some room for learning. My first day there, the student newsroom toured the WashingtonPost.com/Newsweek Interactive office in Arlington, Virginia. Their newsroom was much more tranquil than I imagined it. In one of the news meetings, they spoke so softly we could barely hear them. While covering ONA events, I learned the importance of showing up to a seminar at least 10 minutes early.

However, the best part of the conference was the people I encountered. I made some friends in the basically all-girls student newsroom (except for one guy). I interviewed the energetic CEO of a new startup website called Hubdub where users can bet on the outcome of future news stories. At the awards banquet on the final night, I ate salmon and wasabi three seats away from the Washington Post editor who sent Woodward and Bernstein forth on their Watergate story.

I left the conference more motivated to make the Rockbridge Report a winner in the student journalism category, while more confident in myself and my journalism skills.

Unfortunately, I also left a huge pile of schoolwork to do when I returned to campus, but the weekend at ONA was worth it. And I definitely just Twittered this.

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