What did we learn?

Notes from a journalism conference in Philly.
A selfie photo shows Scott Gordon, Mark Riechers, and Christina Lieffring posing with an inflatable reproduction of hockey mascot gritty in a conference-center lobby. The three people in the photo are all facing the camera and smiling. The inflatable Gritty—an orange, fuzzy, tall, creature with a Philadelphia Flyers jersey and a wide grin—faces off at an odd angle.
From left to right: Scott Gordon, Mark Riechers, Gritty, and Christina Lieffring at this year’s Online News Association conference.

Notes from a journalism conference in Philly.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

When there is so much to be done here at home, why is it worth going out of town for a conference? Tone Madison News and Politics Editor Christina Lieffring and Publisher Scott Gordon have some thoughts about this after returning from the annual Online News Association conference, which took place August 23 through 26 in Philadelphia. (Mark Riechers, who co-founded Tone Madison years ago and has gone on to a distinguished career at Wisconsin Public Radio’s To The Best Of Our Knowledge, was also there. We took a picture together with an inflatable Gritty positioned in the conference lobby.) We met people we otherwise wouldn’t have met, got some perspectives on Tone Madison’s challenges, and decided to have a back-and-forth about it here. 

Christina: So. We went to Philly.

Scott: And managed not to come back with COVID, which illustrates just one disconnect at the conference and in the media world overall. An event like this reminds you that people across the industry share some very common challenges, while also dwelling in different realities—say, a magical COVID-over world, or one where AI is the most salient issue facing newsrooms today.

The session I got the most out of this year was titled “Incorporating Disabled Voices Across News Coverage,” which touched upon long COVID, among other things. Disability factors into some upcoming Tone Madison stories, but there’s always more to follow up on. “You can look at any system and the way they treat disabled people is a really good measure of the effectiveness of that system,” said one of the panelists, Russell Midori of Military Veterans in Journalism. Panelist Cara Reedy, of the Disabled Journalists Association, touched upon the intersection of disability and the school-to-prison pipeline—something I’d like to see us and other local outlets explore further in Madison’s interminable debate over cops and schools. I came away from the session with some specific story ideas and resources, but more importantly a broader determination to pay more attention to disability issues across all our areas of coverage.

Christina: ::digs through suitcase for notebook:: I feel like we should also explain up top for our lovely donors that we volunteered so we could attend the conference for free and received a travel stipend.  ::finds notebook:: Ah ha! One of the best sessions I attended was “Combatting Disinformation in Election Campaigns,” where Patrick Butler from the International Center for Journalists emphasized that the 2024 election is going to be a mess of disinformation. The social media platforms have either given up on regulating disinformation or, in the case of Twitter (I cringe whenever I see that stupid X), heartily embracing it. Another problem, which an audience member brought up toward the end, is we don’t have a good way to empirically study how to combat disinformation. We as individuals have anecdotes and frameworks for what we believe is effective, but we don’t actually know. So, there’s a kitchen-sink methodology in newsrooms and for now it’s hard to know what’s working.

That being said, there were some ideas that I think we could use going forward. Investigative journalism that digs into where disinformation is coming from can go a long way as well as reporting that dissects the narratives that make said disinformation appealing. 

Jonathan Lai, who used to cover elections for the Philadelphia Inquirer and is joining ProPublica, said that his tactic was to cover in-depth how elections are run. Not just “here’s how to register to vote” but also what happens to your information after you register? Who has access? How is it managed? How are ballots made, distributed, handled, and counted? What are the safeguards in place to ensure that we have safe, secure elections? 

One of the glaringly obvious issues with the 2020 election conspiracy theories is that they were created and spread by people who did not know how the system worked. So if we teach people in advance how elections are actually run, they’ll be able to know, without us even having to fact-check, that a certain conspiracy theory doesn’t make sense. So letting people know how elections work and then telling them in more accessible, easy-to-digest ways, over and over again.

Lai also emphasized the importance of clear, direct language, and making sure people know why you’re using the language you’re using. For example, when Philadelphia had an “audit,” Lai pointed out that it actually didn’t match the definition of an audit. So for every story on that topic, they had a little box titled “Why we’re not calling it an audit” that explained how the process that was happening there did not match the definition of an audit.

It’s probably not enough to change the minds of people who have completely bought into the conspiracy theories and have tuned out legacy media, but it could prevent people who are neutral or questioning from also falling down those rabbit holes.

Anyway, that was a lot. What else did you get out of the conference?

Scott: You and I both went to a session called “Management Training For Small (But Mighty) News Orgs.” That sounds really dry but it ended up being kinda emotional. Presenters Heather Bryant (of Tiny News Collective) and Tracie Powell (of the Pivot Fund) hit directly on so many of the things that have played out in the struggle to set up Tone Madison for a successful future. For instance, delegating and figuring out succession planning when so much of an organization revolves around one ADHD-riddled control freak founder with whom it’s so personally associated. It felt comforting to know that so many other small outlets face the same growing pains and that there are, if not easy answers, at least ways to start talking through them. 

Christina: What was even better than the information itself is also that the questions other people asked sounded like they were talking about Tone. One founder even called her organization her “baby,” which is an inside joke that we have about [Scott’s] relationship with Tone. I went to another session that was about small organization management and asked a question, and someone running a small media organization in Eastern Europe came up to me afterwards and said they’re experiencing the same problems. He joked that ONA should’ve organized a group therapy session for all of us small media start-ups. It is oddly reassuring that we are all facing the same obstacles, whether we’re based in Madison or Estonia. 

Scott: That group therapy session would have been a welcome balance to the conspicuous presence of tech companies, major philanthropies, and large legacy-media organizations. At least one session I attended on local journalism seemed to focus entirely on publishers who are working with an order of magnitude more resources and might not relate to the nearly hand-to-mouth existence of an outlet like Tone Madison. It’s frustrating, as I truly believe a healthy future for media will consist of thousands upon thousands of tiny, niche outlets, ones that pointedly do not replicate the culture of for-profit legacy media. That’s the media conversation writ large, though: always people pushing for the future, and always people trying to re-assert the past.

Christina: Yeah, one of the most disappointing sessions I attended was titled “The Power of Collaboration.” I thought it was going to be about collaborations among small outlets, something we’re pretty good at. But it was actually a company that was working with those outlets promoting its services. 

Also I don’t know how you and I managed to avoid all the AI sessions but we did it! Though in conversation with Mark Riechers, it sounds like there could be some AI applications that would be useful at some point down the line. Like an AI that combs through public records—meeting agendas, reports, etc.—and finds items that would actually be useful or interesting. I love the serendipity of digging through records, but sometimes you just need to find something quickly or don’t feel like digging through a bunch of unhelpful documents. Not that we would need that if public entities did a better job making their public records easily accessible, but that’s another conversation.

Scott: I’m less concerned about AI itself than about the short-sighted ways in which media executives go about chasing new shortcuts and trends. We’re already seeing media owners like the goons at G/O Media go over the heads of unionized journalists to publish AI-generated stories. Just like the “pivot to video” bloodbath and other cases of shiny-object syndrome, this kind of implementation 1) does not advance the slow and unbelievably expensive work of building up a body of work audiences can trust and value, and 2) undercuts the power and job security of journalists themselves. But luckily AI wasn’t the only big focus of the conference.

Christina: One of the highlights, for me, was hearing Nikole Hannah-Jones, who’s most well known today for The 1619 Project. I’ve admired her work ever since she did a two-part series on school segregation for This American Life. It’s funny to me that Mark said a colleague of his asked if she said anything controversial; she’s not some blowhard trying to become the center of attention. But she has zero hesitation when it comes to investigating uncomfortable truths and interrogating comforting lies. For people who are invested in those lies and would rather not know those truths, that might seem controversial. But it’s what we as journalists are supposed to do.

For example, I think most people can acknowledge that in middle and high school US history classes, chattel slavery and anti-Black racism are sidelined and treated as an aberration. They’re only really discussed in lessons on the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, and those events are treated as corrections for these aberrations. All The 1619 Project did was ask: What if chattel slavery and anti-Black racism was not an aberration but central to the history of this country? And it was! It has shaped everything from our country’s enormous, but unequal, wealth, where we live, what we eat, how we learn, how we work, and whether we have access to healthcare.

Critics love to point to the “debate” about the project among historians, without acknowledging that there is always “debate” in academia. But even the historians who publicly called for corrections praised the project’s overall aim: “We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history. Some of us have devoted our entire professional lives to those efforts, and all of us have worked hard to advance them. Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent public service.”

The criticism gets at the heart of what I was talking about with the election disinformation session—some people will only believe what reinforces their pre-existing beliefs. I’m no psychologist so I can’t give any informed reason as to why or how to break through the hold these beliefs have on people. But as a journalist, that’s not my job. It’s to tell the truth. And Hannah-Jones’ work is a reminder of how important that is. 

Even if schmucks like Ron DeSantis launch a whole political career to try to cancel you. It’s fan behavior, honestly.

Scott: While DeSantis and other fascists continue to seethe about it, I hope we can continue to treat things like The 1619 Project as an opportunity to reflect on our own work. We’ll try to keep the bigger picture in mind as we return to the unhinged, screaming, beautiful baby that is Tone Madison.

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