Meetings

How One Association Tackled a Conference Diversity Problem

By / Sep 22, 2015 (iStock/Thinkstock)

The 2015 Online News Association annual meeting boasts a diverse speaker lineup. That’s no accident: It’s the result of a deliberate effort to respond to member criticism about past conferences.

Tech conferences have taken their share of hard knocks for failing to reflect and promote industry diversity. Among them is the annual meeting hosted by the Online News Association, which focuses on the convergence of technology and journalism.

But ONA’s 2015 conference, convening this Friday in Los Angeles and running through the weekend, looks different. It has a more diverse lineup of presenters than in past years: 52 percent are women, and 36 percent are people of color. But the diversity push goes beyond racial and gender lines—25 percent of the speakers hail from local news organizations, and 8 percent come from other countries.

ONA Executive Director Jane McDonnell and Deputy Director Irving Washington, CAE, acknowledge that the association took some heat over a lack of diversity at past conferences.

“As ONA struggled to help journalists deal with cataclysmic changes over the past 10 years, diversity slipped out of focus,” McDonnell and Washington wrote in a blog post. “That loss is difficult to make up, but it’s nowhere near as daunting as annual discouraging data suggests. The really hard part? Starting.”

The criticism peaked after the association’s 2010 conference in Washington, DC, where just a handful of presenters were journalists of color. The issue also arose in presentations at later ONA conferences.

The Journalist Diversity Project, a website highlighting dozens of talented digital journalists of diverse backgrounds, was particularly effective at making the case about the industry’s diversity problem.

The site, which launched in 2011 and relaunched in 2014, had a direct influence on ONA’s leadership structure: Two board members, Benét Wilson and Robert Hernandez, helped formulate the project, as did Boston University professor Michelle Johnson, who heads ONA’s student newsroom.

Nearly all of those who helped launch the diversity project are active ONA members. And ONA worked with these members and others to help improve the diversity situation.

Washington’s hiring in 2012 was another part of ONA’s effort to improve diversity organization-wide, The Root notes.

In their blog post, McDonnell and Washington write that the criticism on conference diversity issues was a blessing in disguise for their organization.

“Rightfully, and thankfully, we were called out for it. When any community you serve gives you a failing grade for not fulfilling your mission, your job is to listen. We did.”

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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