I can finally say “this isn’t my first rodeo.”
Last year, I attended my first Online News Association conference in San Francisco. I had been meaning to do it at least three years earlier, but always had a lame excuse for not going. You know, not enough money, taking my first job, not getting around to scheduling vacation time. But I was committed this time — and it ended up being one of my best decisions of 2012. ONA is an amazing conference. I met so many journalists, took in so much new information, collected a bunch of free stuff and even belted my ass off at a downtown karaoke bar which we saw Vince Vaughn outside of.
I decided before ONA12 even ended that I was attending ONA13. It took 13 long months, but here we are; I’m flying into Atlanta this afternoon and, this year, I’m part of the Unconference team (read here if you want to know more about it).
That brings me to the point of this post: This isn’t my first rodeo. If ONA13 is yours, then here are some tips to help you get through the jam-packed weekend of journalistic goodness:
1. Meet everybody you can.
This is not the opportunity to stay close-knit to your group, avoid conversations in hallways, stick to a strict schedule and stay quiet during general sessions. The best part about conferences is networking. Talk! Get to know fellow journalists, no matter what part of the field they work in. Open every conversation if you have to. Share beers with attendees. Collect business cards. Find your favorite panelists on Twitter and connect with them. Ask questions during sessions and workshops. If a group of friends you just made asks you to come grab food with them, just do it!
One important part of doing this, besides growing new friendships, is you’re building business connections that could come extremely handy down the road, whether it’s your next job or an opportunity to brainstorm and collaborate on an awesome project. Conversation is your friend at ONA. Use it.
2. Don’t worry about missing a session; take it in stride.
The biggest problem I came across at ONA12 is there was too much happening. Don’t get me wrong, that’s an incredible problem to have; it just meant that by choosing a particular 2:30 p.m. session, I was going to miss another awesome session going on that same time.
No worries. For one thing, ONA creates hashtags for every session so people can tweet during them, which means you can follow along even if you’re not there. Furthermore, video from most (if not all) sessions will be posted on the ONA website after the conference. You won’t miss a thing, even if you aren’t there.
That brings me to the second part of this point: Don’t feel pressured to stay on schedule. Yes, there’s a ton going on at all times. But if, for example, you had to choose between having a great conversation with attendees you just met and attending a session you’re marginally interested in, you know which one I would choose. Make this experience valuable to what you want out of it! Don’t always follow the herd.
3. Use social media like crazy. (And bring chargers.)
This is especially important considering we’re talking about an online journalism conference. You’re going to be on your phone a lot, whether it’s for Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook or plain-old messaging other people making plans. If you’re bringing a laptop and/or a tablet as well, plan on using that a lot, too.
Using social media to chronicle everything is basically ONA tradition. There are hashtags for all sessions so people can tweet about them. There also are Tumblr blogs, Facebook groups and Google+ circles set up for people to share ideas and collaborate. This is your chance to analyze what you learn and apply it to what you do at your profession.
So if you’re going to do all this (and you freaking better), you’re also going to want to bring your charger(s) everywhere you go. An overnight charge won’t do the trick here. From what I remember, ONA12 did a pretty good job of making sure there were charging stations, plus wall outlets in just about every conference room. Use them.
4. Be prepared. For everything.
Yes, I just said to take everything in stride and don’t worry about following a strict schedule. That’s still true. At the same time, have a plan going into the conference and some of the key sessions that pique your interest. What do you want to learn out of them? What do you want to take back with you to your day job?
Make a list of some key questions you have and, if they aren’t answered at your sessions, be the one to ask them. Stick around after sessions to introduce yourself and talk to panelists a little bit more. Keep a notepad (or a digital device) handy in case any questions, goals or ideas come up in your brain. If you’re anything like me, that will happen dozens of times.
5. HAVE FUN.
There will be networking mixers just about every night. A karaoke night Friday. A whiskey-tasting Saturday in the Midway. All kinds of impromptu events happening throughout the long weekend, many of which will involve booze.
If there’s one thing ONA does well, it’s make sure you get your money’s worth and have the best possible time you can have. Take advantage of it. Have fun! This is the best conference I’ve ever attended, and it gets better the more you take it in. Sleep’s overrated at this thing. Live it up.
And that’s all I’ve got (for now). Make sure you’re following #ONA13 on Twitter, follow our Gannett Tumblr blog from ONA13 and, if you aren’t already, follow and connect with me on Twitter! You can bet I’ll be tweeting a storm this whole week.
See you in Atlanta!
If publishers want to blame someone for the decline of traditional news companies, they can of course blame the internet. But that’s like a group of buggy makers demanding the government tax Henry Ford to make up for their declining carriage business.