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Behind the Scenes of ONA23’s Student Newsroom

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at American chapter.

I was awake until 2:00 a.m. most nights at the Online News Association conference in August. As expected, I spent some of those nights fighting off sleep to finish a draft for my editor. But I spent others dragging every chair in the vicinity around a too-small table in the lobby of the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown with the rest of the student newsroom. 

We’d talk about the drama of the student newspapers and publications we work on and try to verbalize what we want to do with our lives. When I finally closed my eyes each night, I couldn’t be bothered about the lack of sleep I was about to get. If these were the people I’d get to work alongside in the coming years, the future looked good to me. 

The Online News Association selects 20 undergraduate and graduate students each year to attend its conference and produce multimedia coverage of the events, attendees and host city. Each of us scoured the conference schedule and researched Philadelphia to develop story pitches in the weeks leading up to Aug. 23-26. 

During our initial newsroom meetings, the breath in the room felt suspended. We vulnerably shared our ideas and hopes for the stories we intended to produce. But the nerves quickly calmed with the overwhelming support from our newsroom mentors, who also served as our initial editors. I worked primarily with Jessie Willms, the audience and SEO editor at The Globe and Mail.

After a touch-base each morning, we dispersed across the conference grounds and city, each on a mission to secure an interview, get a photo or attend a session. 

ONA23 became my first experience working on multiple overlapping stories on a tight deadline (the conference began on Wednesday and we stopped publishing on Friday at noon).

By the end of the week, I published two feature stories: one about how Canva eases access to digital design and the other profiling two ways that news organizations use translation to enhance their coverage. I also created a brief video story for social media with highlights from a session about current legal challenges for journalists related to technology.

Conference speakers and attending reporters enthusiastically worked with us. 

For my story about translation, I received an invitation to attend Global Press’s networking reception, where María Arce, the organization’s Editorial Coach for Latin America, spoke with me for over an hour. Lena Grotticelli, the senior editor at TAG24 NEWS US spoke with me for just as long in the lobby of the Marriott. Newsroom mentor Jasmine Goldband connected me with an important source to finish my Canva story. And Senior Manager of Global Partnerships at Canva, Diana Abeleven, met with me at 8:00 a.m. for an interview.

Outside of the immersive journalism practice and training occurring, we took advantage of the Midway, ONA’s trademark room full of news organizations tabling to recruit and journalists roaming around to network. Throughout the conference, I spoke with passionate journalists employed by outlets ranging from the Associated Press to the Atlantic to TEGNA.

ONA23 concluded with the Online Journalism Awards Ceremony and Banquet on Saturday night. We covered the event in real time with teams delegated to writing a live article, producing video content and creating graphics to announce the winners on social media.

Amid the chaos of the conference, the newsroom still found time to run over to Reading Terminal Market to grab a famous Philly cheesesteak for lunch and gather at Chili’s for a group dinner. A month later, our group chat is still active, sending our latest articles, celebrating internship interviews and sharing opportunities. 

The experience advanced my career and helped me grow tremendously as a journalist, but it also gave me friends across the country who will break into the field alongside me. When I’m looking for partners on future projects, they’ll be the first people I call.

Ellie Blanchard

American '23

Ellie is a senior at American University majoring in Foreign Language and Communication Media (FLCM) with tracks in French and Journalism. In her free time, she enjoys thrifting, reading, and sampling local chai lattes.