JL Give us a synopsis of your career: where it all started and how you ended up at ONA.
IW One of my earliest memories is of being fascinated with all facets of media – TV, radio, games – and recognising early on the power of media in a way I was unable to articulate at the time. I was podcasting by myself before podcasting was a thing, annoying my grandparents by recording them doing these shows on a tape recorder! But the traditional option for getting into media back then was becoming a reporter: go to a small city; work your way up, and none of that really appealed to me. So, I was confused for quite a while: why do I have this passion for media and what it can do, but don’t want to follow this sort of very rigid career path? And that lasted all the way through college. Anyway, I ended up moving to DC and I applied for a job advertised in the Washington Post and the organisation was RTDNA, which stood for Radio-Television News Directors Association. It was only when I was sitting in the interview that it hit me: ‘this is it!’. It took two decades to get there, but I knew this is what all those experiences were leading up to and that’s how I found my unique niche in the media world. So, I’ve worked for RTDNA, the National Association of Black Journalists, and for the last ten years at Online News Association.
JL And in those jobs, were you doing any meeting and event planning?
IW They were all small staffs, and we are a small staff, so, yeah, you do everything! I think between all three jobs, I have done pretty much every area of association management there is!
JL So, tell me a bit about the ONA. What are its objectives?
IW Our core mission is to inspire innovation and excellence in the industry. Twenty years ago, one of our founders, who worked for MSNBC.com, was not allowed to join a prominent journalist association because he was not considered a ‘journalist’ at that time. And so, it grew from that basis of changing the industry, recognising the power that was going to unfold with the internet. So now we’re one of the larger journalism organisations and our mission is still the same. We were focused on innovation back then and we still are. However, what has changed is what innovation looks like. So now innovation’s not just technology, it’s about diversity, equity, and inclusion in your workplace culture, it’s about sustainability, it’s about emerging tech. That breadth of what innovation looks like is what our members are now championing across the world.
JL How many members do you have? Are they individual members or organisations – or both?
IW We are an individual member organisation and we have about three thousand members.
JL Are they all US-based or do you have international members?
IW Mainly in the US. We’ve been growing globally, so we have about twelve per cent international members now. Of course, the internet has been the ultimate equalizer of places across the world, and so our international membership has grown with that, too.
JL So, these are journalists who exclusively work online – or do some work for publishers who maybe lead on print but have an online component?
IW This is the best part of my job: it’s everybody. Our members are reporters and editors, but also people who work in audience development. They’re start-ups, they’re digital, they’re mainstream – like New York Times or CNN – and they’re also local, like the Dallas Morning News. Digital has really transformed the industry, so we’re not really defined by any organisational type. It’s the individual innovating in the newsroom. For example, we have a member in a local TV station in a rural area, North Carolina, and they are currently trying to get their leadership to recognise that the organisation needs to be on social media. That’s obviously a different innovation story to what the New York Times is going through right now, but all these people are ONA members.
JL You have one of the largest conferences in the industry. How did your organisation deal with being unable to meet in person over the last two years?
IW Believe it or not, we had been talking about the future of conferences and events in our strategic plan, and we were going to test a virtual conference model at the end of 2020 and potentially build that out over time. Ha ha world! We have a pandemic! And so that model we were discussing literally becomes everything we do for two years, but because we had that in our strategic plan, we had some of the infrastructure already.
JL So you went virtual – was it a success?
IW Going virtual was still a big decision for us. We obviously didn’t have all the details worked out, but we looked at where we believed the pandemic was heading, and what we needed to do from a safety standpoint and a business standpoint, and it was successful given what we were all dealing with externally. We experimented a lot and, true to our mission, we built our own virtual platform instead of outsourcing and spent a lot of
time thinking about how to engage our community
in the virtual environment and that went well. We
ended up having about 60 per cent of our normal
conference attendees and then a lot of people who
do not usually attend our conference, too.
JL You mentioned strategy. What other lessons of
leadership did you take from the last two years?
IW That the human nature of what we do as leaders
could not be more important. Everything we did
that was a success, were things where there was a
thoughtful connection with people. For example,
at the start of the pandemic, instead of sending
out a generic message to our members – a lot of
organisations were doing that – we sent a personal
note from me with the subject line: ‘Are you okay?’
From a list of 20,000 people, I got 200 plus replies
responding to me in so many ways. Another lesson
is around how strategy is evolving so quickly now.
Because the external environments are changing so
quickly, I ask myself every day: ‘how am I showing
up for this organisation?’
"Dealing with constant pressure has become a new muscle reflex for association leaders"
JL Are you feeling the pressure?
IW It’s the pressure of permanent uncertainty. We talk about pressure as something that will be relieved later. But how do you lead when there’s no sign that the pressure will be relieved any time soon? It’s just a different model for all of us leading associations now – a new muscle reflex.
JL Which leads us to the crisis in Ukraine. How should associations with international members and maybe a Russian chapter react to what’s happening in Ukraine?
IW It’s a complicated situation, but you start with, who are the people we are serving and how are they impacted? And that’s something every association will have to ask themselves and it’s going to look very different depending on the kind of membership you have. And then you look at your values. Is there an opportunity for the organisation to stand up for the values they espouse? That will not be the case for every association. But I think there are some associations that should look at their values and see if this is a moment where they need to expand their voice.
JL We hear a lot about fake news, most of it originating online. Does your organisation have any role to play in countering the spread of fake news? Is it something your members care about?
IW It’s one is one of the top issues in our industry, and, I think, one of the top issues in the world. We were having conversations in 2016 around media manipulation, around those groups who are purposely writing content to deceive the media or get communities to search a certain word, and then take people down a certain rabbit hole – to Alt-right groups for example. So, we’ve done a lot of work on that, including creating a volunteer-led misinformation playbook as a resource for our members.
JL And what role do associations have to play in raising the level of public discourse generally?
IW There is growing distrust of all institutions. Fake news is top of mind right now, but, with Covid-19, for example, we’ve seen distrust of the medical profession. So, this is about speaking up for truth, for the facts. This is a rejection of expertise and I don’t think we can say that’s entirely unfounded. There are and have been abuses of power which explain why people might not trust institutions and experts. So, I think we need to combine that knowledge with how we build trust in institutions and our associations and the people that we serve.
JL Is anyone making any money out of online journalism yet?
IW The answer is yes and no. Interestingly, a lot of the newer innovative models in journalism right now are association business models. So, you hear a lot of media organisations talk about membership. You hear a lot about community. You hear a lot about events. And you hear about subscription models. There’s even a growing non-profit journalism movement now. So that’s the yes part because we’re seeing promising opportunities from all those different ways of doing business. The no part is you’re seeing fewer players get a larger share of some of those revenue models, and so the struggle now is how does that trickle down to some of the local news organisations?
JL You recently started a podcast interviewing black CEOs. What inspired you?
IW It started from being mad. It was the summer of 2020, myself and three of my black CEO friends were texting about how we were handling the great Black Lives Matter reckoning – and we were handling it in different ways. That prompted us to think maybe we should share this more broadly so people can get our perspective on it, and it was not intended to go any further than that one conversation. What we discovered was that we opened a space for other people to have conversations, so we kept it going. Now we’re almost two years in, and so long as we’re providing value, we’re going to keep it going.
JL Are black people represented properly in the association world?
IW Great question. I don’t know the percentage, but, anecdotally, I’d say we are underrepresented…
JL You’ve been ONA executive director for five years. What do you still want to achieve?
IW This issue of trust in journalism is something that weighs heavily on me. Every bit of mistrust we have in journalism really does hurt democracy, so I think that’s a bigger vision overall. I don’t think any organisation can solve that problem alone, however, but I think that’s something I can play a part in with ONA.