In mid-September, the Alley team headed to Austin, Texas, for the annual conference of the Online News Association, also known as ONA 2018. More than 2,700 publishers, editors, journalists, and technologists took over the JW Marriott Austin downtown, and we were glad to be a part of it. It was incredibly gratifying to walk into the lobby of the hotel and almost immediately see clients, colleagues from the ONA national organization and ONA Local meetups, friends we’d made at past ONA conferences, and speakers and co-presenters from past events.

Our booth at ONA, with a table, backdrop, and high bar stools and tables.

After a number of jokes about our CEO Austin Smith being “lost in Austin” (more because the linguistics amused us than anything else), we settled down to setting up our booth in the Midway, the section of the conference dedicated to showing off the latest and greatest innovations at the intersection of technology and news. We brought out some new swag, including some rocket-ship stickers that were a big hit.

We had a great time meeting tons of new friends and seeing familiar faces, many of whom stopped by for our Speakeasy Cocktail Hour on Friday afternoon. Guests enjoyed our two signature drinks, the Dark and Stormy Daniels and the Mar-A-Lago margarita. We had a packed house for the event and were pretty pleased by how it brought everyone together — and facilitated interesting conversations.

After danah boyd’s chilling (but essential) Thursday keynote, Media Manipulation, Amplification and Responsibility, it was good to be able to discuss ways that editorial teams could collaborate to build the future of journalism. At the subsequent ONA Local Leaders Lunch, Director of Editorial Projects Margaret Schneider and her ONA St. Louis Co-Organizer, Andrew Nguyen, got deep in discussion with leaders of the ONA national organization and other ONA Local groups, sharing lessons they’ve learned for building grass-roots organizations for online journalists in metro areas across the U.S. and around the world. That afternoon’s podcasting session, Beyond Audiograms: Audience Engagement in Podcasting, was also an incredibly collaborative group discussion. Participants got the chance to collaborate with leaders in radio and podcasting to envision their own podcasting startup, from the initial idea to developing key performance indicators. These were just a few of the many engaging sessions we took away a ton of lessons from over the course of the conference.

On Friday, our Austin (not the city) took part in a panel, Why It’s Critical for Your Business and Editorial Sides to Collaborate — and How to Do It Ethically and Effectively. Moderator Celeste LeCompte of ProPublica led discussion with Austin and Anna Nirmala of Hearken, Amanda Barrett of the Associated Press, and Janine Warner of SembraMedia. The panelists spoke in detail about how publishers’ editorial and business teams can work together toward shared understanding of goals and purpose. “Find a way to get excited about the work that you’re doing,” Austin noted. “It’s impossible to build a business, much less turn around an editorial organization in a time like this, if you’re not all enthusiastic about where you’re going. If you can build consensus about what you’re excited about, the rest will be easy.”

Our logo being prominently displayed on projected slides at the ONA keynote address

We were also proud to help ONA release their Resources Portal at the conference keynote. It’s an exciting extension of the ONA experience for year-round engagement. You can read more about the project in our launch article.

But ONA wasn’t all business. We also used some of our well-earned downtime for team bonding and exploring. We tried our best to see the famous bats that nest beneath the Congress Avenue bridge, but alas, after two nights in the rain, and no bats in sight (though we could hear them chittering away under the bridge), we finally accepted it was not to be. Also surprisingly hard to come by were the electric scooters we saw locals and others zooming back and forth on. On our last night there, we searched high and low, but every scooter we found was out of service.

Despite these setbacks, we still explored many of the sights and tastes of the city. Throughout the conference, we availed ourselves of the endless supply of amazing tacos and some famous Texas comfort foods. Our first stop was Jacoby’s Restaurant & Mercantile, east of the city center, with a beautiful outside eating area within view of the Colorado River (pictured) and tasty dishes and cocktails.

A lush winding river bed against the light of the setting sun.

The next night, after the opening reception at Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater, we made our way to the Moonshine Grill. There we enjoyed massive skewered, battered, and fried shrimp “corn dogs,” green tomatoes fried to perfection, and amazing chicken and waffles (that were just as good cold the next day).

Later that night, we headed to the mysteriously named Floppy Disk Repair Co. to meet our friends at VIP. We arrived to find a nondescript little shop on East Fifth Street guarded by a shiny silver keypad. We punched in the secret code a friend managed to snag for us and made our way into what turned out to be a craft-cocktail speakeasy.

Four tasty tacos with a variety of vegetables and meats

Now that we were fully initiated into the Austin underground scene, only one thing remained: grab one last late-night bite. We found P. Terry’s Burger Stand to be a reliably delicious establishment, serving up greasy burgers and fries to finish off the latest of nights.

Austin had dozens of colorful food spots and watering holes that really helped round out the experience and turned ONA18 into something incredible. We loved bumping into fellow ONA attendees all over that weird little city and sharing tips for sights to see and great breakfast tacos. There were many highlights, including meals at Taqueria Chapala, Thai-Kun at Whisler’s, and Terry Black’s Barbecue; visits to some excellent brewpubs; a pilgrimage to see Daniel Johnston’s Jeremiah the Innocent mural (the famous “Hi, How Are You” frog); and a stop by Austin’s Yellow Jacket Social Club for some live rock ’n’ roll.

Overall, we had an excellent time in Austin, in and out of the conference rooms. We can’t wait for next year’s meeting in the Big Easy, New Orleans! Will you be stopping by?

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