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'Worth holding on to': Finding community and hope at NICAR24

NICAR24 was like a homecoming for St. Louis data journalist Janelle O’Dea.

“It’s one of my favorite weekends of the year,” O’Dea said. “If I'm around other journalists when I say that, they're like, ‘Wow, you're such a nerd.’ And I'm like, ‘Yes I am. Proud to be!’”

This conference was especially meaningful because it was her 10th NICAR, O’Dea explained to her nail artist a day before flying out to Baltimore. She showed a photo of the NICAR24 t-shirt, designed by's Evan Wyloge, and talked about how the organization helped kick start her career. 

Nail artist Heather Young took it from there.

“She just understood the assignment so quick,” O’Dea said.

O’Dea went to her first NICAR Conference in 2014, as a college senior at the University of Illinois. That conference, which also took place in Baltimore, introduced her to a new world and new way of thinking.

“I barely knew what data journalism was at that point, but after I went to that NICAR, I was like, this is definitely what I want to do,” O’Dea said. “I basically said to myself, ‘I don't totally understand all the conversations that are happening around me, but I'm gonna hang out here for as long as it takes me to figure it out.’ And that’s kind of what I did.”

That’s a common theme at NICAR. People come back year after year to grow their skills and share what they know with others. 

Some students turn into teachers — like Katherine Oung, who taught other student journalists how to build a data desk at their school publication. And Emilia Ruzicka, who spoke on four panels at NICAR24, just four years after attending their first conference!

Nick Devlin, of CBS News, and Emilia Ruzicka, of Univ. of Virginia, at NICAR24.

Then there are journalists who show up with new family members — like IRE board president Brian Rosenthal, who got married last year and attended NICAR24 with his wife Millie Tran. And Andrea Suozzo, who got a visit from her little one after teaching “First Python notebook!”

Andrea Suozzo and her family after teaching a class at NICAR24.

Whether you’ve changed jobs, switched beats or moved cities, NICAR is a special place to see our community members grow professionally and personally.

“NICAR fits into that bucket of friendships that you call your chosen family,” said Lauren Grandestaff, IRE’s director of content. “And it is such a close-knit community, but a lot of us only see each other once a year at best. So it does have a family reunion type of vibe to it.”

This is a group that sticks together during tough times, too. 

Wall Street Journal reporters passed out “Free Evan Now” stickers to support their colleague Evan Gershkovich, who has been detained in Russia for the last year. Friends and colleagues gathered to remember Fazil Khan, a New York City journalist who died in a tragic fire just weeks before the conference.

Meanwhile, many people are coping with what feels like nonstop news of layoffs, cutbacks and closures in 2024. NICAR hosted several sessions focused on employment and well-being. One was called “Weathering the stormy news business,” led by Tara García Mathewson and Jon Keegan of The Markup, and Paroma Soni of Politico.

Soni posted on X ahead of the session: “Come talk about the constant fear of layoffs with me! It’ll be so fun!!”

They shared tips for how to stay resilient in an ever-changing field: cataloging your work on a website, cultivating your personal brand, maybe writing a newsletter. Another big piece of advice was to build your network through groups like IRE.

“We discussed how you can actually build those professional networks in a way that's not just your stereotypical networking, but more so in a way that’s really getting to know people,” Soni said. “Like building friendships, as opposed to one-off networking events.”

NICAR24 attendees took that to heart. Some people played board games and sang karaoke in the evenings after sessions. At “Code Buddies” on Saturday, about two dozen people got together to talk and get help on projects. 

“It’s really great to see attendees want to hang out outside of the normally scheduled programming and want to be a part of the community,” Grandestaff said. “That is such an important thing for us as staff, to make everyone feel welcome and included.”

O’Dea, who was excited to reunite with her people, had to unexpectedly switch gears during the conference. On the second day of NICAR24, she received the news that she was being laid off from the Center for Public Integrity. 

Almost immediately, her friends were waiting with hugs and drinks. They sang karaoke that night to let out the emotions. (O’Dea sang “Before he cheats” and “Put your records on.”)

It sounds strange, she admits, but the bad news didn’t ruin NICAR for her. She stayed, learned networked, taught sessions. Her Sunday morning class, “The 411 on 311,” was “the best that it has ever gone.”

“I just so happened to be in the one place where I could get the most support and most opportunities for what's coming next,” O’Dea said. “I consider myself incredibly fortunate that it happened the way that it did.”

As for the industry? Journalists like O’Dea and Soni are hanging on, despite the hardships. They feel drawn to the calling, and like other NICAR24 attendees, have a strong community to lean on.

“Immediately after it happened, I had this overwhelming feeling of, ‘Everything is going to be OK,’” O’Dea said. “I don't know exactly what's going to happen, but I'm going to figure this out. I always have figured it out.”

“Journalism will always be necessary,” Soni said. “It may change shape, maybe not every small newsroom is going to survive. But you also need it. … The media is still a very vital part of the American political and social landscape. ... I think it's worth holding on to.”

Want more NICAR24 content? See our full photo album here and review conference sessions here. We will continue adding tipsheets and session recordings in the coming days.

IRE has a Support a Journalist program to help members going through layoffs, furloughs or job terminations. Learn more about the program here.

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