CONVENTION: Guests Get Digital

With its endless possibilities and seemingly infinite space for expansion, the Internet and cellular technology have served up a smorgasbord of opportunities for print media to extend beyond the reach of paper and ink. But with so many options available, it can be difficult to discern what to feast on first, and how to really make the most of what these newfound platforms have to offer. This weekend, a lineup of nearly a dozen sessions devoted to geeky concepts like bill-to-phone and blogging will provide sage advice on how to become a master of the new media universe.

The Internet seems a likely place for the alternative press to show true leadership, given the sector’s reputation for setting trends and doing things a little differently. Staking that claim, however, requires publishers and editors to think differently about how a Web site functions as a part of their business, says Michael Gold, co-founder and principal of the consulting firm West Gold Editorial.

“There are a lot of things that are very successful and of great value to readers of a print publication that are much less valuable and often counterproductive for the Web site visitor,” explains Gold. And during two Friday afternoon sessions — “Goof-Proof Your Web site: Avoiding Critical Mistakes” and “The 10-Minute Web Site Remake” — Gold and his partner Susan West will share how to avoid the common (and at times easily repairable) missteps that keep sites from maximizing the potential of their brand in cyberspace. Both are joint editorial-business presentations.

Gold says he’s been drawing directly from the Web sites of AAN member papers to ramp up the relevancy of the “Goof-Proof” workshop for session-goers, where the focus will be on how to develop what he describes as “a truly web-specific strategy.” During the “Remake” discussion, Gold and West will take things a step further by conducting a series of “quickie critiques” on some previously volunteered AAN member Web sites. “It’s kind of a public skewering,” joked Gold from his San Francisco office, adding that the reviews will also take note of what the sites are doing right.

The idea stream will keep flowing at Saturday morning’s “How Blogs Changed My Paper,” where a combined panel of editors and publishers will share their first-hand experiences from the blogosphere. Donna Ladd, editor of Jackson Free Press, whose online version features a heavy blog presence, will speak about the importance of an interactive Web component. “Anybody can come to our site and feel like a blogger … [and] people have really reacted to that,” she says of the more than 2000 people who have registered for the ability to post comments on her paper’s site.

Ladd also plans to share how blogging has helped give her publication a daily identity. “The Jackson Free Press is not a weekly, the Jackson Free Press print edition is a weekly. [Blogging] has made us like a daily – we’re just constantly out there – and has helped us permeate the community in a way I don’t think we ever could have done without it.”

Forward thinking types from both the editorial and business sides can find out how to extend into the mobile market during a Friday morning session titled “Where Journalism Meets the Cell Phone: An Introduction to Mobile Content.” Bruce Dobie, a former editor of Nashville Scene and founder of Dobie Media, will dial in to ways to master the cell phone platform.

Especially important, Dobie says, is that cell phones provide a logical means to extend alt-weeklies’ comprehensive event and entertainment listings to the 200 million and counting cellular subscribers. “If you consider the audience of people seeking that information, it’s young, it’s active, it’s people who are on the go, people who are mobile,” he explains. What’s more, Dobie says, is that many may be willing to pay for it. “People are used to paying for content over cell phones, so papers shouldn’t just give stuff away. This is an ideal way to conduct a transaction for content.”

Dobie has been developing an application to do just that, though he assures us his talk will not be a sales pitch, but a primer on mobile market penetration, strategies and trends. In addition, Dobie says he plans to discuss the difficulties of jumping into the “highly fragmented and regulated” cell phone space. “Unlike the Internet, which is this swimming pool that’s open to anyone and everyone, the cell phone world has a lot of life guards — usually the cell phone companies themselves — placing a lot of restrictions and regulations on people who want to do business,” he says. Still, with revenues steadily skyrocketing upward, this seems a formidable venture to begin navigating.

Other topics on the cyber-slate this weekend include free online classifieds, real estate advertising and Flash for journalists. And coming this fall: AAN’s first Web Publishing conference. Check this site for details.

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