SE AAN Conference Brings on Editorial This Year

There were no hoops or NCAA regulations at this Southeast Conference, and it probably cost a lot less than collegiate sports, but the organizers of a recent conference for AAN and other weekly papers in the Southeast are happy just to have provided an arena for alternative newsweekly salespeople and editors to interact and learn more about their business.

March 8 marked the fourth year a group of AAN member papers in the Southeast has pooled resources and put on a conference and networking opportunities for publishers, ad reps, production staff and, for the first time, editorial employees. The one-day mini-con, held in Atlanta, was planned by Amy Singmaster, publisher of Columbia Free Times, and hosted by Debby Eason, publisher of West Side Story and founder of the Creative Loafing chain. Eason provided space and a luncheon for the fete, according to Singmaster.

“My sales reps just love it,” she says of the mini-con, which was begun as a less expensive alternative for those who couldn’t attend the national AAN annual convention. “They beg for it when we don’t have it.” This year, approximately 50 attended from 10 publications, such as Charleston City Paper, Nashville Scene, Independent Weekly and Flagpole Magazine. Singmaster says all expressed an interest in returning next year, and she has since heard from at least two other publications who want to be invited.

“For some of the small papers, to have something regionally or closer to home, it was nicer to try to get to,” Barna says of the mini-con.

Singmaster says next year’s conference may be held in February, a slower time of year, which would allow more publications to send staff. Several papers this year couldn’t send anyone because they were putting together their St. Patrick’s Day issues.

Even if AAN holds an East Coast conference in 2004, which has been discussed, Singmaster doesn?t necessarily believe the independent Southeastern event would be obsolete and could at minimum be held as a caucus during a larger AAN event.

Each year, a different newspaper sponsors the conference, which has focused on training the financial staff of alternative weeklies. This time, to cut costs, Singmaster decided to do away with hiring speakers and instead, held roundtable discussions within each discipline.

Free Times News Editor Eric Ward, who moderated the editorial roundtable, says he structured the discussion on two broad topics: alt-weekly criticism of mainstream media, and the integrity of maintaining separation of editorial and advertising. Each sparked a “lengthy and very vibrant” debate, he says.

Attendees also discussed possible cooperation on regional projects concerning pervasive Southern issues, including race, education, the environment and health care. Side issues arose, too, from editors? concern about issues ranging from the corporate-ownership influence seeping into the alt-weekly industry to how to effectively use profanity in copy.

“It was what I’d hoped it would be,” Ward says. He would like to see more participation from larger alternative weeklies in future conferences. “I wanted to actually turn a critical eye on what we do.”

Singmaster adds that feedback thus far includes the desire for more writers to be able to attend — only about half the papers sent editorial staff — and for more structure to be added to the programming. There is a willingness to pay reasonable prices for good training.

Southeast papers haven’t felt the effects of recession quite as acutely as the rest of the country’s (many Southeastern alties are small enough to still be growing), so sales discussions ranged beyond merely staying afloat, Singmaster says. Charleston City Paper Advertising Director Blair Barna, who led the display ad roundtable, says salespeople talked about improving communication between clients and production staff with the goal of designing unique copyright ads. Such branding of ad pages not only sets one print publication apart from others in the same market, it’s also important for survival in an increasingly Internet-dependent culture.

“Overall, everybody said business is going really well, which we were glad to hear,” Barna says.

Creative promotions and sales techniques were popular topics as well, especially drawing on examples of how individual papers’ sales staffs approach special issues and promos. For example, the Nashville Scene has created a favorable niche within its publication for vehicle ads, by adding an automotive column for readers. The Independent has built its personals by hosting events and mixers for singles.

Ann Hinch is a freelance writer based in Knoxville, Tenn.