Speaking Truth To Power at the 2011 AAN Convention

At the 34th annual AAN Convention, held July 21-23 in New Orleans, AAN members rebuilt relationships, formed new ones, learned about new technology and strategies in editorial, marketing, design and management and shared their perspectives on where the alternative press is headed.

Author and journalist Tom Rosenstiel of the Pew Research Center shared his thoughts on the topic during his “State of the News Media” speech on Friday morning. He addressed both editorial and advertising issues, with a particular focus on alt-weeklies and competitors.

“The notion there is a primary news source is obsolete,” he said. All media is now an alternative for someone. Even alt-weeklies face competition from Facebook, word of mouth, Google and others.

In order to survive, he said papers must consider new alliances, even with some of their former rivals, and focus on understanding their function within a community. “It’s deeper than writing stories and selling ads,” he said. “It’s creating knowledge in your community.”

In this new era, Rosenstiel said, journalists are no longer merely gatekeepers, the new functions of journalists are: witness-bearers, authenticators, sense-makers, watchdogs, empowerers, forum organizers, and role-models.

ABC News Senior White House Correspondent and former Washington City Paper writer Jake Tapper also shared his thoughts on the future of alt-weeklies and their relationship with the mainstream press with his keynote address on Saturday. In his speech, he advised members of alternative media to keep an open mind toward the traditionalists.

“There are a lot of problems with the mainstream media,” he said. “But there is a place for the alternative voice.”

Alt-weeklies have the ability more than ever to “speak truth to power,” but it can’t be done by “speaking to the people in this room,” he said. The best way to do that is to let the facts speak for themselves. “It’s the key to your voice becoming louder,” he said. “If you keep uncovering the better facts than others, you will prevail.”

The Free Speech Lunch featuring Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora was also a big draw. Zamora told of his struggle to report government corruption, drug trafficking and human rights violations within his country, receiving beatings, grenade attacks, as well as facing kidnappings and a home invasion at gunpoint. Despite his hardships, he encouraged journalists to “express the truth and uncover the hidden.”

With the changing roles and responsibilities of journalists, incorporating social media into reporting was another huge topic of discussion. An especially popular session was presented by New York Times social media editor Liz Heron, who presented ways that news organizations and individual journalists can use social media to better engage sources and readers, distribute their work to new audiences, and discover new story ideas. She also showed how journalists are using emerging platforms such as Google+.

Dave Olson of HootSuite suggested advanced tips and tactics to build community and engage audiences through social media, in another session. Using vivid case studies — from the Egyptian revolution (in which HootSuite was utilized) to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan — Olson shared practical reasons to make social media part of a communication strategy. He tracked the evolution of grassroots communication culture from fanzines, telegrams and CB radios into social media as it is today.

How to keep up with new technology and other newsroom changes — staffing, freelance pay rates, page counts — all the dirty details in a day’s work for editors were discussed in the Editorial Standards session. The session was a frank look at how editors are getting the most out of their budgets and staffs with the goal of generating new ideas and inspiration.

Diversity in staff as well as in reporting are issues papers struggle with as well, and one thought-provoking session asked, “why are your readers so white?” and featured Robert Hernandez, Assistant Professor of Professional Practice for USC Anneberg’s School of Communication and Journalism, Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute and Doris Truong, president of the Asian American Journalists Association.

“If your want to survive, you have to recognize and incorporate diversity in your staff and reporting,” Prince said.

Most alts read like they don’t understand the diverse groups of their community, the panelists said. Because of that, minority reporters and readers don’t consider alt-weeklies to be for them. “Diversity is a problem for all publications, not just those in the alternative press,” said Prince.

To get more diversity in reporting, Doris Truong said there needs to be more in newsrooms, starting at the top. “All sorts of diversity is important at all levels of management,” she said.

Hernandez added that genuine engagement and partnerships with groups are also important for better diversity coverage.

Group partnerships, on an organizational level, were explored and demonstrated in J-Lab’s How Smaller Gets Bigger panel discussion, featuring Andy Pergam of J-Lab, Sean Blanda of Technically Philly and Theresa Everline of Philadelphia City Paper. More than a dozen news organizations, indie start-ups and alternative press in Philadelphia have had a greater impact working on stories together on enterprise reporting projects through a J-Lab award.

As traditional competitive barriers crumble, Blanda said successful news partnerships need a shared mission that shepherds in all the organizations involved. Residents are better off because of the reporting, which was all achieved for a relatively small amount of money. Pergam said that place-based foundations are the growing backers of journalism and showing collaboration helps with getting funds.

Collaboration was also the message of the session “Use Your Community,” presented by Joy Mayer, an associate professor at the University of Missouri and the community outreach editor at Columbia Missourian. Journalism has always been social, she said, but journalists have to be in touch with all the ways people have to talk about the news.

“I think we [journalists] have forgotten how to be human,” she said.”People like to be heard [and] answered.” To engage news consumers, organizations have to determine who their audience is and try to deliver information directly to it, while inviting readers to share their knowledge and involve them in the story.

The Knight Foundation also shared the innovation of its Knight News Challenge winners. Aron Pilhofer of Document Cloud, Dave Cohn of Spot.us, Jeff Reifman of NewsCloud and David Kobia of Ushahidi demonstrated the platforms they’ve designed to bring news and information to communities in new ways. The tools are free, open and available for anyone to use. The presentation left some feeling empowered.

Addressing the resurrection of long-form journalism, Longform.org creator Aaron Lammer said he started site because he never had enough reading material for his commute. “There’s a lot of crap on the internet,” he said. “But not much over 2,000 words.”

He is planning a Longform app that will feature stories from local alt-weeklies. Evan Ratliff of Atavist showed how multimedia could be incorporated into and enhance longform works, impressing and inspiring others.

Tools for advertising were discussed by Angela Harris of Howard University’s School of Communication. Consumers love change, she said, and change is constantly being driven by technology. What hasn’t changed, however, is that consumers want to be informed and entertained.

Some of the trends advertisers can expect to deal with reflect that, such as, convergence, multi-tasking, social media, ad avoidance and mobile phones as the primary information source. Basically, the consumer is in control.

“Multitasking is a huge trend that we have to contend with,” she said. “We’re being conditioned to multitask — which is not necessarily a good thing.”

Ads are becoming more interactive and dynamic with the widespread use of QR code technology, the box of squiggly lines that allows users to connect to more information online. It can also be used to send information, such as discount coupons or contact information. Esquire recently starting using QR coding to produce a multimedia experience called augmented reality which allows a more interactive experience with their magazine and online. “Advertising is about building relationships,” she said. “Augmented reality is another way to do that.”

Another way to create more entry points in publications was explained during the Design Workshop presented by Stephen Komives of the Society for News Design, Denise Reagan of the Florida Times-Union and Steve Dorsey of the Detroit Media Partnership in three interactive sessions. Constructive criticism for individual papers was also given.

Joey Marburger of the Washington Post showed how stories can move beyond text and images with website stylesheets such as CSS3, HTML5, and web fonts. Above all, he suggested doing what works over what’s popular. “Not all trends are good,” he said. “Look at the 80s.”

Other highlights of the AAN Convention included:

  • A vote by AAN members to change the name of the organization to the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.
  • The acceptance of The American Independent News Network into the AAN
  • The election of several new board members; the announcement of the 2011 AltWeekly Awards winners with Miami New Times, Nashville Scene, and The Village Voice winning three awards each.
  • And a memorable reception party organized by AAN Convention Chair and CEO/Publisher of host paper, Gambit, Margo DuBos that featured gospel singers, burlesque performers and an authentic brass band.
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