Thoughts on the Tucson Convention

The first thing everyone wants to know: How many people attended? According to our broadest calculation — which includes members, non-members, speakers and representatives of the host paper — we ended up at around 250, which is the lowest it’s been at least since I joined the association in 1995. Given the location (Tucson is not an easy city to get to) and the economy, 250 is about where we expected to be. And since we’ve seen this coming for a while, we were able to shift gears and prevent the association from losing a bunch of money. In fact, we may even generate a slight surplus. (And we couldn’t have done it without our sponsors — DesertNet/Foundation, Google and Smub.)

But dozens of members told me that despite the feeble attendance it was one of the best AAN conventions they’ve ever attended. I generally disregard the feedback I receive during and immediately following a convention, for a couple of reasons: Aside from the host publisher, I’m the last person anyone is going to talk convention smack with. And I know that in the post-convention survey AAN members generally don’t hesitate to criticize things they didn’t like. So I don’t worry too much about what people tell me on-site because ultimately we’ll get a pretty granular view when the survey is complete.

Nevertheless, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that when the surveys are all counted, Tucson will rate near the top of the list due to a congruence of mood and programming. More so than usual, it felt like AAN members came to this convention with open minds and a willingness to learn. They were looking for anything that would help to sustain their business and help their companies maintain relevance in the face of dramatic shifts in how people consume media. The programming, which focused primarily on “new” — new media, new revenue streams, new editorial and business processes — was organized especially for them.

You could see the impact of the attendees’ attitudes every time you walked through the exhibit area. People were actually talking to the exhibitors! Clearly, the fact that we positioned the exhibits in the corridor leading to all of the programming had an impact, but I think the fact that people had open minds and were searching for new ways to do business was the primary driver.

For me, the key moment of the convention came during the Social Media session on Friday. The panel was talking about writers who face the prospect of additional new-media responsibilities with a “Sorry, I wasn’t hired to do that” response. Dan Savage and Bill Jensen both agreed that there is no place for those folks in their organizations and that they needed to be fired, immediately. Message: It’s a new world out there and none of us are immune.