Wrapping Up the 31st Annual AAN Convention

A total of 400 people descended on the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown two weeks ago for the 2008 AAN Convention. The three-day event featured the usual mix of presentations and panels, food and booze, and business talk and gossip between alt-weekly staffers and industry types from across North America. AAN committees and staff mostly took care of the first item, while host paper Philadelphia City Paper had the second one covered, and attendees proved themselves more than capable of handling the third on their own.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh spoke to a rapt audience at Friday’s sold-out First Amendment Lunch. The New Yorker staff writer talked about the opportunities for alt-weekly reportage in light of the mainstream media’s continuing failures in covering critical matters such as the Iraq War, the presidential elections, and possible military action against Iran. Many of the AAN editors who wrote about Hersh’s speech once they got back home were thoroughly impressed — and also depressed — by his enunciation of the intractable problems that the Bush Administration will leave for its successors. “Hersh left a lump in my throat,” said one respondent in the post-convention survey.

The lunch hour was measurably lighter the following day as OC Weekly staff writer Gustavo Arellano emceed the annual AltWeekly Awards Lunch. The ¡Ask a Mexican! columnist instructed this year’s winners to shout out their favorite Spanish words after he announced their award. Hilarity and plenty of Spanish-language profanity ensued. “Gustavo rocks,” exclaimed one respondent in the post-convention survey.

LA Weekly was the big winner for the second straight year, with three first-place awards and eight awards in total. The Texas Observer also won three first-place awards this year, and Washington City Paper and the Santa Fe Reporter each won seven awards in total. In the realm of individual accomplishments, the Weekly‘s Nikki Finke and current Baltimore City Paper writer Jeffrey Anderson led the pack, with Finke taking home two first-place awards — a rare AltWeekly Awards feat — and Anderson winning three awards, including a first in Investigative Reporting.

Of course, AAN conventions don’t end when the daytime sessions are complete. To many, that’s when the confab starts to really get rolling. And this year, host paper Philadelphia City Paper made sure attendees had plenty to do when the sun went down.

Thursday night’s opening party at 30th Street Station was a big hit, with plenty of the attendees impressed by the historic venue — not to mention the primo nosh, provided by some of Philly’s best restaurants. “Really nice spread,” said one post-convention survey response. Friday night’s event wasn’t a typical AAN party — City Paper instead trolleyed folks up to Northern Liberties, a hipster ‘hood, to check out local businesses, galleries, restaurants and bars, many of which were offering specials to the badged masses. On Saturday night, a fife and drum corps led AAN-ers to the National Constitution Center for the closing night party. Once there, attendees were regaled by a couple of Pennsylvania political powerhouses from different centuries: Gov. Ed Rendell and Ben Franklin.

And, as always, there were afterparties, both official and unofficial, with the Alternative Weekly Network and Philadelphia Weekly hosting Thursday night shindigs. On Saturday, after the closing party, many attendees took advantage of free passes to the Roots Family Picnic, where they were able to catch the outdoor concert’s Philly-based namesakes, the Roots, as well as Gnarls Barkley. Others took a longer bus ride and doubled down in Atlantic City. As far as we know, there were no AAN-ers who had to stay and wash dishes to work off gambling debts.

There were also pre-parties, if you will, which many took advantage of. Convention sponsor GPTMC put together popular morning programs that took folks on a private tour of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, as well as to South Street’s Magic Gardens, an elaborate environment made up of mirrors and ceramic mosaics that cover interior and exterior walls. “The exposure to Philadelphia’s historical sites was really inspirational,” responded one attendee on the post-convention survey, while another simply said, “The early morning Liberty Bell tour rocked.”

AAN members also got down to business at this year’s Convention. At the association’s annual meeting, the membership accepted four new member papers: City Pulse (Lansing, Mich.), Fast Forward (Calgary, Alberta), Hawaii Island Journal (Hilo, Hawaii) and Las Vegas CityLife. (The Hawaii Island Journal ceased publication a week after the June 7 meeting.) In addition, the membership of five AAN papers whose ownership had changed in the past nine to 24 months was reaffirmed. Boston’s Weekly Dig, Cityview (Des Moines, Iowa), East Bay Express (Emeryville, Calif.), Metro Pulse (Knoxville, Tenn.), and The Other Paper (Columbus, Ohio) all remain AAN members.

The membership also voted on 10 seats on the board of directors, electing a new Display Advertising Chair, Blair Barna of Charleston City Paper; and Convention Chair, Tom Lee of Tucson Weekly; and re-electing eight incumbents to their current positions: Sioux Watson as Secretary; Fran Zankowski as Treasurer; Donna Ladd as Diversity Chair; Jim Rizzi as Marketing Chair; Erin Sullivan as Membership Chair; Ellen Meany as Design and Production Chair; and Jody Colley and Jeff Lawrence as At-Large members. The prevalence of unopposed candidates prompted a question about the process from the Memphis Flyer‘s Molly Zanone, who asked what the Board and AAN did to actively recruit new members to Board seats. This touched off a lengthy discussion that touched on ideas like term limits for Board members, but ended up focusing on the ways for members to get involved in the association.

Another item on the agenda at the annual meeting was the budget for Fiscal Year 2009, which begins on Oct. 1, 2008. In his report to the membership, Zankowski explained that the budget proposal for FY09, which projected a modest loss of $19,926, was based on optimistic assumptions about AAN CAN sales. Zankowski noted that revenue from the classified network had declined precipitously in April and May, and that the budget had been approved with the understanding that the Board will be forced to make cuts when it meets in September if the decline in AAN CAN sales persists. In the meantime, AAN will set up a listserv for members to discuss revenue ideas or potential service cuts.

Much like any other year, the nuts and bolts of this year’s Convention was the programming. For editors and reporters, the highlights included the New York Times‘ David Carr on multimedia and open discussions led by The Village Voice‘s Tony Ortega and Washington City Paper‘s Erik Wemple. In the advertising and business tracks, Dianne Ciotta’s boot camp was a hit, as was Stephen Pia’s session on “Managing Beyond the Numbers” (“Stephen Pia made the whole trip worth it,” said one survey respondent). Presentations by Fran Zankowski and Centro’s Katie Risch were also well-received. Highlights from the Design & Production track included Robert Newman’s presentation on the nature of alt-weekly design, Joe MacLeod’s second-annual Show Us Your Stuff! presentation, and Laura Dell’s session on managing creatives.

For the second year in a row, AAN produced a Convention community blog, managed by staffers Heather Kuldell and Jon Whiten, which featured everything from handy-dandy updates to pointers gleaned from sessions to Flickr slideshows from the parties. Speaking of Flickr, AAN has once again gathered photos on its Flickr page. (If you have photos, send them to Philly (at) AAN.org to be included.) The blog attracted more than 650 unique visitors over the five-day period of June 2-7, which again shows us that people who weren’t able to make the trip to Philly were checking in.

AAN also produced a daily newsletter for each of the three days of the Convention. You can download the PDFs here: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

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