By Paige Cornwell
The Working Press
When planning for this year’s convention, Excellence in Journalism 2012 officials were hoping to draw more than 1,300 – beating out last year’s gathering in New Orleans.
The 1,000 attendees at the Harbor Beach Marriott Resort & Spa in Fort Lauderdale didn’t quite top last year’s attendance, but happy organizers say they are not bemoaning the lower-than-hoped-for turnout.
“We still got the present, and now everyone is going to enjoy the party,” said Joe Skeel, Society of Professional Journalists’ executive director.
Several factors may have affected attendance numbers this year, officials say.
Some may have used their travel budget to attend the Democratic and Republican conventions – in Charlotte, N.C. and Tampa, Fla., respectively.
UNITY, the convention that happens every four years, took place in Las Vegas in August, and some journalists may have chosen to go only there.
Two other journalism events coincided with EIJ’s date, like the Online News Association conference in San Francisco and the Associated Press Media Editors conference in Nashville.
The groups do try to share the dates with other organizations so they don’t overlap, but in some cases conference dates are decided after others have already signed contracts with hotels, Skeel said.
“Unfortunately, there’s not a universal journalism calendar,” said Noukla Ruble, Radio Television Digital News Association Meeting and Events Manager.
Location also affects attendance. Florida is on the East Coast so it can be pricey for journalists – especially those coming from the West Coast – paying out of pocket for plane tickets, hotel reservations and convention registration.
The more centrally located New Orleans was probably a more popular spot, Skeel said.
“You have to plan far in advance,” said Susanne Pagano, a staff correspondent for Bloomberg BNA who lives in Houston and has attended four conventions.
Convention officials also planned far in advance, setting the budget based on last year’s attendance, then adjusting along the way when it became clear there wouldn’t be as many journalists in Fort Lauderdale as there were in New Orleans. SPJ still will make money, Skeel said, but not as much as initially planned.
“We’ll shoot for a happy medium next year,” Skeel said. “I expect we will be more conservative with our numbers.”
It’s difficult to gauge what the average number should be because this is only the second year of the SPJ and Radio Television Digital News Association partnership.
Like Pagano, about 30 percent of the attendants have been to a convention before, which speaks the culture of member loyalty of SPJ and RTDNA, Skeel said.
No matter the numbers, the convention attendants are passionate, said Rick Bragg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and is now a University of Alabama writing professor.
“I believe in the craft, and talking about the craft is not work,” Bragg said. “It’s easy to talk about the craft to people who want to be here, who feel something about it.”