When newspaper industry executives gather in New Orleans this evening for their annual three-day MediaXchange convention, the crowd will be thinner than at last year's edition in Washington, D.C.
"(That) just reflects industry conditions coming off a difficult end to 2016," said David Chavern, CEO and president of the News Media Alliance, which organizes the convention. For those who do make it, Chavern promises plenty of practical takeaways on how to rebuild revenues.
There will be some of the traditional panels and keynotes from a darkened stage, but the program also has several dozen pitches from vendors on assorted topics — a sort of 11-ring circus.
"I've worked hard to set it up so it's a high-energy experience," Chavern said. "It's all in one big room, so people won't be wandering the halls looking for the next session. I hope that they go away sad that they had to miss some good things."
Reading the program, I noticed that Google and Facebook each had a prime half-hour (and each signed on as a top-level platinum sponsor). "Google and Facebook aren't going anywhere," Chavern explained, "so we might as well have them there." Recently Chavern published a Washington Post op-ed highly critical of the two platform giants for their impact on publishers.
For keynoters, Chavern picked two non-media tech specialists, Mitch Joel, a digital marketing guru, and Jonathan Perelman, a young BuzzFeed alum now running digital for ICM Partners, the showbiz talent agency. The third is Paul Taylor, who literally wrote the book on the millennial generation.
Content is never the main act at these meetings, but there will be a session on covering the Trump administration and the fake news problem. The alliance recently announced a "Support Real News" public relations campaign seeking to build added audience for the entire industry as big national organizations like The New York Times and Washington Post have already done.
"There is a moment now, though I'm not sure it will be more than a moment," Chavern said, "where the broader public is paying close attention to what we have to offer. We need to be taking advantage of that."
The New Orleans venue also puts participants in one of the few remaining cities with an old-fashioned newspaper war in progress. The New Orleans Advocate moved to town from its home base of Baton Rouge five years ago to challenge the Times-Picayune as that paper reduced print frequency and hasn't gone away as same skeptics had expected.
The Advocate (also a platinum sponsor) will host the conference's opening reception at its new offices. NOLA.com and the Times Picayune are having a smaller by-invitation gathering Monday at its showplace offices on the top floors of a downtown skyscraper.
"We thought it a natural fit...," Advocate President and Publisher Dan Shea wrote in an email, "to support MediaXchange’s first visit to New Orleans since Katrina. The New Orleans Advocate has reached a level of growth and prominence so we wanted to be sure that the industry as a whole sees what we accomplished here."
This won't be the place for downbeat assessments of the industry's prospects, but I did close a short interview with Chavern asking a version of an old Poynter seminar question — what would wild success look like for his members over the next year?
He paused, then replied, "big jumps in reader revenue and getting a better deal from Google and Facebook."