Florida Media Conference Delivers Success Strategies

Florida Media Conference Delivers Success Strategies

Michael Kane, senior vice president, local media optimization at Gannett Media, encouraged members of the media to embrace innovation, technology, and collaboration during the opening session of the 2023 Florida Media Conference at the Westin Sarasota in Sarasota. He urged journalists to “keep fighting” for truth and the First Amendment. “We cannot evangelize the First Amendment enough,” Kane said. “If not us, who?”

The two-day conference featured more than 20 sessions running the gamut of today’s publishing and media issues — from the impact of artificial intelligence (AI), to the safety and mental health of journalists, to driving revenue through award-winning content. The conference was co-presented by the Florida Magazine Association, Florida Newspaper and Marketing Executives, Florida Press Association, and the Florida Society of News Editors.

Inclusive Coverage

Kane’s speech was followed by a panel discussion on inclusivity in the media, moderated by leadership trainer and recruitment consultant Julian Placino. Panelists Roger Brown, Andrea Benitez, Christiana Lilly, and John Sotomayor discussed the importance of diversity in the newsroom and in reporting, pointing out that the media should be talking about topics of interest to underrepresented communities all year round. “Don’t only talk to the gay baker when it’s Pride month,” said Lilly, a freelance journalist.

To build trust, publications must have more than transactional relationships with underrepresented community members, said Brown, opinion editor at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. He noted that he sometimes invites individuals from those communities to coffee to ask their opinion. “It’s all about networking — getting to know as many people as possible,” added Sotomayor, publisher and editor in chief of Embrace magazine.

When it comes to staff diversity, the panelists suggested going outside normal channels to find candidates. Some ideas included reaching out to chambers of commerce, lesser-known colleges, and through social media. “Making sure we have a diverse team from the top-down is really important,” said Benitez, publisher of Hola Central Florida Magazine.

Artificially Intelligent Sales

What if you could leverage ChatGPT to land a client in an afternoon? That was the premise of the Thursday session on “Embracing the Future With AI to Drive Ad Sales.”

Kevin Berrier, marketing director for MDDC Press Association described how he used the AI application to create a marketing proposal to help a large trucking company recruit new drivers. “AI can be a powerful tool if you know how to use it the right way,” he said.

Berrier said he used ChatGPT as a “think partner” to quickly generate ideas and draft copy for ads that would run on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Moreover, the application analyzed the company’s hires to target ads to candidates by job title, behaviors, and educational institutions. ChatGPT also helped him identify market trends, competitor activities, and consumer preferences that informed decisions and sales approaches. “It was able to connect the dots faster,” Berrier noted.

Membership Has Its Benefits

Being an FMA member has many benefits, said Jamie Rich, editor in chief of Flamingo Magazine during Thursday’s “The Power of Connection” session. Among the most visible perks are online coffee chats highlighting important magazine publishing topics and a member-only Facebook forum where professionals can share ideas, ask questions, and seek assistance from their peers. Additionally, the FMA’s quarterly newsletter introduces new members as well as highlights the latest programs and publishing trends, said Internal Auditor Editor in Chief Anne Millage.

Perhaps the most rewarding benefit is winning a Charlie Award in the annual competition for publishing excellence. Winning a Charlie can ratify a magazine staff’s hard work and prove it is among the best Florida-based publications, said Karla Monterossa-Yancey, editor in chief for ACAMS. An award also shows readers they are “connected with an award-winning magazine,” she said.

Promoting Sales

“Best of” content and reader contests can be powerful sales drivers, said Dave Woods, regional digital sales manager with APG Florida during his Thursday session on “Best Practices for ‘Best Of’ Success.” At a time when local advertising has been flat, spending on promotions and marketing has grown, he noted. Promotions can include enter-to-win promotions such as sweepstakes and photo contests, quizzes, best of reader polls, and reader voting such as brackets of favorite places or businesses.

What these all have in common is adding names, email addresses, and other information to the publisher’s database and leads for sponsors. Promotions also are a great sponsorship vehicle because publishers can “sell it once and reap the rewards for 12 months,” Woods explained. Additionally, contests are an easy way to feed reader engagement.

Reporting and Recruiting With AI

In the Friday session, “Everything You Need to Know About AI & ChatGPT,” moderator Kevin Berrier and panelists Alex Mahadevan and Julian Placino discussed the benefits and drawbacks of using ChatGPT in journalism and recruiting. Although AI can be a useful tool for journalists, “misinformation is a huge limitation,” said Mahadevan, director of MediaWise at the Poynter Institute. “If you ask it to give you a list of experts, it might give you fake experts. It will generate fake quotes.”

Inherent bias is another concern. However, Mahadevan has had success in giving ChatGPT more low-risk requests, such as generating SEO headlines, testing headlines, generating Freedom of Information Act requests, and developing interview questions. While Mahadevan doesn’t think AI will replace journalists, media outlets should become familiar now with its benefits and limitations.

Recruiters like Placino can use the tool to generate lists of potential candidates or develop email campaigns to recruit candidates. “Play with the tool and don’t be afraid to ask it questions,” Placino suggested.

Impactful Journalism

Local newspaper editors described stories that had a huge impact in their community during the Friday session, “Journalism With Impact,” moderated by Dana Banker, senior managing editor for the Miami Herald.

Larry Reisman, community editor for the Treasure Coast Newspapers, described his article about the Citrus Park Village apartment complex in Vero Beach, where 70 renters were being evicted because the community sits on airport property. Reisman said it was important to inform readers about what the renters were going through and potentially get help to stop the evictions.

Brittany Wallman, investigations editor for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, told the story of Sophie Reeder, a 15-year-old girl who went missing in 2017 after leaving her father’s home. Police initially assumed Reeder was a runaway rather than missing. However, when Wallman reached out to Reeder’s aunt Ivy, she learned there was more to the story. The two of them made it their mission to get the word out as much as possible through four articles and six podcasts. Participating in the session via Zoom, Ivy said the impact of Wallman’s article made her feel like “someone didn’t just die in vain.” Reeder is still considered missing.

Staying Safe

Reporters and editors discussed how “journalists are under attack” amid rising political and social tensions in Florida, during a Friday session on “Safety and Mental Health Best Practice for Our Journalists.” With reporters now often encountering hostile situations, “How can journalists practice safety?” asked moderator Mary Kelli Palka, president of MK Palka Communication.

Brian Reis, engagement editor at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, said the pandemic changed public attitudes toward reporters. He noted that people are not as welcoming anymore, which takes a toll on journalists’ mental health because they feel they are not understood. Whereas editors once encouraged reporters to engage with readers, “Nowadays, disengagement is a good thing to do,” Reis said.

Katie Sanders, managing editor of Politifact, explained that for journalists everywhere, “harassment has caused tension” between journalists and the public. Sanders suggested that organizations provide more training on dealing with harassment in this post COVID-19 era.

Finch Walker, education reporter at Florida Today described the volatile situations they have encountered while covering recent book ban initiatives by groups such as Moms for Liberty. Walker gave helpful tips on how reporters can stay safe by always being aware, never attending potentially dangerous events alone, and using the mental health resources their publications provide for journalists.

Sales Secrets

What makes a successful salesperson? Start with placing ads next to trusted content that grants advertisers status and credibility, said Janis Kern, advertising sales director at Flamingo Magazine during the Friday session, “Learn the Secrets of Successful Sales People!”

Kern discussed the lessons from her sales career, starting with the value of print magazines. “Physical, tangible magazines drive the biggest return on advertising spend of all media types,” she noted. Kern’s best advice: Be proactive by making sales calls early in the day, which is the best time to reach a CEO. Also, sell advertisers on the benefits of advertising, not the features.

Such tips are even more important in a world in which customers don’t need salespeople, said co-presenter Jason Cutter, CEO of Cutter Consulting Group. Instead, customers want to know that salespeople care about their needs. “They don’t like being sold to, but they do want help,” he said.

A Win-win Situation

In the Friday session, “How Award-winning Content Can Drive Revenue,” moderator Jamie Mark of Em Agency and a panel of award-winning Florida magazine leaders discussed how to leverage those Charlies. Winning awards can boost a magazine’s team morale, reputation, and promotional opportunities, panelists said. “Definitely promote, promote, promote,” Jon Sotomayor said.

Sotomayor said Embrace magazine includes branding on its award wins at conferences and runs an ad campaign around its Charlie Awards. Being known as an award-winning magazine has a “halo effect” with advertisers, and winning in an advertorial or podcast category can show advertisers that the magazine has expertise in those areas, he explained.

Laura Walker, head of media and sales at NAVC Magazine, similarly leverages the Charlie Awards. “It makes our community feel like we are experts in our field,” she pointed out. Beyond the promotional opportunities, winning just feels good, panelists said. “It’s extremely meaningful to our staff — they get really excited about it,” said Cooper Levey-Baker, editor of Sarasota Magazine. “It’s a mark that we have been recognized by our peers.”

Digital-first Design

Sarasota Magazine’s two-year plan to become platform agnostic suddenly became a two-week plan to provide digital news during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Creative Director Gigi Ortwein in a Friday session that closed the conference. During a session on “Best New Design Trends,” Ortwein described how that rapid-fire experience has shaped the magazine’s current digital-first strategy that encompasses the web, social media, video, animation, and the print magazine.

Ortwein discussed how the magazine carried out the transition with a tiny editorial and design staff and the challenges the team encountered along the way. Despite switching from monthly to bimonthly, the magazine generates a wealth of new content in the months in between issues, she noted. Central to the new strategy are creative and prolific social media posts featuring outstanding photos and videos.