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CREATIVE BREW
MEDIA SUMMIT OFFERS TASTE OF DIVERSE COMMUNICATIONS FIELD
Gene Hemphill grew up on an Illinois farm and today markets tractors. Bill Nash is a Californian who promotes lettuce and tomatoes. Hemphill works for one of the global farm equipment giants and Nash for the largest vegetable seed company in the world.

Both quickly say attending the Ag Publications Summit was probably the best thing they did last year.

They represent the mix of professional roles and personalities that ferment at the annual agricultural communications bash, giving it complexity and punch.

A FRESH BATCH OF IDEAS

The decision to rename the Ag Publications Summit -- now approaching its seventh year -- as the Ag Media Summit (AMS) was made by a steering committee representing the American Agricultural Editors' Association, the Livestock Publications Council and the American Business Media, the groups who blended together to form the first joint communications clinic in August 1998.

"We changed the name because so many of us are doing other things besides magazines," says Betsy Freese, AMS steering committee chairman and a Successful Farming livestock editor also charged with a new farm lifestyle magazine, Living the Country Life. "We've got Web sites and I'm involved in video production. So we are trying to broaden our whole organization and the scope of our meeting."

In addition to adding a new logo -- designed by Dale Smith of Bowling Green, Ohio -- the event also launched www.agmediasummit.com, offering online registration.

The change doesn't seem to be hindering participation. With 60 booths signed up for the InfoExpo trade show, AAEA Executive Director Den Gardner says it will be a record-setting meeting in terms of sponsorships and exhibitors. The last time AAEA's trade show reached similar participation levels dates back to the mid-1950s.

DISTILLING THE BENEFITS

A big intent of pooling resources was to draw high-profile speakers and enhance the highly touted professional improvement aspect.

Charlie Hale, communications group lead for Bayer CropScience, recalls the 1970s as the glory days of AAEA and its member publications. Now AMS is creating similar vitality.

"I think this conference has pumped new life into all of the organizations," he says. "There's a new level of excitement and an opportunity for all of us to see each other and get to know each other better in a relaxed environment.

"Also, I think there's a greater appreciation for one another that's been gained by having these groups together," Hale adds.

Harlen Persinger, a public relations writer and photographer for Bader Rutter & Associates before setting up his own shop a year and a half ago, believes the quality and content of seminars puts a stamp on the field. "There have been a lot of seminars on digital photography. I haven't gone digital, but I've picked up a lot of information," he says. "So many organizations have made that shift, and I think one of the influences has been the speakers at this meeting."

Amy Keith McDonald of Dublin, Texas, runs her own marketing communications agency and sometimes brings along clients to the meeting. "They understand they are not going there to get specific stories placed but to build relationships," she says. "They've really had a good return on their investment of time and money."

She adds, "In my opinion, one of the best ways to attract more marketers is to provide professional development opportunities. Even though we might not be writing for a magazine, we are still writing and shooting photos. I want to know what's good, and I want to know what editorial staffs are looking for in a partner."

MAINTAINING A STOUT TRADITION

Pressure to cut costs is a challenge that runs the industry gamut. Fred Myers, a long-time writer and photographer from Florence, Ala., who was instrumental in launching AAEA's first communications clinic in 1968, questions the impact of consolidation on the quality and creativity of practitioners. Early on he feared opening the clinic to multiple organizations would dilute the focus on journalism skills and compromise its unique culture.

Though he still has reservations, he also recognizes that the summit reflects underlying trends. "The realist in me underscores that there has been a sweeping change in this industry in the last five years," Myers says. "Could AAEA have continued to exist as a separate entity given the changes in the industry? That, I don't know."

LPC Executive Director Diane Johnson was on the LPC board when the joint communications clinic was formed and is grateful the event has had such a smooth transition.

"LPC is a very close knit group, and the convention has always been a big part of our association," she says. "The concern by both groups was that they might lose their identity. I feel personally we as a committee have done a good job of letting people keep their identities but at the same time not keeping lines drawn."

Expanding summit content also jives with the modern work environment, she points out. "There are some people that think there's a magician out there who waves a magic wand to pay the bills, but I believe everyone needs to know every aspect of a publication," Johnson adds. "I think by having a meeting like this people are learning more about every part of it. More of us are becoming experts at multi-tasking."

CREATIVE BLEND

Broadening and diversifying the agenda helps stir the creative juices. In recent years programs have covered a wider range of workplace issues such as understanding distinctive personality types and generational differences, alleviating stress, managing time and getting better organized, while hosting panels on readership preferences and agricultural demographics.

The brew is still bubbling.

"I wouldn't be surprised if at some point we have one large agricultural media kind of meeting that involves the radio people, the TV producers, university ag communicators and all the other communications-related organizations," says Freese. "Somehow it would be nice to maintain within that meeting these original core groups. There's something to be said for smaller meetings as well. But we are all in the communications business. And agriculture itself is changing." AM

Candace Krebs is a freelance writer based in Enid, Okla.


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