2022 Mega-Conference wraps in Orlando

Event inspired a wellspring of ideas and initiatives related to company culture, technology, talent and funding for the news organization


If you’ve been in the business of news publishing for more than a few years, it’s not hard to recall the relatively recent era when austerity ruled. Belts always needed tightening. Finding ways to be leaner and cost-cutting were paramount. The number of journalists in newsrooms across the country was reduced down to fractions. Publishers played with print frequency. Local news outlets were consolidated or worse.

America’s Newspapers CEO Dean Ridings provided an introduction to the second-day conference sessions. (Photo by Gretchen A. Peck)

As with any bottom line-conscientious business, news organizations continue to look for ways to operate more efficiently while controlling costs. That hasn’t changed, per se. Yet, austerity seemed the furthest thing from the minds of the news media executives who gathered in Orlando for the 2022 Mega-Conference. What they shared, generally and collectively, was a desire to do things differently — to creatively find new audiences and new sources of funding; to tap video and audio in the interest of both storytelling and revenue; to leverage tech tools and data to meet, entice and keep new subscribers; and to change the very culture of their organizations, choosing aspiration over austerity and optimism over fear.

You can read more about Day 1 of the conference here.

Editor & Publisher’s own Mike Blinder led a spirited and practical panel on podcasting and vodcasting, encouraging everyone in the room to invest in the technology and talent to leverage audio and video in a way that meaningfully captivates news audiences, supports the editorial mission and brand, and generates new revenue to boot, with seemingly unlimited advertising and sponsorship potential.

Jim Normandin, regional vice president, Adams Publishing Group; Mark Cohen, regional president, Adams Publishing Group; Sarah Belleau, director, partner growth, Frequence; and Lindsay Dotterer, director, business development, AffinityX, spoke about the reach, appeal and effectiveness of video-based marketing. (Photo by Gretchen A. Peck)

Executives from Adams Publishing Group led a panel on video, exploring its virtues for storytelling and tapping into new sources of revenue through consultative selling and strategic partnerships — for example, placing branded digital displays in partner locations for distributing video content. However, the key to delivering on these opportunities is to make the process of selling video simple and accessible — and fun — for the sales team.

Aaron Kotarek, senior vice president, audience and operations at Oahu Publications, Inc., flew in from Hawaii to join Blinder’s panel and to host a later session of his own.  During the podcasting session, he told the story of how his company developed eight podcasts and grew that part of the business to now include live broadcasts. he reported that some of the shows are already celebrating their fourth seasons and immense popularity, generating between $80,000 to more than $100,000 per season.

Aaron Kotarek, senior vice president, audience and operations, Oahu Publications, Inc., hosted a session on what it means to become a non-traditional media company. He walked through the crowd and spoke candidly about the future of print, pay models and company culture. (Photo by Gretchen A. Peck)

Kotarek stepped down from the riser for his later session, “Becoming a Non-Traditional Media Company,” speaking more intimately with the attendees, challenging them to think differently about company culture and about print’s “long tail.”

He’s still bullish on print and noted that it makes money and for a certain percentage of subscribers, it’s their preference. “If you bail on print, you’re throwing the baby out with the bath water,” he said.

Kotarek challenged the deep discounts news publishers have implemented as a strategy to grow digital audience, in effect devaluing their digital content and creating a conversion chasm that may be difficult to span — for example, asking a subscriber who paid $1/month as an introductory rate to then pay $36/month. Instead, offer micropayments, he advised, and work with a vender to eliminate credit card processing fees. His company did that and saved $1.2 million.

Kotarek also encouraged his peers: “Be curious. Be uncommon.”

The afternoon of the conference’s second day kicked off with roundtable discussions about big topics, like news media advocacy, print and digital revenue, public notices, political advertising, and philanthropy.

Judi Terzotis, president and publisher of The Times-Picayune, The Advocate, The Acadiana Advocate and NOLA.com, began the conference’s penultimate session, “Gaming — Big Gamble or New Business Model?” by pumping up the crowd with a question: “Who wants to make some money?”

Vincent Santorelli, affiliate marketing manager, Caesars Sportsbook, spoke about his company’s partnership with BET.NOLA.com, an entirely new venture that capitalizes on legal online sports betting in Louisiana. (Photo by Gretchen A. Peck)

The previous afternoon, Terzotis’ team received the 2022 Mega-Innovation Award for their impressive three-month initiative to build an entirely new business founded on legal online gambling in Louisiana: BET.NOLA.com. Read more about their accomplishments here.

Robert Young, vice president, digital solutions, NOLA.com said that other digital news businesses in states where online gambling is now legal — or will be soon — can replicate their model. “I think it’s important to say, right up front, you can scale this, right? What we did is not the only way.” They partnered with Vegas-based Caesars Sportsbook on this initiative; Affiliate Marketing Manager Vincent Santorelli flew in from Vegas to join Terzotis and Young for the presentation.

Tom Shaw, vice president and chief product officer, Shaw Media (pictured), joined Alisha Owens, vice president, sales, The Advocate/NOLA.com, and Brandon Eyerly, publisher, Press Enterprise, for the final session at the 2022 Mega-Conference in Orlando. It was a lively and productive session that explored a range of topics, from remote work to employee recruitment and retention, and changing an organization’s culture to being more collaborative, innovative and supportive. (Photo by Gretchen A. Peck)

Alisha Owens, vice president, sales, The Advocate/NOLA.com; Brandon Eyerly, publisher, Press Enterprise, Inc., and Tom Shaw, vice president and chief product officer, Shaw Media, took the stage for the Mega-Conference’s final session, “Where Do We Go from Here?” They shared their own experiences navigating the pandemic and remote work. They asked audience members to share their thoughts on returning to offices, productivity, employee morale and benefits, and how to attract and retain talented people. Ideas and suggestions came like a wellspring from the attendees, who offered ideas like helping employees with tuition reimbursement to ease some of their financial burden right now; providing mental health services; creating internship programs that not only benefit both parties in the present, but create a talent pipeline into the organization.

One member of the audience suggested that his peers consider following his company’s lead in offering unlimited paid time off to employees. It does away with what now feels like an antiquated practice of accounting for personal, sick or vacation days.  “Are you afraid of it? Because there’s nothing to be afraid of. Employees will love it and respect you,” he assured them. “The fear is that you’re going to have an empty building, but the reality is the opposite.”

It may surprise some that a ballroom full of publishing executives might be so keenly tuned in to their employees’ challenges, their needs for professional development, and the recruitment and retention of talented people, but that was the spirit of the Mega-Conference this year: Creating a culture of respect, support, collaboration and bold initiative.

Gretchen A. Peck is a contributing editor to Editor & Publisher. She’s reported for E&P since 2010 and welcomes comments at gretchenapeck@gmail.com.


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