UCF Shows SPJ How To Host a Regional Conference

ORLANDO– A couple of years ago there was some discussion at the Society of Professional Journalists about whether to continue the Spring regional gatherings.  Fortunately, those naysayers who sought to end the practice of hosting the 2-day events focused almost exclusively on professional training did not get their way.

In what traditionally has been known as Region 3 (a number that is insignificant to those outside of the organization), the Southeastern Region, which includes South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Alabama, has gathered in the Sunshine State THREE of the last four years.

While I certainly enjoyed the 2007 conference at University of Florida in Gainesville and the 2009 “unconference” in Hollywood, Fla.,  the University of Central Florida did some different things that bear a closer look NATIONALLY as SPJ looks to the future of the regional conferences.

Rick Brunson, SPJ adviser poses with SPJ President Robyn Sidersky and Melissa Patterson, a UCF graduate and online producer at PalmBeachPost.com

In fact, UCF Professor Rick Brunson and Chapter President Robyn Sidersky assembled a team of “blue shirts” (name for the SPJ shirts that the team of students wore to help us attendees easily spot them) to put on a student-oriented, forward-looking conference that gave attendees take-home tips that hopefully will translate into them being active members of SPJ.

The more than 120 registrants who journeyed here to the UCF campus were treated to a blue-ribbon panel of recent journalism graduates who were a lot more upbeat about their future in the field than many we hear speaking at professional journalism gatherings.

UCF Journalism Professor Lance Speere moderates a session Friday featuring recent UCF graduates who are working in journalism.

Starting out on Friday afternoon with a “reality-check” from top editors at two Florida news organization, this event did more to uplift, encourage and empower those who participated than most journalism workshops to which we invite those in the field.

Usually the highlight of this conference is the Mark of Excellence student award presentations.  This year, that had a different feel because it took place at an evening banquet rather than a luncheon.   I know the food was probably more expensive than a lunch menu.  But, the Holiday Inn-UCF had great food.  (Although the chicken they served for the luncheon in Hollywood, Fla. last year was good too)

While Mark of Excellence was big, the talk of social media was bigger.   The hands-on training sessions on Saturday were a hit with my students from the University of Alabama.

At the same time, there were some industry panels that gave attendees more than just practical tips for specifics technologies or software.  Our SPJ President-Elect Hagit Limor made the trek from Cincinnati to not only give a keynote address on Friday night, but share her insights on one of those industry panels.

It’s a combination of good, timely industry panels AND professional training with hands-on instruction that made the UCF-sponsored event a success.

If I count a brief appearance at an SPJ Regional more than 10 years ago in Birmingham, this was my sixth SPJ Regional.   It ranks among the best, most memorable for me.

SPJ Regional Directors, who are charged with organizing these events around the country, need to look at what Brunson and Sidersky did here in Orlando.   From the corporate sponsorships to the return of T-shirts to an SPJ Conference (We used to have those at national convention) to the plethora of cookies/snack breaks and networking opportunities built into the schedule,  this is definitely the WAY TO DO IT!