By JAY LETTO
The Miami extravaganza was easily SEJ’s most ambitious annual conference ever. The star-studded Wednesday evening opening reception set the stage for a whirlwind of activity and news-making field trips and presentations that kept members running and writing till they collapsed Sunday morning at the peaceful Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
Hosted by the University of Miami at the InterContinental Hotel, SEJ’s 21st Annual Conference  set records and had many firsts, including:
- First time the whole Cousteau clan appeared on stage together.
- First scuba dive and first swamp walk.
- Most speakers, most panels, most tours ever.
- A registration record with 938, just nipping the former record of 937 at Stanford in 2007.
Miami also was the most diverse, with attendees from all continents and at least 25 countries. This was a reflection of SEJ’s re-energized Diversity Task Force  and our partnerships with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Poder Magazine and the Americas Business Council Foundation, the Transatlantic Media Network of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The first public gathering of the Cousteau family at the conference; left to right, Alexandra, Céline, Fabien, Jean-Michel and Philippe Cousteau. Photo © Jenny Abreu.
In addition to the whole Cousteau family, Wednesday’s opening reception included Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, University of Miami President Donna Shalala, a live link with a very moving scientist from Antarctica that left nary a dry eye in the house, and, of course, Carl Hiaasen, whose vivid descriptions of various politicians falling prey to invasive Burmese pythons in the Everglades, and excited captive dolphins in pools, among other sordid humor, had 500 attendees pounding the tables.
The most valuable aspect of the SEJ conference, according to the evaluation forms, was the same as every year — the networking opportunities. But, this year had a twist: A huge part of the networking value involved actually getting story assignments and other work, as opposed to just ideas, sources, and camaraderie.
Other highlights from the evaluations: Networking and work opportunities were cited over and over as the main value of the conference. Here are a couple examples of typical responses: “I met three editors who are likely to give me a freelance writing assignment. I got a half dozen good ideas for stories to pitch to editors.” “I made numerous contacts for future interviews plus received several unexpected story leads.”
Several also cited opportunities to interview top sources, like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Jane Lubchenco, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis and others.
A new member attending his first conference wrote: “I was invigorated by new story ideas, great article contacts, and all kinds of info I learned in sessions. I absolutely loved this conference. I knew I'd like it, but it far exceeded my expectations. LOVED IT!!!!”
Other similar responses: “On at least two occasions editors approached me with opportunities for ongoing freelancing, rather than the other way around. These instances happened spontaneously after conversation or after I had asked questions during panel discussions and tours, and they would only happen with my presence and participation in the conference.”
“I got a contract for a story (although that was in the works prior to the conference). I had a promising initial talk with a book editor. I was asked by an editor to pitch a story. I had a good talk with someone from a high profile outlet who expressed interest in a partnership with my entrepreneurial journalism project.”
“I gave my editor a list of five stories (including an exclusive) I got from SEJ. It was wonderful.”
Eighty-six percent of survey respondents cited “new contacts and networking opportunities” as the highest value of the conference; 64 percent cited “deeper understanding of the issues.”
Both Wednesday workshops garnered great praise. Something similar is planned already for next year in Lubbock.  The opening reception garnered more praise than any past opening nights. Of the 90 who answered the question, 81 percent rated it “excellent”or “very good,” and no one rated it below “okay.”
While Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Cousteaus had mixed reviews, everyone loved Carl Hiaasen and the live link to Antarctica. Typical responses were: “It went on a bit long, but it was terrific.” “A top-notch group of people that will be hard to top at future conferences.” “Fabulous line-up! Almost too much. Carl Hiaasen was stellar, a high point of the entire conference. Skypecast from Palmer Station was also good; Salazar interesting but nothing unexpected there; Cousteaus interesting. Hiaasen definitely the best, and that's saying a lot given the all-star line-up.”
SEJ’s signature tours were extremely popular. Eighty percent of respondents rated six Thursday tours “Excellent” with the rest rating it at “Very good.” Perhaps most tellingly, only one of 97 respondents rated the tours below “Okay.” Here’s a typical response: “This tour offered everything you could ask for — newsmakers, a great outdoors experience, knowledgeable tour guides, wonderful food, beautiful weather and, as a bonus, a huge argument on the bus ride back to the hotel (which I quoted in my story on the trip).”
The mini-tours all received generally good ratings and the post-conference tour to The Keys received all “Excellent” scores.
Reviews of the plenaries were mixed, although the Saturday lunch plenary on climate change and extreme weather had a whopping 91 percent “Excellent” or “Very good” rating.
A close read of members’ specific comments reveals their diverse opinions about session formats and specific speakers and topics. Commonly, one evaluation expresses over-the-top praise for a speaker, while the next totally pans that same speaker. This has been the norm throughout the years, and SEJ conference planners generally try to provide something for everybody, and recognize that you can’t please everybody all the time. For example, one respondent wrote: “Sylvia Earle was a major disappointment because she gave a canned presentation suitable for any general audience and didn't leave time for questions.” But another stated: “She's brilliant and so articulate!”
The most well-attended concurrent sessions included: Freelance Pitch Slam; BP Spill and Future of Offshore Drilling; Pollution Politics and Environmental Budgets; Criminal Enforcement of Environmental Laws; and Data Tools You Need Now.
Concurrent sessions that gained the most consistent praise include: Climate Change as a Cultural Issue; Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples; Diseases and Chemicals; Florida’s Iconic Critters; Coral Reefs and Ocean Acidification; and Media Critics Dissect Science and Environmental Journalism.
The beat dinners and network lunches remain popular and allow organizers to include many more member ideas and specific topics and speakers, i.e., a smorgasbord of options, as opposed to a keynoter that all must listen to whether they are interested or not.
Attendees also loved the Sunday morning program at Fairchild Garden, which proved to be a great place to wind down following the Saturday evening chaos.
As with past conferences, though, there were some complaints. The venue was expensive, and SEJ tried mightily to make it as affordable as possible for our members. But some things proved out of our hands, and the InterContinental Hotel changed many things on us, leading to considerably more expense than expected for both SEJ and our members.
And, of course, the Saturday night dinner, awards program and eco-fashion show, well, had some problems.
We bused attendees to South Beach for a one-of-a-kind sustainable seafood dinner, organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, at Eden restaurant, and then headed over to the hip Setai hotel for our awards program and an eco-fashion show. While SEJ organizers pride ourselves on fixing problems as they occur, the problems at Eden, and particularly Setai, proved to be not fixable.
We didn’t have the Sustainable Seafood dinner in the evaluation form, but many respondents cited it as a problem. “Most definitely never, ever would have …ate so little for a $35 dinner before,” one wrote. Many others complained about the small size of the servings and the lack of adequate vegetarian fare, as well as the restaurant being too crowded.
As for the awards program and eco-fashion show, these were common responses: “Awful. Embarrassing. We owe a big apology to our winners.” “What were y’all thinking?”
Okay, deserved. SEJ has apologized publicly and privately to the award winners, and I want to underscore here how deflated the entire conference team felt by letting down our winners and the entire membership. Please accept our sincere apologies and know we tried our best to make this work.
There was one great thing about the awards program this year (other than the impromptu runway strutting by several members) — that is, it garnered way more response in the evaluation forms than ever before!
Really, it was painful reading those responses, but not as painful as actually trying to make things work in the moment when we learned of numerous promises reneged, and tried, perhaps all-too desperately, to make the best of things.
What all went wrong at Setai would take too long to explain here. Suffice to say from your finally dried out conference director, it was a true “when in Rome”opportunity, and we gave it our best shot, and, well, nobody died.
Finally, my personal favorite response: “It could have been great, but restaurant was too exclusive for us, wouldn’t let us sit and sound system wasn’t working correctly. Still, an interesting experience to see how folks live — high on the hog — on the land-based Titanic. All will be underwater soon, not just Jay’s left foot.”
For the record, it was my right foot, and I did still manage to stay mostly above water.
You know that everything’s bigger in Texas, so we’re gonna offer our in-house fashion models a bigger challenge next October: We’re going to build the runway over a feedlot and see who’s still brave enough to strut their stuff. Herd ’em up, head ’em out… see y’all in Lubbock.
- To see all the photos accompanying this article, download the SEJournal Winter 2011-12 PDF  (page 8).
Jay Letto is SEJ’s conference director and one of only two who has attended every SEJ conference (the other being founding president Jim Detjen).
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2011-12.  Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here  or learn how to join SEJ.  Past issues are archived for the public here.