Getting the Most from Conferences

April 15, 2014

SEJ Freelance Files


A conference attendee between sessions during the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston in 2013.
                                                                   Photo: © Roger Archibald

Like many freelancers, I enjoy working from home for the usual reasons — few distractions, no staff meetings or dress code. But periodically I need an infusion of new ideas and some face time with professional peers. One way to get those is by attending conferences.

Beyond SEJ’s annual conference (my favorite after a decade of freelancing), there are plenty of meetings across the United States every year to fill journalists’ calendars. I attend two to four conferences annually and consider them a cost of doing business. Conferences offer opportunities to find stories, learn about new topics, and meet sources, editors and other writers. The energy and ideas I bring back from a good conference are well worth the time and money I invest.

Before the meeting

Much of the work I put into conferences takes place well before I leave home. First question: where to go? Many organizations sponsor meetings that may be useful to SEJ freelancers. Some examples:

  • Journalism organizations: National Association of Science Writers, Association of Health Care Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, American Society of Journalists and Authors.
  • Scientific organizations: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysical Union, Ecological Society of America.
  • Advocacy groups: National Trust for Historic Preservation, U.S. Green Building Council.
  • Trade groups: Industries ranging from home building to seafood.

These meetings serve different purposes, so it’s important to think carefully about what you want. Journalism groups typically offer a mix of sessions focused on skills, such as pitching or digital reporting, and others delving into topics that attendees cover. Panels at scientific meetings present and discuss current research, either in a specific field or across many disciplines. Advocacy groups want to build awareness of their issues and support for their policy agendas. Trade shows present broad samples of what’s trending in the sponsoring industry.

In choosing where to go, consider your goals. Do you need to know more about an industry that’s important in your state or region? Learn about current research in a particular scientific discipline? Make contacts with editors and writers? To find conferences that meet your needs, talk to other journalists and research the meetings in advance to see what they’ll cover and who will be speaking. Once you choose a conference and start making travel plans, there are many ways to keep costs down. Journalism groups (including SEJ, National Association of Science Writers and Association of Health Care Journalists) often offer fellowships that cover attendees’ registration fees and/or travel costs. Others offer free conference registration to working journalists, either as policy (one example is AAAS’s annual meeting) or case by case. Check the meeting’s press registration guidelines, and if they don’t say anything about complimentary media registration, contact the organization and ask. Some groups may require an assignment letter from an editor, while others will say yes once they see evidence (typically a website or clips) that you’re a working journalist.

Placing stories based on the conference in advance is another good way to cover costs. Read the program carefully and contact editors who may be interested in particular sessions. Keep in mind that some outlets routinely publish stories that are straightforward meeting reports (“A study presented at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting documents that Arctic sea ice is melting at a record pace,”) while others want stories that put information from the conference into a larger context (“When will the Arctic be ice-free in summer?”).

Stories from outside of the conference can also pay for your trip. I attended a National Association of Science Writers conference in Spokane, WA, partly because I knew it was a few hours from Hanford, where plutonium for nuclear weapons was manufactured from the 1940s through the late 1980s. I sold a story about preserving Hanford’s historic B reactor (the world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor) to High Country News, and another to Backpacker magazine about turning land around former military sites into public recreation areas. The side trip added an extra day to my time in Washington state, but Backpacker paid for my car rental and a night’s stay near Hanford, and fees for the articles more than covered my conference costs.

Other preparation tips: Find out what people wear at the meeting so you can dress appropriately, especially if you’re going on field trips, planning to do interviews or hoping to chat up editors. Update your website and social media pages before you go, and bring business cards. And if you’ll be using gear at the meeting, such as a digital recorder or camera, make sure you’re comfortable with it in advance.

At the scene

Once I get to a conference, I’ve read and marked up the most current version of the program, highlighting my high-priority sessions and alternate choices in case some sessions fill up. I also try to block some free time during each day of the meeting to wander the halls, browse exhibits and catch up with friends who are also attending. Well-timed breaks help me stay focused through long days in windowless meeting rooms, especially if I can get out of the building. (Buying souvenirs for my kids is a good excuse to sneak away for an hour.)

If the meeting has a press room, check there daily to pick up papers from panelists and see whether any sessions or speakers have canceled or rescheduled. Press rooms often offer space for journalists to do onsite interviews; if you have any arranged, reconfirm the time and place with your source and check out the room so you’ll know what to expect.

Some journalists file stories directly from conferences, but my deadlines are usually longer. However, at the end of every day I review my notes from all of the sessions I’ve attended, especially if I’ll be using them for a story, and make a list of follow-up tasks to do from home. This is especially important if I’m writing a complex story based on presentations at the conference, and may be able to catch a speaker to ask more questions while he or she is still at the meeting.

Socializing at conferences can be just as important as the information that you take away from panels and tours. But that doesn’t have to mean plunging into huge crowds at receptions. If you’re an introvert (like me), small meetups for drinks or a meal with a few people can be more rewarding and enjoyable. And if it’s your first time at a particular conference, you’ve got a ready conversation topic – ask your companions how long they’ve been coming to the meeting and what they’ve found most interesting so far.


Tasks after a meeting are pretty straightforward. Turn in any stories that are due immediately. Review your materials for any longer-term assignments while the meeting is still fresh in your mind. Next, if you have any new story ideas from the meeting, get those pitches out. Finally, collect all of your receipts for meals and travel, and store them for tax time. And start thinking about where to go next.

Jennifer Weeks is a freelance writer and editor specializing in environment, energy, science and health, and a former SEJ board member. She lives near Boston, Mass. and has written for Slate, Discover, Popular Mechanics, Boston Globe Magazine, Science News for Students, Congressional Quarterly Press and many other outlets.


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2014. 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.

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