How Do We Fix the Convention Press Pass System? Plus Advice for Covering Shows

Tom Spurgeon posted a brief mention a couple of weeks ago that surprised me, stating “I had a couple of people write in about last weekend’s Toronto Fan Expo to say the show decided not to honor press passes for the Saturday of the event, which strikes me as awfully odd and a reason to never plan my weekend around the Toronto Fan Expo”.

I’ve never been to the show, but that certainly gave them a black mark in my eyes. I’ve previously run into shows that didn’t understand how to handle press passes, as when some wanted press to pay for access. I understand that it can be difficult to separate “real” press from some guy with a blog with four posts on it, but over-broad blanket rules end up annoying the people you want to talk favorably about your event.

Let’s step back and look at what each gets from the situation. A convention wants more attendees, so they want people with lots of readers/viewers to say, “This was a great show, everyone should go!” That message also comes across implicitly in talking about news that broke at the show (giving the impression that it’s a major show) or exclusive products or rare experiences. This is a fine line — I’ve seen coverage that on the surface sounded like “this was cool!”, but when it turns into “because of my press badge, I got in line early for an artist who was only doing a few sketches that day” or “I bought one of the limited collectibles you missed out on”, that becomes jerkish. In fact, I know of shows that stopped allowing early press entry because of a few bad apples who were misusing the access to act like collectors, not journalists.

If you want to thank the show for letting you in for free — and this is the part many amateurs miss — the best thing to do is to talk it up ahead of time. This can be as simple as running a piece (or more) on what will be available there or scheduled programming that you’re looking forward to. After-the-fact coverage helps encourage people to go next year, if they remember that long. Prior coverage puts the thought in people’s heads to go this time (although these days, that really only applies for mid-size regional shows, since the big ones require a year’s planning in advance to get tickets and hotel rooms).

On the other side, the press gets into the show for free (and sometimes, if they’re big names, they get comped rooms or travel, although in my experience that’s rare). If the show is big enough, they get a room to work in and access to stars and special guests. I think, as the press category becomes wider (covering print and online), what’s happening is the same thing that happens with creator guests — everyone supposedly falls into one category, but some are more special than others. Big-name artist may get his room for free, while local artist gets free table space and nothing else. Big-name journalist may get offered an interview and reserved panel seating, while blogger gets a free badge.

The real solution would be to do some screening, to require some minimum level of output or audience ranking, before handing out a press pass, but that requires a) hard decisions b) someone to decide on the rules and c) someone to take the flak from those turned down. After all, no one wants to hurt the feelings of the guy with an outlet and an attitude.

Back to Toronto. I wasn’t very lucky in looking for more information about what happened at the show. I did find one writeup that said:

Press Passes that need to be replaced every day? Seriously? This one was a MAJOR bone of contention amongst the media folks I knew — some of them going so far as to simply not cover more than the first day. Come on Fan Expo — these folks are getting you tons of coverage for your event, to help you bring in more people and more dollars — don’t make them go the the hassle of going through crowds everyday to get a new pass.

In the comments, Jamie Coville elaborated:

It’s not like that every year. I’ve been covering it since 2002, with the exception of 1 year, and the press pass was always a weekend pass. I did not bother to attend this year as they did not give me (and other press) a pass for Saturday. Then they sent me 4 e-mails advising me about tickets being on sale/almost sold out, etc.

And they waited until 2 weeks prior to the convention to let you know. I suspect they got some press to go anyway because they couldn’t get refunds on their hotels (possibly air fare) and already booked the time off their day jobs. It’ll be interesting to see how much press they get next year. I suspect they broke a lot of trust and they’ll have to treat the press like gold for a few years before some of them come back.

Perhaps. Then again, some fan journalists put the emphasis on “fan”, and go no matter what. Jamie has had press problems with the Toronto show before, as he commented in 2009. The convention then was giving out press passes out of the press room, which didn’t open until the show did, which meant press couldn’t get badges early.

I don’t really have a summation here. The thought comes to mind that, if you believe there’s no such thing as bad publicity, treating press badly doesn’t have a downside, because then they’ll talk about you in that context. A show that feels it’s successful on its terms — such as getting plenty of ticket-paying attendees — may not care if any press come, especially if they get the coverage they care about by issuing press releases about media guests.

Update: As commenters and others (such as Tom Spurgeon) have pointed out, yes, it is always an option for a reporter to pay their own way if a show is important enough to cover. I should have mentioned that. For major outlets, a $30-60 ticket fee will more than be reimbursed by the hits and eyeballs they get. Alternately, it’s entirely possible these days to create coverage of major shows just by reviewing the posts and Twitter mentions other attendees make — and sometimes you’ll get a better, more balanced view that way.


6 Responses to “How Do We Fix the Convention Press Pass System? Plus Advice for Covering Shows”

  1. Scott VanderPloeg Says:

    I attended Fan Expo this year and didn’t have any issues with the press passes or daily coverage. The press sign up page stressed Saturday passes would be limited. As well there was a limit to four passes per media outlet.

    I was disappointed that I had to go to the press office every day to get a new pass but the PR firm handling it was extremely friendly and tried their best to accommodate everyone. It was easily accessible and you didn’t have to wait in any lines to get to the press office. I arrived thirty minutes before the doors opened and received my pass without issue. I asked if someone else from our site could use my pass for Sunday and they made the change right away.

    My only complaint/request is for a dedicated media room with free wifi access so press could have somewhere to write up and post.

  2. Johanna Says:

    I’m glad to hear another experience, thank you. May I ask what outlet you were covering the show for?

  3. Scott VanderPloeg Says:

    I was covering for Comic Book Daily (www.comicbookdaily.com).

  4. Grant Says:

    This sounds like more of a problem for the press than it is for the Convention or the regular attendees.

    If the press has to pay to get in, or if the press passes are limited to “big name” press only, and all the other press has to pay like everyone else, what are they going to do? Not cover it? There will still be coverage and there will still be bloggers and journalists who cover it in spite of having to pay. Those who don’t cover it will have to answer to their readers. Are the journalists and bloggers going to tell their readers “sorry, I had to pay like everyone else so I didn’t cover it”?

    The last SDCC I went to was 2009 and the press thing was out of control. When journalists have a freaking entourage, when jerkwater usa newspaper editor gets press passes for his kid and a few friends and the result is a 2 paragraph blurb in the weekend edition (I happen to know this happens regularly as I know the editors kid) then its time to scale WAY back on the number of media and reporters who get in.

    Or just make them all pay. For something like SDCC where big name stars have to go to promote their projects, what is Entertainment Weekly going to do? Not show up?

  5. Jamie Coville Says:

    Well I didn’t show up.

    I can’t speak for anybody else but Tom mentioned he wouldn’t go to a convention that asked press to pay to cover it either.

    I suspect most press already pay to attend the conventions, travel, hotels, etc, just like most of those going. If they have to stand in line ups and pay to get in the door what’s the point of working the convention? They can just do what they feel like while at the show. No putting off social gatherings to do write ups, no trying do interviews, no going to panels you’re not all that interested in, no skipping stuff you’d like to see because there is something “newsworthy” going on at the same time, etc.. I know my experience at a convention would be very different if I had to pay to get in.

    It’s a symbiotic relationship between conventions and the press. Conventions (and those at them) want/need press and press want/need stuff to cover. While the conventions themselves might be doing well and feel they don’t need the press, those exhibiting at the convention would very much like the press there to get the word out on what they’re doing.

    I think almost all conventions know this including most of the big ones. Fan Expo is the only convention I know that’s asked for press to pay to get in for a day and I’ve been doing them since 2002.

    I feel I should note that Fan Expo does screen their applicants and there is a separate company that handles the media. So I don’t think this is a case of trying to weed out the non-press fans looking for free tickets.

  6. Russell lissau Says:

    There are professional news outlets that refuse their reporters to accept free passes to events, particularly concerts. The reporters must buy tickets like civilians and then get reimbursed. The goal is to maintain journalistic independence, so the news outlet doesn’t feel beholden to the promoter. By and large, free media access is standard… But it’s up to the event to vet the reporter and make sure they’re legit before granting the pass. An application process that requires a business card and clips accomplishes this.




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