Association’s new moniker reflects change, challenge, for ag communicators
By Mike Wilson, Farm Progress
The Agricultural Communicators Network, aka the American Agricultural Editors’ Association, has been a conduit to help professional journalists and communicators share knowledge and camaraderie for 100 years now.
The association has a lot to be proud of, and it all started — as most good things do — in a bar.
Back in 1916 writers, photographers and editors attending Chicago’s International Livestock Exposition, and later the National 4-H Club Congress, began meeting at neighborhood joints to share scuttlebutt and air grievances. By 1920 they had decided to organize. They began holding casual dinner meetings and eventually formalized with officers, programming, writing workshops, and contests. In the 1960s the AAEA looked beyond its borders to network with foreign colleagues as part of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. Its annual meeting exploded with networking and professional improvement offerings in 1998 when it began hosting the annual Ag Media Summit along with two other media groups.
How does anything survive 100 years? AAEA’s success can best be attributed to strong grassroots leadership and a willingness to embrace sweeping changes in agriculture, the journalism profession, and disruptive communication technology.
Since prohibition and Woodrow Wilson we morphed from farm newspapers and magazines to digital, from radio to TV to internet and twitter. We transformed from hot to cold type, from Speed Graphics to 35mm cameras to iPhones, from Kodachrome slides and “film developing” to instant images and online galleries; from reel to reel to MP3s, from ag editors to content managers, communications directors, bloggers, designers and social influencers.
Publications came and went, but the demand for accurate, specialized reporting and information for farm and consumer audiences only grew; a profession blossomed, requiring academic instruction, experience, passion, and skills related to both communications and agriculture.
“The past 40 years of agriculture have been nothing if not change,” says Greg Horstmeier, editor-in-chief at DTN. “New technology, new tools, global trade and food security issues, and Mother Nature’s penchant to constantly undo all those advances – there is always something significant to write about.”
Journalists embraced change when print editors began to work online. The internet and cell phones led to a more intimate relationship between journalists, sources and audiences. But the job of a farm reporter is still very similar to the job 50 years ago, says Horstmeier. “Today you might talk to farmers in an air conditioned tractor cab with a comfy jump seat and have their full attention while autosteer handles the tedious tasks,” he adds.
Access to information 24/7 makes some aspects of ag reporting easier, and some aspects harder, says Greg Henderson, editorial director at Drovers, a Farm Journal publication.
“The internet obviously makes it easier to obtain information from various sources – government, businesses, individuals – and easier to check the accuracy of information,” he says. “It also makes it easier and faster to disseminate that information to our audiences.”
When AAEA began 100 years ago, “It’s hard to imagine how they operated without the communication technology that we have today,” says Betsy Freese, executive editor with Successful Farming, a Meredith publication. “Think of how long it took to set type. When the dicamba story broke in June we were immediately churning out copy for the website. How did we do our jobs before the internet?”
Digital photography rewrote the rules for communicators says Lyle Orwig, co-founder at advertising-marketing agency Charleston|Orwig. “Going from Kodachrome to digital has made everyone a good photographer,” he says. “The best shooters today are still those with a good eye for composition and the patience to be in the right place at the right time. But the automatic camera has taken away the technical side of knowing the right F-stop, shutter speed or ASA. Today you just truly point and shoot and get instant knowledge rather than hoping until things come back from the lab.”
Digital media demanded a new skillset: multi-tasking.
“AAEA members may now have hourly, daily, weekly and monthly deadlines,” notes Orwig. “You’re not just a writer or photographer now, you’re also a videographer and a social media poster. Often quantity has replaced quality as things are dated by the minute or hour rather than the month, so people are taking less time to polish and more time to simply publish.”
Freese agrees. “Everybody has to do everything, and I think that will continue in the future,” she says. “You have to be flexible; you can’t say I’m only doing digital or print or radio. You have to be able to work with technology. There were once editors with long careers in our business who refused to figure out how to use computers or the internet. You can’t do that anymore.”
That’s why more and more AAEA webinars and Ag Media Summit sessions focus on topics like digital and social media; and, it’s why AAEA’s weekly Byline newsletter shares stories on video and podcasting as well as writing and photography.
Present, future challenges
Shrinking agriculture markets will continue to present a challenge for ag media as the number of farm operations decline and ag supplier consolidation escalates, predicts Henderson.
And, while the internet makes some aspects of journalism easier, online audiences – well beyond a targeted traditional subscriber list – are more polarized now than ever.
“There’s more of a ‘with me or against me’ attitude today,” says Horstmeier. “That has not been good for trade journalism in general, ag journalism in particular. There’s an expectation that you’re a cheerleader for farming. That intolerance comes through stronger with advertisers too. It’s a tough road to walk in business-to-business journalism between being objective and getting sideways with advertisers, and it keeps getting more difficult.”
Another threat may be from farmers themselves — at least, those with a Twitter feed and a podcast they record in the machine shed, he adds.
“In my first decades in this business I never heard farmers diss on the trade press,” Horstmeier says. “But increasingly I hear ‘I really don’t need ag publications, I have my Twitter friends who I trust, and they tell me what I need to know.’ That’s not just worrisome for ag journalism, it’s worrisome for society.”
Social media posts about markets, prices, and off-the-cuff analysis from producers often conflict with a journalist’s report and analysis, adds Henderson. “That can lead to open criticism on social media of the journalist and/or the news organization.”
Digital media brings another challenge: the rise of click bait and alternative information from ‘media’ with few if any journalistic credentials. Ag media companies with objectives and transparent editorial missions face off against millions of other messages online. Traditional journalism with focus on accuracy and impartiality must compete with everything from cute cat videos to sensational claims from shady sources.
Everyone has all those choices with a click of the mouse.
“Our industry has a 10-year ongoing study of ag media engagement that shows farmers are not dropping print, but they do engage more digital media every day,” says Willie Vogt, Farm Progress editorial director. “Some of the best things on the internet are long form journalism, but the reader is fickle and always has been – it’s just that we know it more acutely today than ever.
“The coronavirus showed us that everybody can do a webinar, everybody is an expert; It feels like sometimes we’re being pushed aside by alternative media companies that are not always clear about their objectives.”
One internet technology with double-edged impact is data analytics.
“It allows us to see when certain stories really take off,” says Freese. “With the web you can see what farmers are reading. That tells us that topic is of interest, and it helps guide our editorial focus.”
On the other hand some question whether analytics and SEO (search engine optimization) should drive content decisions. Is that story most useful to a farmer-reader just because it gets more page views? If a sexy item on a new pickup gets more clicks than a well-written article on weed control, what’s an editor to do?
“I hope the future of ag journalism is not simply ‘most popular article’ wins,” says Vogt. “Our challenge will be to stay in balance with the analytics – somewhere between what we know the reader likes, and what the reader needs.”
Likewise, SEO has forced writers to occasionally abandon what they learned in J-school.
“If you don’t think you need to pay attention to google, you are done,” says Vogt. “It doesn’t mean gutting your content, but it might mean changing the phrasing of your story, adding a photo that is tagged properly, or rewriting subheads in a snappier way.”
Despite such challenges, many AAEA members still say it’s a good time to be in the profession. Henderson believes there are still opportunities for journalists and media companies who are dedicated to offering fast, accurate news and analysis to help farmers and ranchers of the future succeed.
“I’m as invigorated by our industry and by our jobs as I have ever been,” Freese adds.
Horstmeier, too, is optimistic.
“I’m more excited about writing about farming today than I ever have been,” he says. “There really has been no better time to be an ag journalist than today.”
AAEA is now the Ag Communicators Network
AAEA (American Agricultural Editors’ Association) has seen some big changes over the first 100 years of its existence. The ongoing challenge: staying relevant as ag media reinvented itself to serve farm and consumer audiences.
In 2015 an AAEA survey revealed a large number of traditional ‘editorial’ members were nearing retirement. After some soul-searching AAEA Board members and leadership met in 2016 to finalize a five-year strategic plan.
“This strategic plan lead to many initiatives for the organization to improve membership, to refine educational programs and member benefits, and to recognize a century of service to the ag media industry,” says executive director Samantha Kilgore.
“A large part of that discussion revolved around our identity as American ag editors,” she says. “This group of leaders examined the industry as a whole and realized how much the editorial job description had evolved. This foresight, combined with the desire to provide broader service to the ag media industry, led to the discussion of the name change from a group of Ag Editors, to a network of Ag Communicators.”
The association restructured to provide more professional service to its younger, mainly female members. It adopted leadership development for younger members and shifted to weekly electronic newsletters. It added Special Interest Groups, began holding more webinars, added podcasts, and re-emphasized AAEA’s core member benefits: professional development, networking, and recognition of excellence.
With that also came the process of redefining membership categories. The old buckets of “active” and “affiliate” simply didn’t fit member profiles anymore, says Kilgore. In 2018, AAEA converted its membership to three new categories: editorial, associate, and partner.
“Now in our 100th year, AAEA -the Ag Communicators Network membership of 400-plus professionals still has more than 60% of its membership fall in the editorial, writing, publishing and overall journalistic category,” says Kilgore. “The special interest groups we organized allow people with certain specialties and professions to gather together like small peer groups and exchange ideas specific to their challenges.”
Throughout the new membership categories and name change, AAEA has held fast to its mission and purpose: to serve agricultural editors, writers, photographers and other communications professionals who qualify for membership by ensuring an open exchange of ideas and fostering professional excellence.