Indeed, these criteria are readily available on AGU’s website. Conference organizers should realize, however, that most meetings are not newsworthy events in and of themselves. It is the people and information that journalists find there that fit that bill. AGU seems to get that, but smaller organizations (such as the Cetacean Society) seem to struggle with the concept.

In an e-mail, Jason Mark, the editor of Earth Island Journal, said that for several years he has attended on Ecological Farming Association’s annual Eco Farm Conference. The first year he did so, the association asked if he would “write about the conference” in exchange for a press pass. He explained that the conference itself wasn’t really newsworthy and that he was looking for story ideas “for the long run.” The association granted the pass anyway and apparently felt the decision was what the Cetacean Society’s McCormick would call mutually beneficial.

“As it happened, that year I crossed paths with some folks with a group call Farms Not Arms, who I ended up writing about for The Nation,” Mark explained in his e-mail. “Since then, [the farming association] has just given me a press pass.”

Mark added that, in his experience, “it’s not all that unusual for conference organizers to ask that journalists ‘write about the conference’ for free registration.” Some groups will even ask a reporter to write for the organization.

Bud Ward, a veteran journalist and educator who runs the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, called to recount a strange experience he’d had in 2008, when he contacted the National Council for Science and the Environment (which receives some government funding) to request a pass for an upcoming conference. Ward said he was “fuzzy” on the details, but recalled refusing a “bizarre” request that he attend two specific sessions and write about them for some kind of in-house use by the council.

A call to Lyle Birkey, who handles press credentials for the council, shed some light on the matter. Birkey explained that his organization offers two types of complimentary passes to members of the press. There is the traditional, no-strings-attached type. In addition, there is a pass for those who agree to be note takers at one of a number of “breakout sessions” during the same period of time on the second day of council’s three-day meeting. These notes are then gathered the same night (and therefore receive only minimal editing for grammar, etc.) and distributed to conference goers on the next, and final, day of the meeting, so that participants can know what they missed in sessions they could not attend.

Birkey said that at last year’s conference, traditional press passes outnumbered note-taker passes by a margin of two-to-one. He seeks out journalists to fill the latter role because of the high quality of their note taking and writing skills, and generally has no problem finding willing participants. Birkey said he suspects that this was the offer made to Ward, and that if he wasn’t offered a traditional pass it was because those slots were already full. (There are also complimentary passes available to people who volunteer to man the registration table or guide people around the conference venue, but journalists rarely agree to accept them.)

Although the application form for a traditional press pass asks reporters about their “media/coverage intentions,” Birkey said that the council has “never made an overt policy saying you have to publish a piece on our conference. But we try to divvy out our press registrations based on the type of press that we see as a target for our event. And that changes from year to year. For instance, this year the subject is our changing oceans, so we would like a lot of ocean-industry and ocean-type press to attend the event.” He also noted that the council has to be cost conscious and that, “in this day and age anyone with a blog can technically call themselves a journalist of sorts, so there has to be some kind of vetting process.”

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.