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June 12, 2014

17 Lessons for Local News Events

Journalism has long brought us together through shared rituals – reading the morning paper, watching the evening news – but as people find the news on more platforms, on their own schedules, those rituals have diminished in importance. What hasn’t changed, however, is the potential role of local news organizations to build community around the news. And increasingly, newsrooms are experimenting with events as a way of convening people, engaging their communities and facilitating critical local conversations.

It is starting to pay off:

Some of the most notable events are coming from organizations covering major metropolitan areas or whole states, so how does an event strategy scale down to the very local level? If your organization wants to develop an event strategy, here are some of the key lessons from newsrooms who have made it work.


  • Plan Well – Events take a tremendous amount of planning, especially in the initial start-up phase. Give yourself the space to balance planning around big ideas and themes and detailed logistics. Talk to others in your community who run events (churches, universities, businesses) and find out what they have learned. The NJ Spotlight does a good deal of research before green lighting an event. For any event, Kevin Harold, NJ Spotlight’s publisher, asks who are the stakeholders, what are the diverse perspectives, what policies intersect with the issue? He then tests ideas in the real world with community members and civic leaders, and brings that feedback back to his team to inform the shape of the event. NJ Spotlight takes roughly 90 days to plan most events.
  • Pay for What Matters – Decide early on what is going to define your event, and what matters the most. Spend the bulk of your money on creating an exceptional program. “I’ve never once had someone say ‘Gee, that free lunch sucked,’” the Texas Tribune’s event manager told Jake Batsell, “It’s okay if it’s on paper plates … you only want to spend as much as you have to.” Other costs (meals, coffee breaks, open bar, music) can also be sponsorship opportunities.
  • Find a Gap – Events are a growing business and more and more people are investing in them. Before you start out, talk to people in the community about a topic or style of event that is missing. Listen to your community for ideas. “You’ve got to find a spot that’s empty, that’s open,” Joel Kramer of MinnPost told Jake Batsell. MinnPost found that more nonprofit events in the city were serious and somber affairs. So they decided to do a news and comedy event. Jason Taylor, president of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, also suggests finding events that are “immune to economic cycles,” such as bridal shows.
  • Work With a Pro – Almost anyone can run a good event, but people who are experienced event planners can help make you event more successful, more efficient, and generate more revenue. The Texas Tribune hired Tanya Erlach, who spent seven years running the New Yorker Festival, and she imported that model to Texas. But you don’t have to bring someone on staff, depending on how regular your events are you can work with local event planners or local nonprofits who hold events. Learn from those around you.

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  • Don’t Silo Your Events – Over and over again in the interviews and articles about journalism events, newsrooms that have been successful with events position them as core to their mission. “Events are journalism — events are content,” says Evan Smith, the Tribune’s chief editor. “The content that comes from these discussions are our journalism,” Tim Condon of the Washington Post recently told Dan Kennedy.
  • Engage the Whole Newsroom – Your journalists are often the public face of your organization and they should be active parts of the events. People want to meet journalists and the ethics, skills, and knowledge they bring will strengthen you events. Harold at NJ Spotlight said their policy roundtable events always begin with the editorial team, often with a beat reporter flagging a hot, or emerging issue as a potential topic for an event.
  • Connect Events to Stories – Link events to your current reporting or important content on your sites. Create a feedback loop where events build on your reporting and breath new life into stories you have covered, driving traffic and attention back to your site and building on stories in your archives.
  • Repurpose Content – Live stream the event, post the video or audio afterward, Storify the social media coverage, write a follow-up piece. Video highlight from events can have a life of their own long after the event, and reports and publications coming out of the events can help serve to promote and raise awareness about your next event. Chop up the best clips from the events and share them on social media.
  • Events Can Create New Content Channels – In Chattanooga, the Times Free Press “Kids Expo” proved so successful that the paper launched a new magazine aimed at local families and opened up new revenue and advertiser opportunities.

Leverage Multiple Revenue Streams

Don’t just assume that ticket costs will cover your event. They probably won’t, especially if you want to make your events open to more people.

  • Sponsors – Most of the Texas Tribune’s events are free but they sell sponsorships, even their big ticket events have multiple levels of sponsors (signage on stage, marketing materials in registration bags, ads in the program, etc). And, Jason Taylor tells Ken Doctor, tap different budgets with sponsors. Businesses may have one line item for ads and another for promotions or events. And don’t be afraid to approach businesses that aren’t advertisers on your site, or even ones who have turned you down. Events present a new opportunity to reintroduce yourself and offer a new way for businesses to reach the community. NJ Spotlight suggests that if you need 3 sponsors, you need at least 6 prospects.
  • Exhibitors – Create opportunities for local businesses to interact with your attendees. Provide space for them to exhibit or distribute marketing materials.
  • Attendees – Charging a small ticket price can help offset some event costs and ensure people who register actually show up. But you can also ask for donations before, during and after. For bigger events, like festivals, look at comparable examples from other areas and price accordingly. You can always create discount tiers for students, and others.

Build on Your Membership Programs and Subscriptions

  • Use events to reward members or subscribers and to expand those programs – Members can get discounts to events, early invitations to upcoming programs, or special access to speakers backstage. Members can also be engaged to help build events, brainstorm topics, or submit questions for panels in advance.
  • Take advantage of the face time with members – Get to know your members and connect who shows up to your events with who shows up online. The St. Louis Beacon conducts surveys after in-person events, and has built a tool that tracks metrics specific to users who opt to receive the site’s newsletter. NJ Spotlight also survey’s attendees after every event and tracks who comes, and who comes back.

Transparency and Ethics

  • Ethics shouldn’t stop at the newsroom – Events can be important sites to highlight and make visible newsroom ethics. Working with sponsors, politicians, and vendors around events can raise questions about journalistic independence and spark potential conflicts with advertisers.
  • Tackle these issues with care – Make them part of the early planning process, address concerns from your community quickly, and be as transparent as possible.

This post draws heavily off of earlier reporting on various specific case studies by Jake Batsell, Ken Doctor, Dan Kenney and Justin Ellis, as well as my own experience running events. I’ve tried to link back to specific articles and examples whenever possible.

This is just the start. Here at the Local News Lab we are going to be creating a directory of all the various kinds of events news organizations can do, and from that we’ll be creating templates for use in your newsroom. Check back for sample budgets, contracts, promotional materials, logistics and more.

Know of a great event or someone we should talk to? Have other lessons you would add to the tips above? Leave us a comment below.

Photo by Flickr user batmoo, used under creative commons.