The article was originally published on Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative website and is republished here with permission.
Just when local news outlets were ramping up audience events as a way to increase revenue and engagement, the pandemic hit.
So their events programs were devastated, right?
While in-person events went on the shelf, many local news outlets made an impressive shift to virtual, sometimes even ramping up their level of connection to their audience.
The Texas Tribune, which was known for its public gatherings before the pandemic, found that the simpler, less expensive logistics of going online allowed it to produce more events with an increased profit margin. The Dallas Morning News also boosted its number of events. The Star Tribune reacted to the cancellation of the popular Minnesota State Fair by creating a “virtual state fair” that allowed it to save most of its expected advertising revenue linked to the fair. And the Houston Defender led a surge by Black publications, collecting $60,000 in sponsorships for its first three online get-togethers.
Granted, some news outlets that relied on meet-and-greets to build community engagement found that virtual gatherings had shortcomings. Jim Brady, whose Spirited Media created and later sold digital-only startups such as Billy Penn, noted that smaller, more intimate events took a hit.
“I’m sure community events got crushed because the alternative is just not as compelling,” Brady said. “A lot of our events were about socializing, about getting to know people. You fill a room with interesting people and have a 20-minute panel and then let the next hour 40 (minutes) be people meeting each other. You can’t achieve that in a virtual world in any meaningful way.”
Nancy Lane, CEO of the Local Media Association, agreed that the pandemic’s impact on events varied depending on the news outlet’s approach.
“There were companies that had large…