August 24, 2020

Among the obvious probable casualties of the pandemic for news organizations were those signature live events, which have come to be both an extension of major journalism brands and a hot source of revenue.

But checking in with three of the biggest — The Texas Tribune’s, The Atlantic’s and The Wall Street Journal’s — I found that reconstituting the annual festivals to an all-virtual format has gone surprisingly well.

Yes, revenues will be off some, though sponsors are by and large staying onboard. Plus some unexpected opportunities have emerged — the events are accommodating speakers’ and participants’ schedules by spreading segments over a longer time period and are reaching a much broader audience than those who could make it in person to Austin or Washington or lower Manhattan.

A common thread is that hard work and ingenuity were required to pull off a virtual version. Also, something out of the ordinary and generally upbeat has more appeal than one might have guessed (as the current political conventions are showing) in these constricted and worrisome times.

The events are likely to come back live in 2021 — but watch for virtual to retain a role (as virtual will, too, in the office life for businesses and how journalists work).

Just as New York City was shutting down in March, Leigh Gilmore was posed to stage The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival, to be held in May. The quick scramble for alternatives turned out to be productive, she told me. “The future of the franchise is going to be hybrid. … We will never remove the virtual element.”

Here are stories of how each of the three media companies adapted.

Texas Tribune

Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith was the first person I talked with in mid-March about the business impacts of the pandemic. Back then, the annual Texas Tribune Festival, a September event and generator of seven-figure revenue, was a go. “We have no plans now but to have the best festival,” Smith said.

By the end of April, he had decided to flip the switch to virtual. “We begin planning next year’s festival the day after that year’s ends,” Smith said. This is hard, he told his staff. “There’s going to be lots of twists and turns.” Compressing a 12-month process into less than half that time, he said, seemed like “building the plane while it’s in flight.”

Among the key decisions:

  • Schedule the action over a full month rather than three days.
  • Given shortened Zoom attention spans, aim for segments totaling two to three hours a day at most.
  • Up the number of speakers — currently 250 for 100 sessions.
  • Tilt the content more to national topics than previously — about 40%.
  • Mix formats — “live and taped, free and paid, one-time and archived for rewatch.”
  • Past years have not had a theme. This one does: “How the pandemic will change how we will live and work.”

That last principle applies to both the Tribune and the festival. “We took for granted how we did the thing,” Smith said. “Life in the after will be different.”

Sponsorships were down, but of course costs were too, so this year’s edition of the 10-year-old big event will actually be more profitable than 2019’s. Smith and his team decided to stick with the principle that everything be ticketed, at least by registration if not by payment.

The three-day festivals have included a fundraising banquet for top supporters. A virtual version has already happened, Smith said. It was a hit, and “we didn’t have to feed them or give them booze.” Turns out that the transactional element of the affair was not all that important; most participants simply wanted to support the Tribune’s mission of policy-heavy reporting.

What doesn’t change is that the festival anchors a series of smaller events throughout the year, showcases Texas Tribune journalists as moderators and lets brands associate with the publication and its audience — a very attractive marketing proposition.

The festival kicks off Sept. 1 with a lineup headed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, feminist author and activist Gloria Steinem, former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and musician Willie Nelson.

The Atlantic

The Atlantic has been prolific in the events space for more than a decade, offering as many as 150 a year with a staff of dozens devoted to content and logistics. The keystone has been the Atlantic Festival (formerly the Washington Ideas Forum) — an A-list gathering spread over three or four days in September.

Chief operating officer Aretae Wyler, who oversaw the adaptation to virtual, told me that the organization’s planning gravitated to big changes rather than small ones.

Most basic was throwing the doors open for what had been an elite, by-invitation event. This year’s edition will largely be free, and the marketing hope is that a wider national and international audience will get a flavor of The Atlantic’s wide-ranging journalism.

Since events once numbered 150 and account for about 20% of The Atlantic’s revenue, Wyler said, “The top line (was threatened). We were immediately wondering what we would do. We needed to monetize quickly and innovate like never before.”

Switching to virtual, The Atlantic held six events the first six weeks, she said, and 30 since.

As at The Texas Tribune, the possibility of attracting an expanded group of speakers to The Atlantic Festival, beyond Washington and New York heavy hitters, was apparent. The Atlantic went a somewhat different route in pacing the program.

The festival will remain in a tight time frame of four days. This year’s edition is entirely free. The biggest attraction, a 90-minute livestreamed mashup each evening, will be free, Wyler said, and afford The Atlantic a chance to reach a new audience that rarely or never reads the magazine or its digital site.

Speakers for the spotlight evening sessions and the rest of the program are to be announced Aug. 25.

As with all the big conferences, there are tech challenges. Wyler said that speakers will be sent “home kits” unless they prefer to go to a studio so their audio and video are reliable. For the festival format, there needs to be an opportunity (now a virtual opportunity) for breakout sessions — special-interest discussions aimed at a smaller audience segment. (The year I attended included an all-morning meeting on the future of news.)

One tradition that did not survive: an opening dinner at Atlantic chairman David Bradley’s house for top sponsors to rub shoulders with some of the speakers in a salon-style evening.

Wyler joined The Atlantic seven years ago as general counsel after a short career with the Washington law firm Williams & Connolly. She advanced quickly to Bradley’s chief of staff and then chief operating officer.

It is a time of transition for the company. Bradley retains the top job but now is co-owner with Laurene Powell Jobs and her social change organization, Emerson Collective. The sprawling event business has been cut back, Wyler told me, to fewer events and a smaller staff but about the same revenue.

At the same time, The Atlantic Festival, launched in 2009, got bigger — rebranded without Washington in its name two years ago and reaching to include Disney executive chairman Bob Iger and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki in 2019.

The change reflects a concept of The Atlantic and its digital site broadened beyond its centerpiece of politics. For a wider range of topics, Wyler said, it has become possible to say, “Yes, this is Atlantic-y, (and the event aims to be) the live version of what The Atlantic is.”

For this year’s edition, the company hired Don Mischer Productions, whose credits include staging Academy Award telecasts and Super Bowl halftime shows.

Look for more performance content, Wyler said, but it will be hard to top last year’s highlight —“Yo-Yo Ma playing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’” whose lyrics were originally published in The Atlantic in 1862.

Yo-Yo Ma performs before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, participates in question and answer session with Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of The Atlantic, as part of the Atlantic Festival, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival presented a somewhat different challenge. A live May gathering was to be its third edition; already it had become the business newspaper’s anchor event and the umbrella for a vertical collection of stories and newsletters throughout the year along with many smaller conferences.

Leigh Gilmore, an experienced event stager who joined the company after the first Future of Everything Festival in 2018, had even less turnaround time than her Texas Tribune and Atlantic counterparts.

“We had enormous plans to expand it,” Gilmore said, “more space, more stages, more pop-ups around the city. … We began to pivot in March and made our decisions quickly.”

The festival had included mainstage sessions for up to 3,000 participants. The best virtual equivalent, Gilmore and her team decided, would be a monthly series of “TV-episode-style presentations … beautifully produced,” that would run for a full year until May 2021.

The format allows for topics pegged closely to the news, she added, like one on The Future of Equality that ran in July. “We needed to borrow more from the entertainment business,” Gilmore said, “to be sure this was pleasant viewing.”

Those are free, but the virtual festival retains all-access and premium-level memberships, plus, of course, sponsors.

Serendipitously wandering the live New York event and such light touches as “shopping bags made of mollusk shells and lego constructions” will need to wait until another year, “when we are all vaccinated and running around again.”

The festival evolved organically from a one-off 125th-anniversary feature in 2014 that asked an assortment of contributors to predict the future. Taylor Swift’s commentary (“In the future, artists will get record deals because they have fans — not the other way around”) went viral, suggesting the potential to attract a crowd. A glossy magazine, podcast and newsletter followed in succeeding years, then the physical live event in 2018.

The franchise serves several purposes for the Journal. It’s high-concept techie, think Elon Musk, but branches into a range of topics. Health care, for instance, has been a fit. Plus it harvests a younger audience that may not be into the paper’s traditional mix of mergers, corporate rise-and-falls and conservative editorials.

In going virtual, Gilmore said, she was conscious that sessions needed to be “more than another webinar” of which there have come to be a growing glut. That’s the part the Journal will make permanent once going live becomes possible again. Since there’s a limit on attendance at the festival’s biggest venues, the aim will be “to create moments witnessed by a few but shared with many.”

Gilmore, by the way, like The Atlantic crew, prefers to call the festival “a live version of our journalism” rather than an event.

The growing events space

I stopped my survey with three of the biggest events, but many other publishers are finding ways to play in the same space. Two more examples:

The 19th*, a creation of Texas Tribune alumnae Emily Ramshaw and Amanda Zamora, by women for women, got into festivals right out of the gate as it began publication in early August. Speakers for the weeklong “virtual summit” included Hillary Clinton (who seems to have an affinity for these) and Meghan Markle, who had heard of the launch, reached out and volunteered to moderate the closing panel on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

At Gannett, the largest chain of regional newspapers with 250-plus dailies, CEO Mike Reed has told financial analysts frequently that he sees events as a major area of revenue growth while print advertising and circulation revenues fade.

The criteria for Gannett events is that they be replicable across many markets, with an emphasis on reaching an audience that may not read the local paper’s journalism in print or digital formats. High school sports award banquets shifted to a virtual format, while still including appearances by big-name local sports figures and the usual complement of sponsors.

The company’s event revenues held at 65% of last year’s in the second quarter, Jason Taylor, the Gannett executive in charge of events and promotions, told me.

Gannett also has bought a company that stages local road races. I was surprised to learn that even these could adapt in a year when joining a live pack of runners might be impractical for many.

One of the biggest is a long-standing offering of the Detroit Free Press, a marathon or shorter distance of choice that attracts both world-class competitors and weekend exercise buffs.

This fall, participants will choose their distance, choose when and where they cover the course, then send in their times and learn where they stand. The deadline is late October, when a pruned down community run takes place. And, yes, each runner will get the T-shirt and a participation medal and a customizable race bib.

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.

Correction: The Atlantic’s festival is called The Atlantic Festival, not the Festival of Ideas. It was formerly known as the Washington Ideas Forum. It is free to attend.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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