Local Edition: Without a strategy, newsroom events don't work

Last month, we focused on how to say no in ever-shrinking newsrooms. We heard from the editor of a hyperlocal, other journalists, a Florida newspaper editor just after another round of layoffs and a former journalist turned professional organizer. (You still need to clean off your desk.) Now, we're starting a new conversation on events. 

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.

At the end of last year, I got to spend a few days in Philly with a handful of very smart journalists. The Lenfest Institute for Journalism brought us all together to talk about events.

It was, actually, an event about events. And it was fascinating.

As someone who’s never organized anything more complicated than birthday and dinner parties, I had no idea how much goes into successfully weaving events into your newsroom.

Who does it? Do you have a team? What is their mission? What’s the timeline? How do they reach people? How do they stay in touch after? What if no one comes? What if too many people come? Do events actually make money?

The gathering in Philly helped me see that, like so much else in journalism right now, there’s no one answer.

We’re starting a new conversation here this month, and it’s all about events. What questions do you have about events? Instead of sending me stories about your experiences for next week, I’d love to try and gather your questions. Maybe together, we can get them answered. What do you want to know about events? Let me know!

But first, let’s spend a little time with someone who has spent a lot of time in the journalism events business. Jon Cohn is the managing producer for forum programs and live events at Southern California’s KPCC.

Unlike a lot of people who work on newsroom events, Cohn and his team are based on the editorial side of the public radio station, “which allows for a really creative, connective and cohesive approach to multiplatform programming,” he said.

Cohn has a team of six and he’s been with KPCC for nearly 13 years, but his background is in classical theater. He was a stage actor, producer and director, and started a non-profit theater company in L.A.

Our talk was edited for length and clarity.

When you think about events, what role do you think they could and should play in newsrooms? More are talking about this as a revenue stream, but I get the sense that it’s not that simple.

My focus isn’t entirely on the money, however, whenever I do a ticketed event, I am always looking to create a show, venue and negotiate a deal in which I am likely to, at the very least, cover my expenses with box office revenue and create opportunities for my underwriting/corporate sponsorship folks to sell sponsorships to the individual event and/or the series and create opportunities for my membership team to get the word out as well as donor cultivation for my major gifts team.

So the revenue opportunities — you can be very creative.

As far as the role that they can or should play, my mandate really, in the most simple of terms, is to continue to deepen our relationship with existing audience while building relationships with new audiences.

Ultimately we’re trying to create a gateway. We are a news and information service, and we feel strongly that the service that is provided on all of our platforms is relevant to people who live in this region. By doing specialized content, where we go into the community and convene around topics and issues that matter specifically to them, we are serving as a gateway and providing access to a service that they may not know about.

I think also, when Ashley (Alvarado, KPCC’s director of community engagement) and I talk about engagement, it really comes down to being a reciprocal relationship. Engagement is stopping and listening. We’re so used to being in front of a microphone, but sometimes it takes putting the mic in front of somebody else’s mouth.

We just did a gubernatorial town hall collaboration in January. Working with Ashley, we sourced over 1,100 questions from the community on things that matter most to them that they wanted us to ask the next candidates for governor.

The spirit of that, hearing from the audience and hearing from the community allows us to be more honest as we think about what our community service is.

A lot of this seems like a real natural extension of more traditional journalism, but there are a lot of things you’ve talked about that are not skills that journalists necessarily learn. Where should newsrooms start? How do they start?

Honestly, I think I would start with “what are you looking to accomplish and who are you looking to serve?” You need to figure out the why and the what, and then you figure out the how.

What’s your audience-facing announcement? What is the definition of the project? What’s the vision? What’s the audience? What’s the service? What’s the strategy? And ultimately, what’s the goal?

And then the where and the when and how, they all come in. Really, it’s like, for whom are we doing this? What service does this provide? And how will we know if it’s successful?

An event might be – we want to raise $500,000 this year. Then okay, let’s do events that are geared to that. And then you run it through that lens. Or we want to make sure that we hear from people we don’t normally hear from, so voices that are underrepresented in our programming become better represented in the coming six months.

For us, that’s always helped boil it down.

Your event strategy will probably be broad, but the event itself will be very specific. Like, with this event, I’m looking to make money. For this one, I’m looking to raise awareness about immigration policy. A lot of this should mirror what you’re doing content wise.

Events also have programmatic benefits, even if they’re not public events. Ashley has pioneered “Feeding the Conversation,” where she facilitates conversations with specific communities. So you have 20, 30 people from the community we’re looking to focus on. We split them up at tables, put a journalist at each table, and we ask them a series of prompts.

And we found that several of those have led to reported features, even to events. That’s directly affected or informed our journalism.

What are some specific things you’ve learned over time about how to do this successfully?

I think it’s, again, having a clear idea for each event of what we’re trying to accomplish. If you’re not exactly sure of how you’re going to measure success, it’s hard to be successful.

It’s also about being flexible and open to growth. What has allowed us to be successful has been internal buy-in.

I think your background is so interesting. Did you think when you first started your career that you’d end up doing what you’re doing now?

No, I don’t know that I ever thought I’d end up in public radio. I did a couple national tours where I was driving around in trucks doing Shakespeare and American classical theater. And I remember being in a lot of different markets. We would always be able to seem to find an NPR affiliate on the radio. I spent a lot of time listening to “Morning Edition.” I spent a lot of time listening to ATC against the backdrop of our country in a variety of seasons, in a variety of places, and I think there was a part of me that loved that connectivity.

This was before cell phones and satellite radio.

I always loved the sensibility of public radio, and that access and that in-depth and that level of community service and connection.

It wasn’t something I expected or planned for. It was sort of just the right thing.

Have you ever had a bad event?

Oh yeah.

Tell us about a bad event.

You know, maybe bad’s not the right word. One of the things we’ve learned is the live event space gives you an opportunity to experiment and it can function as a laboratory in a way that doesn’t always happen.

We can do something once, and if it doesn’t work, we won’t do it again. It’s harder to do one episode of a radio show. It’s harder to do one episode of a podcast. But the live event space lets you build something and experiment and learn from it.

It’s less about what we were doing but how we were positioning it, how we were communicating about it and how we were developing a live audience.

Radio is habitual, right? Digital is a combination of habitual and on demand. Events – we basically have to build a new and distinct audience each and every time.

It goes back to “who is this for?” Is it my existing audience, my prospective audience or both?

Photo by Bill Youngblood for KPCC

This is a great place to start, thank you!

Now it's your turn. What do you want to know about a successful event strategy? Send your questions and I'll include them next week. 

In the meantime, check out this study of how newspaper ownership affects local election coverage. Matter has a cool new program to help newsrooms figure out business models. Poynter has an online group seminar this month about writing for the web. Come be my colleague, or even better, my boss! We’re hiring! And if you can’t get enough of local media news (and fun GIFs), follow me on Twitter.

See you next week!

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