Journalism conferences are going virtual without going bankrupt

Working around hotel fees and screen fatigue, journalism organizations hope for increased turnout and revenue in the new online format

June 15, 2020

Journalism’s many conferences have largely been moved to virtual events, causing financial strain but not putting journalism organizations completely in the red.

Those inside the industry are watching closely — especially since meetings in years past had served as major money-makers for larger organizations — as the battered world of journalism conferences continues to try to convene, somehow.

Lost down payments on hotels were the biggest financial hit journalism nonprofits. Some organizations renegotiated hotel contracts for deferred use, such as the Institute for Nonprofit News. Others were able to lower fees through negotiation. After two months of talks with hotels in Washington, D.C., the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists moved their joint conference online and avoided a loss of about $1.3 million, according to a statement.

Yet journalism nonprofits saved money by not paying for food and beverages, and online conferences are cheaper to host. Organizations that commit to online conferences still have to pay — like for secure webinar platforms, such as Zoom or ezTalks — but there are no hotel or travel fees.

In part to accommodate for the recession’s impact on newsrooms and in part because of lower hosting costs, many journalism organizations dropped registration fees or removed them completely. This could lead to greater online attendance, which can offset lost revenue from live events. There’s no need to book a flight or hotel room, or block off a long weekend. Instead, from your couch, you can Zoom into conference webinars that you never would’ve paid full-price for or attended in person.

You may be able to do so next year, too.

“I’m excited to see how many people will now have access to the programming and the recruiting (at our annual conference) now that it’s online,” said Alberto Mendoza, executive director of NAHJ. “It’s a great opportunity to meet with a recruiter for 15 minutes even virtually and that’s why I think that there’s going to be a component of the digital format and virtual format that we will adopt in all conferences moving forward.”

Organizations are also supplementing or replacing conferences altogether with on-demand online resources, another trend that will most likely continue after 2020. NAHJ has hosted 24 workshops since the beginning of March. The Society for Features Journalism has provided virtual training opportunities and happy hours. Local Independent Online News Publishers is beginning to facilitate weekly calls between journalists in the same region.

“We’re trying to meet our members where they are,” said Chris Krewson, executive director of LION. “We realized that we needed to figure out how to be a more on-demand, asynchronous resource than in-person gatherings were going to allow us to be for the foreseeable future. I want nothing more than to have a conference but we can’t do it until it’s safe and we don’t know where that’s going to be.”

In April, LION hosted a webinar about managing local newsrooms in the face of the pandemic, which they opened up to non-members through partnerships with other organizations such as INN, NABJ and the Local Media Association.

“We wound up getting a whole bunch more people interested in LION membership and our programming,” said Krewson, who plans to continue holding similar webinars for the foreseeable future. “So we looked at it as kind of like public service for current members but also lead generation for membership in our association later on.”

Journalism organizations leverage their new online resources to not only gain members, but also to gain sponsors, who can tack product information and ads onto webinars, newsletters and journalism associations’ websites. Associations are thus able to maintain or occasionally increase sponsor funding and sponsors are able to reach a greater audience, albeit virtually.

Smaller nonprofits didn’t see a big hit either, as their conferences don’t typically generate revenue and are often budget-neutral. SFJ’s yearly conference pays for itself, which made the decision to cancel the event easier.

“In late February, we became concerned about the conference’s cost for our members because we didn’t know if newsroom budgets or media company budgets or freelancers’ budgets would be affected,” said Sharon Chapman, president of SFJ. “But we want to support journalists right now, so that’s why we’re making membership free. It seemed like a good thing we could do to open up access to whatever we can offer.”

Chapman said she was grateful to avoid the new challenges that online conferences invite: presenters with added familial obligations at home, participants in different time zones, screen fatigue. At larger organizations, event planners are adjusting to these challenges by staggering schedules, recording panels and trainings and budgeting in screen breaks.

Whether or not an organization canceled its conference or designed a virtual gathering, many still don’t know the full financial implications of these shifts. Trevor Knoblich, chief knowledge officer of the Online News Association, said they won’t be able to gauge the impact of going virtual until registration for their October conference closes.

“We’re budgeting in the ballpark of where we might have been for a live event, but we’ve never done anything online at scale, so it’s an experiment for us,” said Knoblich, who described the online event as a festival, not a traditional conference. “But I can safely say across the board people have been supportive.”

And while journalism nonprofits can lessen the loss in revenue from canceled conferences, they can’t quite make up for the loss of the spirit and morale of a packed, lively journalism conference.

“That great energy at these conferences kind of makes you excited to be a journalist again every year,” said Chapman. “We love what we do, and it’s a hard industry, so we’re going to miss that in-person energy and networking and enthusiasm.”

Upcoming conferences:

Eliana Miller is a recent graduate of Bowdoin College. You can reach her on Twitter @ElianaMM23, or via email at news@poynter.org.