September 10, 2020

People love the state-fair-themed lip balm. They collect it. At past Minnesota State Fairs, The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune’s booth has handed out flavors including pickle, buttered corn, ketchup and mustard, and bacon.

This year, thanks to the pandemic, the fairground in St. Paul didn’t fill with bustling people, roaring rides or the greasy fog of frying foods.

“When the real fair was canceled, we could hear hearts break across Minnesota. Hasn’t 2020 been hard enough without taking away our mini donuts, cheap milk and trip down the Giant Slide?” The Star Tribune asked. “We wondered if we could find some folks to help us ease the pain with virtual concerts, beer tastings, craft-making and competing.”

And so they did.

The Minnesota State Fair is an important event each year for the community and The Star Tribune, said Steve Yaeger, senior vice president of circulation and chief marketing officer. It’s where the Star Tribune sells the most subscriptions and merchandise and where the newsroom comes to life on stage.

And there’s lip balm!

“People line up to get the darn thing day after day after day,” he said. “I mean they line up like a block long.”

The fair is also good for the community, drawing millions together from cities and rural areas, said Sue Campbell, assistant managing editor for features.

People were already missing all the normal things the pandemic ended while coping with the unjust realities that made daily news after the death of George Floyd.

Related: After weeks of breaking news, The Star Tribune captured Minneapolis in the midst of change

Was there any way to offer a small break and bring a little joy, even if just online?

Starting Aug. 27 and running for 12 days, The Star Tribune put on its own version of the state fair, with a focus on experiences, things people might be missing, contests and food guides.

Staff from marketing, advertising, circulation, engagement, tech and the newsroom worked together to create an hour of programming each day for 10 days.

They hosted an amateur talent contest, hoping to get 20 entries. They got 75.

They put on mini grandstand concerts, hoping the music critics could work their connections for six performances. They got 14, including Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, the Jayhawks and Andre Cymone.

There’s a virtual beer garden where viewers can sample along from home, nostalgic videos showing past fairs and tours of the crowd-free grounds, DIYs like how to carve a princess out of butter, and guides for restaurants around the region that sell fair foods for those who can’t wait another whole year for egg rolls on a stick or chicken in a waffle cone.

But not every idea from the fair worked online.

The team hoped to get a livestock judge, for instance, to teach a Star Tribune columnist how to judge, and then apply that to judging readers’ dogs at home. They also hoped to find some giant vegetables.

Those things will have to wait for better times.

The Star Tribune will look at audience data next week, but early numbers show people went to the fair. For example, more than 10,000 people voted on the final round of the talent contest. Last year, The Star Tribune brought in revenue in the high six figures from the fair, Yaeger said.

This year looks like about $400,000.

“I keep saying this to people – OK now, stop and consider there actually was no state fair.”

In building the experience online, The Star Tribune showed resilience and creativity, Yaeger said,  “which is the story of our industry.”

And there was a new fair-flavored lip balm, available with the purchase of a T-shirt, in a drive-thru food parade on the grounds, and for sale in a 10 pack.

This year’s flavor — cheese curds.

Image via The Minneapolis Star Tribune

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the wrong start date for the state fair due to incorrect information given to Poynter. It has been corrected. 

Kristen Hare covers the business and people of local news for Poynter.org and is the editor of Locally. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare. This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists. Want to be part of the conversation? You can subscribe here.

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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